Soft Skills: Hard to Teach?

On self-direction, flexibility, and other things you didn't learn in library school

January 27, 2019

Melissa Lockaby, assistant professor of library science at the University of North Georgia, demonstrates how not to greet patrons in libraries.
Melissa Lockaby, assistant professor of library science at the University of North Georgia, demonstrates how not to greet patrons in libraries.

As an emerging library professional, I’m constantly on the lookout for sound advice in advancing my career in librarianship. Recently, a colleague who manages her department and has served on numerous hiring committees for faculty librarian positions told me that one of the things she looks for during the interview process is soft skills. Hard skills, like reading MARC records or budget management, can be taught and learned, she says. Soft skills are less tangible and therefore not something senior library staff can impart to new professionals.

Melissa Lockaby, assistant professor of library science at the University of North Georgia, Dahlonega, drew on her background in human resources to present a career development workshop on “The Soft Skills: What Library School Doesn’t Teach You” at ALA’s 2019 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Seattle on Saturday, January 26.

As a veteran library professional and current LIS student at the University of Denver, I’m familiar with the gaps in ALA’s accredited curriculum. I hear fellow LIS students complaining about it as they embark upon their professional library job searches, asking, “Why don’t they teach us this in library school?” According to Lockaby, “A lot of this stuff can’t be taught. It’s stuff you just pick up with experience.”

What are these elusive soft skills? Lockaby gave the following examples: confidence, sense of humor, multitasking, interpersonal skills, self-direction, time-management skills, critical thinking, customer service, communication, and flexibility.

Regarding customer service, Lockaby said, “Pay attention not only to what you say and how you say it, but what you look like when you say it.” She then crossed her arms across her chest, put on her best scowl, and asked who in the audience wanted to approach her with a question. Body language and a smile make a huge difference.

Soft skills in email communication include not using all capital letters, exclamation points, or emojis in professional email, as well as the skillful use of the cc and bcc functions. Incidentally, a tip to avoid accidental reply-all emails when emailing a listserv is to list the listserv email address in the bcc line. If someone accidentally hits “reply all,” their message will only go to the person who sent the email and to any addresses in the cc line, rather than the entire listserv.

There are many aspects to being a good coworker, including flexibility and dependability. Noticing when someone has done something well goes a long way in terms of creating a positive work environment. Lockaby notes, “We’re so eager to point out the bad things that we forget to say thank you.” Immediate, specific, positive feedback goes a long way.

Emerging library professionals are drilled on the importance of networking. But how does one network effectively? Lockaby referred to the character Horace Slughorn from the Harry Potter book series, who loves “collecting” people he thinks might grow up to be “something.” She calls this character archetype a “hunter-gatherer,” saying, “Networking and building relationships are very important … but don’t be a hunter-gatherer. Don’t be obnoxious when you meet people, and don’t meet people just to use the connection later.”

She then told an anecdote about chatting with someone over coffee at a conference for an hour just because she was enjoying their company. The connection led to Lockaby’s current position at the University of North Georgia. In other words, don’t force a connection, and don’t connect just to connect. Be authentic.