Further Questions: What is the most important “soft” skill?

**This question is inspired by the segment on non-cognitive skills from the Back to School episode of This American Life. It’s a great episode, if you’re looking for something to listen to:


This week I asked people who hire librarians:

What is the most important “soft” skill for a candidate to have, and how can it be demonstrated in an application packet (if it can)?

J. McRee Elrod

Since our cataloguers work at a distance, the “ability to play with others” important in a workplace does not usually apply.  We value promptness and living up to commitments.  We have no way of measuring this other than experience with the cataloguer, and don’t know how it could be demonstrated in advance.

– J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging

Nicola FranklinHmm this week’s question is harder than it looks!  Given other things being equal (which they often are; people attend the same/similar MLS programmes after all), it is soft skills that often tip the balance between candidates, so picking out just one to be the most important is hard!

I would say that communication skills are the most important ‘soft’ skill for a candidate to have.  Of course, ‘communication skills’ is a short phrase for a large range of skills.  Unpacking it, you get written, verbal and non-verbal communication, and within each of those are again a range of skills.  For example, within verbal communication you have persuasion, influencing, presenting, telephone skills, reference interviewing, etc.

Candidates can demonstrate written communication skills directly through their resume or application form – is the writing clear, concise, articulate?  Verbal communication skills are harder to show in the application packet, but can still be alluded to indirectly, for example by including experience of chairing meetings, giving presentations, manning issue or enquiry desks, etc, which involve using verbal skills.

I’ve written more about different types of communication skills on my blog.

– Nicola Franklin, Director, The Library Career Centre Ltd.

Marleah AugustineOver time working in a library, I found that empathy and patience is one of the most important skills that people should have in a public library. We work with a wide range of patrons, and it’s very important to be patient and understanding. When I have a tough experience with a patron, I can’t be snippy and rude to them — I don’t know if they just lost a family member, if they have a mental health issue, if they didn’t take their blood pressure medication that morning, or if they just lost their job. Yes, it can be trying, but I have to be able to brush it off and move on with my day — and not take it out on the next person to approach the desk. I might be skewed in this direction because I also have a master’s in psychology, but I think it’s very important for staff to realize that they don’t know what that patron is experiencing and they must treat all patrons with the same level of professionalism and respect.

That skill is also important when working with fellow coworkers. Not everyone has the same work style or method of approaching tasks, but different methods can be equally productive. Staff need to consider that what works for them doesn’t always work for others, and this goes for part-time and full-time staff alike.

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Laurie PhillipsOkay, I’ll be the first to admit that I had to look up soft skills because I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. Truth is, what you call soft skills are, in many cases, more important to us than anything else. You have to have these basics to come work here. Most of them can’t be demonstrated in an application packet, but you should be prepared to address them in interviews and presentations and to expect that your references will have to address them.

I found any article by Kate Lorenz titled “Top 10 Soft Skills for Job Hunters” on the web. Her top 10 are all crucial in my environment:

1. Strong work ethic – we need people who are thinkers and visionaries but we also absolutely need people who are productive – what we call “do-ers.”

2. Positive attitude – one person we interviewed in my last search asked for feedback on why he didn’t get the job. The main thing was his attitude toward some big projects we were accomplishing over the summer. He sounded like he was dreading the fallout. On the other hand, the person I hired described our approach as “fearless.”

3. Good communication skills – this is a top requirement. Written communication skills are evidenced by your letter. Don’t miss that opportunity. Verbal and interpersonal skills will come out in your interviews and presentations.

4. Time management abilities – the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities is crucial. We are blended librarians who have a lot on our plates. We ask people in the phone/Skype interview to describe situations that illustrate these abilities.

5. Problem-solving skills – again, a crucial skill. We are often looking at creative solutions to difficult problems.

6. Acting as a team player – we are a team-based organization, so we often ask references about the person’s ability to work with others collaboratively. If all of their accomplishments are solitary, it’s hard to see them fitting in here.

7. Self-confidence – we have to put ourselves out there with our students and faculty and project confidence in our abilities and our knowledge in order to be taken seriously.

8. Ability to accept and learn from criticism – our librarians get a lot of feedback and mentoring as part of the rank and tenure process. If they cannot learn from that feedback and respond to it, they will not progress.

9. Flexibility/Adaptability – our jobs change and evolve. We have to be open to that.

10. Working well under pressure – our Learning Commons desk is insane for the first couple of weeks of school. If we can survive that and our teaching load, we’re fine.

– Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Technical Services, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

Thanks for reading! All day I’ve faced a barren waste, without the taste of comments, cool comments.


Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Other Organization or Library Type, Public

2 responses to “Further Questions: What is the most important “soft” skill?

  1. Pingback: Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

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