Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the Job Learning: We're Not Egg-laying, Wool-bearing, Milk-giving Sows, by Dale Askey


What's an egg-laying wool-bearing milk-giving sow and what's it got to do with libraries? It's German in origin: eierlegende Wollmilchsau. Germans toss this out octosyllabic gem whenever someone expresses the desire to have their cake and eat it, too, bitte schön. This mythical beast might seem familiar to anyone who has ever seen something like this under “required qualifications” for a librarian job:
  • expert in all traditional library work: reference, instruction, liaison, cataloguing;
  • expert with CSS, XSLT, HTML, XML, RDA, LOD etc.;
  • ability to code in common scripting languages, e.g.- Python, PHP;
  • demonstrated experience leading software implementation projects;
  • systems administration skills in Solaris/Linux/Windows environments;
  • ability to juggle while chewing gum, standing on one foot, and singing the national anthem of your ancestral forebears.

OK, fine, I threw that last one in just to enhance the absurdity, but all too often one sees such lists as part of advertisements for librarian jobs that are otherwise geared toward early-career librarians. Given that library schools aren't producing enough graduates with those hard technical skills to sate the demand, how does one get those skills? At this point one could also ask why libraries persist in thinking that it's OK to ask someone to be a typical “traditional” librarian, and a programmer and/or systems administrator to boot, as if those weren't, oh, separate career tracks. Sure, such librarians exist, but they are few and already have good jobs, so why would they lateral out to your library when it's clear to them they'll be flying solo with no support from a skilled team. But I digress.

So what to do when a job posting asks for the kitchen sink, and you've only got a random assortment of kitchen gadgets on your CV? For starters, accept the fact that you're not going to have everything they want. I know that many people giving job advice will say you're wasting the search committee's time if you apply and lack the required qualifications. That may be the case for an MLS degree—you either have it or you don't—but for other qualifications it is often a bit squishier. As a Canadian colleague recently aptly put it on Twitter: “I never understood postings requiring specific skills. I have never known how to do something before it was my job.” Exactly.

The trick becomes getting yourself in the door in the first place. The tactic I've used and that I'd endorse could be called “skill parlaying.” Rather than using a hypothetical example, here's how it actually went down for me. I made my first Web page in 1995 doing hand-coding on a greenscreen terminal (simultaneously enriching my ability to appreciate irony) while working as a library paraprofessional. Spent about a year doing that with progressively better tools on larger chunks of the site, and became proficient at hand-coded HTML (note for you young-uns: this was pre-WYSIWYG editors and CSS), and then applied for a job in an IT department at the institution's medical school. They hired me because I knew how to make Web pages—which used to be a marketable skill, however briefly—but I knew nothing about much of what they did. I was sure for a couple of months that they would discover my ignorance and fire me, although I had been open about my limitations. Far from it. They trained me, took me under their wings, and filled my head with copious knowledge, at least some of which is still useful 15 years on.

Not long after that, I got my first librarian job, and as I've moved around I generally trot out my steadily expanding IT skills to land a job, and then once in the job do what I said I could do and use the security and resources offered by that employment to build more skills. Colleagues taught me things, I went to seminars and training sessions, I taught myself still other things, and generally tinkered, hacked, and experimented when and where I could.

Fast forward a number of years, and I'm now in an IT leadership position, and the brutal truth is that I don't qualify—on a straight reading of the required qualifications—for some early career IT librarian jobs. On the one hand, that's a reflection of inherent limitations: no person can do everything, and in my case programming is my personal kryptonite. On the other, it's a reflection of how desperate many libraries are for technically proficient staff (so they want it all, and now, and in one salary), but also to no small degree of how little many library managers understand about what is reasonable to expect when offering an entry- or mid-level IT position. Far wiser is for employers to skip the laundry list of acronyms and IT skills du jour, and focus instead on aptitude and potential. We're hiring a couple of IT librarians at the moment, and I sincerely hope that that last bit came through in the postings.

The key advice here is just get yourself in the door. Don't misrepresent what you can do, but if you mostly meet the job requirements, throw your name in the hat. Tout what you can do, and how you want to grow and develop. A smart employer will also be considering your intangibles, and someone may well open the door. That's step one.

Step two is to become a habitual boundary-pusher. Get involved in projects, seek out talented colleagues, go to conferences where you are challenged not reaffirmed, and always push one step beyond what you know. Expert with HTML and CSS? Fine, now tackle XSLT. Bored with Windows? Ditch it, and wade into a Linux distro. Learn the joys and benefits of working from the command line. Install stuff on servers, pound on it until it breaks, and then figure out how to fix it. This can all be done for little real cost. Best time to start: yesterday.

The final step is to remember, once you've achieved status in a library, how little you knew about the job you're doing when you walked in the door. Let's start extending some ladders instead of building barricades.

Dale Askey is the Associate University Librarian, Library and Learning Technologies at McMaster University Library. He tweets @daskey and blogs at Bibliobrary.


  1. This is something I've been looking to see for a while now. So much of the blogging and reading out there with respect to hiring for libraries suggests you have to have everything on the laundry list to be considered ... and while I certainly understand this (especially in a job market that's not really in the candidate's favor), I also found it hard to understand that a hiring committee would ignore a candidate with a skillset that didn't quite match but could certainly be useful ...

  2. One more thing: I have skill in all but the first and last categories, and I'm in the middle of earning my MSLIS now ... but even then I still won't chew gum :).

  3. For the candidate with the right skills, the job market is not all that bad. By "right skills" I mean, primarily, a decent set of raw technical skills along with a demonstrated aptitude for and willingness to engage with technical work. I've been on many search panels at various institutions (including now in Canada), and while one might get a thick stack of applications, once you narrow it down to those who have something to show, it's often a very thin pool.