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An Overlooked Skill for the Practitioner’s Skill Set

by | Jan 31, 2024 | 0 comments

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By Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries

The skills needed by contemporary librarians is a much-contemplated topic in our professional discourse.  With artificial intelligence poised to impact our resources, services and the ways in which people engage with our technology, we are asking what skills matter now and in the next few years, as well as what skills are less or no longer relevant. 

Of related interest is what skills are being taught in LIS programs. How is the LIS curriculum adapting to prepare today’s student for tomorrow’s library workplace? What skills and competencies are LIS students gaining that will serve them as well upon graduation as when they are many years into their careers? This question is on my mind as I prepare to teach my design thinking course

That process involves a deep dive into the latest literature on design thinking. The results are typically a mixed bag, divided between those who claim that design thinking is no longer relevant and others for whom it remains a vital approach to identify problems and develop thoughtful solutions.

One thing is totally different this year. It’s never happened before. This headline from the Fast Company report says it all:

Design Giant IDEO Cuts a Third of All Staff and Closes Offices as the Era of Design Thinking Ends

Companies across the spectrum of industries, particularly the technology sector, have shed sizeable numbers of staff and holdings in 2023. I do not recall seeing, for any of these other fields, an apocalyptic headline declaring that industry or its practice is done, over with and into the dustbin of history. Perhaps this is because no other company is so closely aligned with and representative of its industry as IDEO since its inception. Its brand IS design thinking.

What do I tell my students about this? More importantly, what does it say about design thinking as a critical skill set for librarians? Does this development in some way signal that design thinking is diminished as an appropriate skill for librarians? 

To my way of thinking, what happens at IDEO or any other design firm ultimately has little or no impact on the value that design thinking brings to library practice. What matters is how it provides LIS students with a valuable skill set that addresses multiple competencies identified in the library and general literature on critical skills for the workplace.

Take, for example, Bertot, Sarin and Percell’s classic study, “Re-Envisioning the MLS: Findings, Issues, and Considerations”. Its list of attributes of successful information professions (p.11), remains an excellent listing of soft skills that remain as relevant today as when first published in 2015. Risk taking, creativity, teamwork, problem solving and others from that list are the quintessential skills of librarian design thinkers, though I’d argue that problem finding is just as or more important than problem solving. Lists of soft skills identified as critical competencies for the fourth industrial revolution echo Bertot. Critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration in teams, service orientation and cognitive flexibility are all qualities observed in design thinking practitioners. 

What do current practitioners think are the necessary skills for successful librarianship? The third installment in the Librarian Futures series, The Librarian Skills Landscape,  provides some insight. This report, a collaboration with Skilltype, a talent management platform designed for library workers, deviates from the first two reports. Those focused on the relationship between library customers and librarians. This third report is a survey of librarians aimed at identifying the skills practitioners need to prepare themselves for the future of the profession. 

While a few of the skills mentioned above are present on a list compiled by Skilltype, based on votes by survey respondents, most are either absent or could be encompassed in broader skill sets. No mention of design thinking, though. Creativity and problem solving; those are near the top. Many of the listed skills are more library specific, such as information literacy or search/discovery expertise. Count familiarity with Springshare tools among them. 

According to the Landscape report, the types of skills and interest areas needed for a sustainable future library profession, whether identified by practitioners or administrators, share a commonality. They all present some degree of ambiguity or uncertainty on how we apply them to future library challenges. Whether it’s achieving student success or organizational diversity, fulfilling the promise of open access or digital scholarship or harnessing the potential of AI, bringing staff together to engage in design challenges offers a path through uncertainty to create workable solutions. 

That happens if library practitioners are given the opportunity to integrate design thinking into their practice, and if library directors champion it as a skill we’ll use to get us to a preferred library future. That’s where a design thinking mindset helps, in identifying and then resolving the gap between a current state and a desired future state.

We know that much of our work across the spectrum of academic library departments involves design. For most practitioners their day-to-day work utilizes more design than science. Can we anticipate that LIS curriculums will eventually acknowledge this and adapt to it? What barriers must be overcome to integrate design education more fully into the curriculum? One design thinking course is a start.

Much of this third Library Futures report is dedicated to exploring how librarians evaluate the value of their current skill sets, what skills they see themselves needing in the future, how well their current professional development works for them and what skills training and education they’ll need to prepare for the future. I would hardly expect survey respondents to identify design thinking as a skill they currently have or will need for the future. What’s encouraging is the number of respondents who report their commitment to ongoing learning and professional development. Less encouraging is that most respondents feel their efforts in this area need greater support and recognition from managers and leaders. 

I’ll be encouraging my students to review the report as I suspect they’ll find it useful and enlightening to read up on what current librarians (albeit primarily academic) and their leaders have to say about their current and future skills – and the importance of continuous professional development. I appreciate the enthusiasm and excitement shared by the soon-to-graduate students. They need just a few final credits to complete the program and start their professional career. I share their excitement but remind them only the first phase of their LIS education is ended. It’s the beginning of a long journey of ongoing professional development. 

What I most hope to give them is an addition, by way of an introduction to design thinking, to their skills toolbox that will serve them well throughout their library careers. As the Library Futures report reminds current practitioners “It is impossible to say for certain how the academic library will change, but we know it will.” There is a core set of competencies required by librarians now and into the future. But unless those skills are adapted for uncertain future change, unless we have a way to systematically tackle our greatest challenges, we’ll be of less use to our communities. That is what I most want my students to gain as their big takeaway from a course in design thinking.

About the Author:

Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib

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