Author’s Corner: Soft Skill Qualifications

Welcome back to Author’s Corner! This series features excerpts or guest posts from authors of books about LIS careers. 

For their book about academic library job descriptions, Kathleen Baril and Jennifer Donley surveyed several libraries. In this original post, they synthesize some of what they learned into practical advice for job seekers. It is always difficult to demonstrate those amorphous and necessary soft skills. This post provides some sharp ways to show employers that you have the qualifications they want. 

If you’re interested in reading beyond this post, the citation for the book is:

Baril, K., & Donley, J. (2021). Academic Library Job Descriptions. Association of College and Research Libraries.  

Library schools are full of classes covering library basics such as cataloging, collection development, information literacy, and library outreach and programming, but are the various graduate programs teaching future librarians how to develop robust soft skills? If not, LIS programs would not be alone in this shortfall. In a 2018 survey by Cengage, “The People Factor: Uniquely Human Skills Tech Can’t Replace at Work,” employers responded that they had difficulty finding qualified candidates with skills that typically fall under the soft skills umbrella, such as critical thinking, communication, listening, and interpersonal skills. These skills are not ones that can be passed off to a computer (although we are keeping an eye on you, ChatGPT), and as the need for them becomes more recognized by libraries, various phrases related to these soft skill qualities will be increasingly found in library job ads.

For our 2021 publication, Academic Library Job Descriptions: CLIPP #46, we surveyed small to mid-sized academic libraries to see what soft skills they were looking for in applicants. Among the top skills that survey respondents selected from a predetermined list were written and oral communication skills, ability to work on a team, and interpersonal skills.

What does this mean for those seeking jobs in libraries, academic or otherwise? For starters, candidates need to highlight their soft skills in addition to their other qualifications in both their cover letter and during the interview process. This is especially important for new librarians who might not have obtained all the technical skills required, but possess soft skills that would be beneficial to the organization while they learn additional technical skills on the job.  

To demonstrate your written skills, write your cover letter carefully and thoughtfully. Remember that this letter is often the only example of your written skills that the hiring committee will see. Be clear and concise, yet thorough, as you address how your qualifications and skills meet the library’s required and preferred qualifications. Tailor the letter to the job being advertised and do not use a form letter. Discuss the ways in which previous jobs or projects have prepared you for the position, and do not expect your resume to make those connections for you. Crosswalking your experience with the requirements of the position shows awareness of transferable skills and adaptability.

You can demonstrate your oral skills by familiarizing yourself in advance of a virtual or in-person interview with the questions you might be asked and then practice your answers to them. It is natural to be nervous during an interview, and it is not cheating to come up with solid examples ahead of time versus waiting until you are asked. This preparation simply allows you to put your best answer(s) forward. Potential questions that libraries might ask can be found online, and many library schools maintain lists of interview questions for the various types of libraries and positions. It is also becoming more common for library hiring committees to provide a set of questions before a phone or virtual interview, thus enabling you to prepare and hone your responses. Interviews can be nerve-wracking but practicing for commonly-asked questions can calm some of those nerves and allow your soft skills to stand out.

The third soft skill sought after frequently by academic libraries (and we assume by other types of libraries) was experience working on teams, and insight into what makes those collaborations successful. In your cover letter and resume, highlight opportunities you have had to work collaboratively. If you are a recent graduate, did you hold an officer position in a student organization that planned campus events? Did you work at your school’s circulation desk and coordinate tasks with other students to get a large project, such as a shifting or weeding one, completed in a timely manner? If you have had non-library jobs that involved teamwork and collaboration, explain how those experiences taught you the pitfalls to avoid and the communication techniques to utilize for a successful team project. For example, working in retail or food service requires a great deal of teamwork to ensure things are running smoothly, shelves are stocked, and customers are being promptly served.

Finally, the fourth of the soft skills that academic libraries regularly mentioned seeking in applicants were interpersonal skills. These skills, which are sometimes described as emotional intelligence, are probably the hardest to address in a job application and interview as they mostly become evident circumstantially. When selecting your references, think of ones that could provide insights into your interpersonal skills and potentially describe instances where you handled difficult situations in ways that would illustrate these skills. While the point is not to go overboard with interactions during your in-person interview, remember that all parts of the interview are fair game for helping the hiring committee get to know you. Take advantage of casual conversation opportunities throughout the day – walking between buildings and during meals – to demonstrate your interpersonal skills. If you are not sure how to fill voids in the conversation, create a list of questions prior to the interview that you might ask about the library or the institution. This indicates an interest in the position, as well as curiosity about the world around you, and keeps conversation flowing. As long as the interest is genuine, these brief chats can help you stand out from other candidates.

While the four soft skills that we focus on here are by no means the only important ones for librarians to have, we focused on them because hiring libraries have expressed an interest in seeing them in candidates. Developing these skills, as well as other soft skills, often happens over the course of one’s career and through various job experiences. We hope to see library schools increase their involvement in developing these skills in enrolled students through readings, discussions, and active learning exercises. We recommend looking for books related to particular soft skills if you are looking to improve your own skills, as being more aware of how these skills can play out in the workplace will help you to both improve your skills while also helping you indicate to potential employers that you possess them.

Kathleen Baril Kathleen Baril is an Associate Professor and Director at Heterick Memorial Library, Ohio Northern University. She has worked there since 2010.

Jennifer Donley Jennifer Donley is an Associate Professor and the Cataloging and Knowledge Architect Librarian at Ohio Northern University, where she has worked since 2009. She holds an MLIS and an MS-IAKM from Kent State University. 

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