Over the last month, as I contemplated our three open staff positions, and thought about all the December graduates from library programs, and then faced down finals week, I thought about what the core skills and competencies are for academic librarians. Do we know?
Meredith Farkas, Karin Dalziel, and Dorothea Salo wrote in December about librarians and technology skills. Thoughtful and interesting stuff. In my professional life, there are more days when, no matter how much my sense of curiosity drives me to want to know more about servers and Drupal and programming and other crunchy tech-side skills, as Dorothea points out, what I need most isn’t that: It’s context.
My last semester’s shift at the reference desk was a long stretch of boring punctuated by crazy. There was the student who burst into tears because she couldn’t print. There was the student who, on the second to last day of finals wanted “three books, any three books, on [topic x] for my bibliography”. There was the domestic disturbance that ended with my hand on the phone to call security just as the young man left the building.
The last one’s the easiest; I was waiting for one more cue, visual or verbal, from the female student that she wanted the man to leave, and when she gave it, I was calling security and going over to ask her if she’d like to wait with me in the Director’s office. That’s not a skill one gets taught in graduate school; that’s just life.
The citation problem is vexing. The student did not, I would guess, have time to actually use the books we found, which meant she was inserting them into her bibilography to meet a requirement from her professor for three scholarly resources. On a paper she either a) wrote without any use of library resources, which means it’s possibly not very good, which is her problem, or b) bought/found on the internet and did not, in fact, write, which is a campus intellectual integrity problem. I sat for a moment and wondered: report it to the department that assigned the paper? Ignore it? Talk to our Information Literacy coordinator? Before I could act, I got hit with the crying student, and forgot about it until now.
It’s that one that’s cleanest, but hardest. The student wanted to print something she was working on in Photoshop. When students printed from Photoshop (at least that week…) they got pages and pages of gibberish code. I do not have Photoshop installed on either my work PC or my home Mac, nor have I ever used it… which makes me a particularly poor helper and troubleshooter. And it was the end of the semester. And the student burst into tears, and announced that “You need to get better printers and better computers in this dumb library!” To which I, as calmly as possible, replied with options about things she could try to make it work, or about where else on campus she could go for help. I hate having to refer students away, but I simply couldn’t directly help her… no matter how long she stared at me in teary frustration saying, “I know it’s not your fault, but can’t you fix it?” I can offer ideas, but not solutions, so, no. No I can’t. I don’t have the skills. Please let me offer you ideas for thinking critically about your problem, though.
Did anyone ever formally tell me that troubleshooting Photoshop would be part of being a librarian? No. Should I expect that it will be, from here on out? Yes. Should I also expect that troubleshooting software I haven’t even heard of yet will also be a part of my job from here on out? Absolutely. And here’s the thing: Had the tearful student been listening to me, I was trying to offer her options based on my own skill set. Had she tried exporting the file and printing it from another program? Was there another view or edit or preview setting/tab/pane that she could use that had a more printable image? Were there differing print options in the software? Had she tried using the color printer which has different drivers? But she was over the edge with end-of-semester stress, and she stormed off in frustration. I don’t know if she got her thing to print, or if she went to ask for more help somewhere else.
What I do know is that I couldn’t help her — Photoshop is outside my skill set. But I could help her, because I understand how software works. And when the next unknown technology pops up in front of me, I hope that I have a context to place it in so that I can continue to be helpful, even if I don’t know that you have to click Key Combination Q in order to make Thing P happen in Piece of Software G. We, as educators and information professionals, may not need to know how to program, but we need to understand how software works — lots of software — so that we can understand the context and the principles of the environment in which our users operate. Key to that kind of understanding is curiosity. Curiosity about the world. Curiosity about new technology. Curiosity about our users. Curiosoity about the Next Big Thing.
What’s the core skill set for librarians? I don’t know that there is one. Even a full skill tool-kit can’t fix students’ lives. Maybe Photoshop Girl got her image printed. Maybe Breakup Girl did great on her finals despite her emotional stress. Maybe I’m wrong to suspect Citation Girl, and she wrote a stellar paper. All I can do is try to help them as best I can with the skills I have, and use my innate curiosity to keep acquiring new ones to help them better the next time.