Gavia Libraria

The one skill

The Loon, perhaps conspicuously, stayed out of the furor some months past concerning skills so central to librarianship that all librarians must have them, or not be considered librarians at all.

Part of the reason for this is that the Loon’s perspective on necessary skills for her students differs significantly, as it must do, from the perspective of those with track records to rely on should they find themselves desirous of changing employers. Her students aren’t in the same place vis-à-vis technology as already-working professionals. Whether it’s new-hire messianism, unconsidered tosh about “digital natives,” or just pragmatism in hiring, employers expect more tech out of the Loon’s just-graduated students than out of experienced librarians. Fair or not, that’s how it goes.

Do librarians need to learn HTML? Debatable. Do the lion’s share of the Loon’s students need enough angle-bracket manipulation (whether HTML, EAD, TEI, MODS, or some other flavor of angle-brackety nerdiness) to get by? Absolutely. They’re dead in the water on the job market without it. The Loon knows that, the job market knows that—and for the most part, the students know it, and don’t complain when the Loon drills them, unmerciful though the Loon’s drills often are.

(“But, Library Loon, do library-school students need to learn HTML specifically?” some readers may ask. The Loon shrugs. It’s generally where she starts students who are new to markup, because it’s vastly easier and more controlled than starting them on XML-based languages. Let them type angle brackets and see the results in a web browser for a bit; then the Loon will be ready to start them on schemas and namespaces. HTML, in other words, is remarkably functional as a gateway skill. There is no particular reason this would not be true for established librarians as well.)

All that aside, the Loon did spend quite a while thinking about whether there exists or can exist one skill or skillset that she can genuinely, without reservation believe that every information professional should have. She considered and discarded many candidate skills—it’s easy to discard candidate skills when imagining a poker-hand’s-worth of Alan-Cooperish personas to whom the skills must all apply—leaving almost nothing behind. Intellectual-property law and related information policy nearly made the cut, incidentally; and the Loon only teaches it in a glancing fashion, so she is not self-aggrandizing to suggest it.

One skill remains. Only one. There’s only one set of abilities that the Loon unreservedly asserts that no information professional is worthy the name without. The problem is… there’s no tidy name or description for it that the Loon knows of. So here’s her stab at describing it:

All librarians, archivists, and information professionals must possess sufficient actionable curiosity to encounter, assimilate, and work with novelties in their professional environment.

Curiosity is not sufficient without whatever it takes to turn curiosity into action. Action without curiosity and the skill to satisfy curiosity is mere flailing.

Actionable curiosity breaks down into rather more familiar skillsets, certainly easier ones to sort out how to teach: current awareness, environmental scanning, self-education, evaluation and selection of many sorts, project management and planning, and so on. The Loon regularly racks her brain for how to model, explicate, and help students practice these smaller skillsets, especially to those still too unformed to see how they are more than “theory.”

Nonetheless. The major difficulty with this thing, whatever it is called, is that a great many so-called information professionals do not in fact possess it. The Loon believes in this strongly enough to be dogmatic about it: the profession would be immensely stronger if those without this skillset could be summarily thrown out.

It will never happen. The question then becomes how librarianship can best mitigate the damage that so-called professionals without actionable curiosity cause. The Loon has few answers, despite thinking much on the question.

8 thoughts on “The one skill

  1. Kristin Briney

    Curiosity is an interesting skill to pick, but I also see that it’s a thread that runs through many related fields. Research, in general, thrives off of curious individuals. I’ve also heard curiosity named as the major quality required of data scientists no matter what other diverse skills they bring to the table.

    So are we, as librarians, a type of researcher in our own right? Where are we pushing the boundaries of knowledge?

    1. Library Loon Post author

      The Loon inclines to think that librarians push the boundaries of praxis, specifically.

      This is not a thing that academe values nearly enough.

  2. Emily

    Praxis, absolutely. We are where the theoretical rubber hits the material road, which makes us indispensable in terms of both theory and practice. Thanks for this useful articulation.

  3. deejbah

    Do you think the lack of this skill or tendency is an inevitable result of the personality traits that make librarianship appealing to many who become librarians, i.e. a desire to conserve and organize things in an orderly manner? There’s an inherent conflict between these traits and the need for change and innovation, weeding etc. Sometimes it’s a conflict that we even have to resolve within ourselves.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      A very good question. The Loon has been cogitating about it since its posting; her apologies for the tardy response.

      Is order-seeking nature or nurture? Is preservation really divorced from change? (The Loon has one word: “microfilm.”) Is the personality type you reference really as prominent in library schools and their graduates as all that? (The Loon truly does not have an answer to this question, particularly longitudinally; it would be an interesting study. She would venture, however, that her students of late tend to be evenly split between the apparently extraverted and apparently introverted.)

      There is… something… there. The Loon tried to put her pinfeather on it when discussing steady-state and expanding-universe students and professionals. Perhaps not personality as much as mindset?

      Or perhaps the Loon wants it to be that way, because she wants actionable curiosity to be teachable. If it isn’t, the Loon might as well dive to the bottom of the pond and drown herself, because what’s the point of teaching if the central skillset/mindset cannot be taught?

      It must be teachable. It must be. Librarianship needs it to be!

  4. deejbah

    Oh, I think it is teachable, particularly if people believe that they can change but we all develop habits. mindsets or traits that in some of us may be harder to shift than in others.

  5. Athina M

    OMG yes! On Monday our Library Leadership Team is meeting to discuss the ongoing & disheartening lack of curiosity among our professional staff, & what the hell we can do about it.