Friday, August 5, 2011

Communication Skills Are Not Optional by Jeff Wanser

Jessica asked me to provide a guest posting on her blog, and at first I thought, “What advice could I possibly offer graduate students and librarians who are just starting out?”  I am going on 59, graduated with my MLS from the University of Pittsburgh in 1983, having switched careers from archaeology.  I have been at precisely one institution my entire library career.  I am clearly old guard, old school, and old hippie.  I do not own a cell phone, or even use a microwave, at least until they come out with a wood-burning model. However, I have watched lots of people, ideas, and stuff come and go, and can suggest two basics that I think are necessary and permanent in Library & Information Science education.  Sadly, graduate programs often ignore them.

Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but writing and public speaking are absolutely vital to your career. These are not options.  People will judge you well or harshly on the basis of how you present yourself.  I cannot count how many times I have seen entry-level (or not so entry-level) librarians destroy an opportunity for a job because of how they come across to the people reading their applications or interviewing them.  You cannot get in the door without a proper resume and cover letter.  Committees look for any excuse to weed down the pile of applicants, and so spelling and grammar take on greater importance than they do in normal life.  Should you pass that hurdle, your physical presence becomes an issue, not so much in terms of appearance (although we never escape such judgments), but in how you come across.  Your ability to communicate your ideas with clarity and confidence, or give a coherent and convincing presentation, are more important than many other skills you might possess.

Once you are hired, you must be able to write well.  You don’t have to create deathless literary prose, but you must be able to produce professional-quality reports, memos, policies, papers, and whatever else you are asked to cough up as readable and error-free works.  If you don’t write well, get help.  Many graduate programs in LIS do not provide any sort of training in writing, and so if yours doesn’t, get it elsewhere, from the campus writing center, classmates, or other ways.  Join (or create) a writing group, where people critique each other’s works–in-progress in a safe environment.  Write every day for a half hour.  Talk to professionals about what they expect to see and what they can’t stand.  Read and follow style guides, if that helps.  Do not rely on spell-check; it will betray you.

In an academic environment, which is what I am most familiar with, it is important that you be taken seriously as a colleague, and one of those ways is in presenting yourself as a competent professional with something to say.  The old stereotype of the librarian as shy wallflower is still alive and well in academia, and you must crush it with your heel.  I have seen many bad presentations for job interviews by shy, introverted job applicants, and that includes candidates for Instruction Librarian!  I have sat through hundreds of bad conference papers.  Speak loudly and clearly.  Make eye contact.  Do not under any circumstances read off your PowerPoint slides.  Do not hide behind the podium.  These are all signs of incompetence to the audience.  Librarians are educators and are expected to act like educators, which means standing up and doing the job in public, without notes if possible.  Again, LIS programs will often not teach public speaking (although they should).  If you have trouble in this area, there are ways to get help. If there are public speaking courses on your campus, take one.  If you are afraid that the LIS faculty will find out and think you odd, sneak away to the nearest community college and get up to speed.  Get help from teachers, who can critique your classroom style.  Video yourself giving a talk (horrors!).  You will suddenly discover what the rest of the world sees.  Then get over it and fix the things you don’t like.

It seems strange to me giving this sort of advice, because I am an introvert by nature. I dreaded giving class presentations as an undergraduate, and before teaching a class I still get quite nervous.  But my inner state is irrelevant to how I come across to others, as long as it doesn’t show.  I have been teaching anthropology part-time for 25 years, and given hundreds of library instruction sessions, and from feedback I have received, I do a pretty good job.  I also dislike my own writing, but manage to create serviceable prose, and have written dozens of technical reports, several articles, and more than one hundred book reviews.  You can overcome whatever anxieties or perceived shortcomings you have, too, and get the job done.

Jeff Wanser is Coordinator of Government Documents, Hiram College Library, & Adjunct Lecturer, Dept. of Sociology, Hiram College.

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