Gavia Libraria

It’s not about skills

Part of Coordinator Syndrome and new-hire messianism is a species of magical thinking that probably isn’t unique to libraries, but is certainly common enough there: “skills are all you need.”

This magical thinking is of course fed (as the Loon has had occasion to remark previously) by the common skills-roundup genre of the library-practitioner literature. What are the skills needed for Job X? As though skills were all.

Skills aren’t all.

Consider a houseplant. Some of them are extraordinarily skilled at what they do (namely: grow, look pretty, and survive mild-to-moderate ill-treatment). If they are neglected often and hard enough, though, all their skills won’t save them. They will fail at their job and then die.

Too many libraries are extraordinarily talented at hiring for skills and then neglecting the skills’ owners. At the worst extreme, libraries outright punish skilled people for pointing out that they’re not in an environment where they and their skills can thrive, for asking for help and resources and appropriate authority, for needing change in established beliefs, processes, infrastructure, and priorities.

This is why, cynical old bird that she is, the Loon can’t manage to be inspired by Micah Vandegrift’s publishing-related skills roundup, for no fault of his. Of course librarians have the needed skills to do scholarly publishing well. We always have (not least because the Loon is far from the only refugee from publishing in librarianship). It doesn’t matter. We have the skills; we collectively lack the will to build the scaffolding and processes that a serious contender in publishing would need.

The Loon doesn’t even think it’s a question of risk aversion, for once. Yes, libraries are horrendously risk averse, but we do have a few successful library-publishing enterprises; we know that doing it right finds friends. If anything, it’s another piece of evidence regarding academic librarianship’s collective skepticism of new models of scholarly communication.

The Loon has quite a similar feeling about library-based data curation, which is why she pushes as many of her data-curation students as possible away from libraries. As with publishing, a very few libraries will commit seriously to this work, do it well, and succeed with it; most, feeling the need to pretend to commit, will hire skills and ignore their owners.

It’s a shame, granted. But the Loon wouldn’t wager two fish scales on it changing. Nor will all the skills in the world change it.

2 thoughts on “It’s not about skills

  1. Ned Quist

    Hi — I think you may be painting libraries with too broad a brush with regard to making use of data curation skills. We actually have a group within my department named Data Curation made up of two digital humanists, a social sciences data specialist (GIS and statistics), and we’re trying to hire a Scientific Data Curator — if we can find one. None of the three above named have library degrees, because in our recent hiring experiences very few recent graduates of library schools come equipped with these skills. Are our Data Curation specialists using these skills? You bet!

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      “A very few libraries will commit seriously to this work, do it well, and succeed with it.” It sounds to the Loon as though your library is among those few.