diverse library teams

What does it take to build a successful library team?

April 19, 2017
Clare Brown

There is no set path to becoming a librarian or information worker. Many librarians reference prior careers in other fields and ‘side stepped’ over into librarianship. Others began with a library trainee post following their undergraduate degree, or commenced as a library assistant after their library and information degree. There are other paths available, as discussed in a Twitter chat

Regardless of how you came into the information world, what does it take to build a successful library team? Whilst, like all roles, there are certain hard skills that librarians need to possess, these can be learnt through formal or on the job training. Soft skills, on the other hand, come from prior experience.

A diverse workforce ensures a broader set of skills are available for a stronger, more successful library team. I have been listening to friends and colleagues on Twitter and learning how the profession needs to change. This is important because of the lack of diversity in the field is frustrating and infuriating on many levels.

Diverse and inclusive workplaces have the ability to effect change, catalyze allyship, and enable equitable opportunity for everyone. Hire from underrepresented groups. Give teams platforms to share their voices. Advocate for the rights of all employees. Resources for building diverse and inclusive teams (July 2020)

Soft skills are the more intangible and non-technical abilities

A recent UK library Twitter chat posed the question “For those who career-changed into librarianship, what jobs did you use to do?”. The variety in the responses were wonderful to see, and reflected the depth of experience in the library profession.

Firstly, a library team must be agile. They must be able to step beyond lateral thinking to think outside the box and problem solve in many different directions. The library is an incredibly dynamic environment within which to work with constantly moving and changing parts. Often, you will be operating with limited resources and insufficient time but still the pressure is there to get the job done, and get it done well.

With experience managing hostels for homeless people, on what is typically limited time and a tight budget, Alan Wylier will have become adept at problem solving and agile thinking. Something that he can incorporate into his new team in the library. This is just one example of the many ways that Librarians can become agile workers through their prior experience.

So we know teams must be agile. As a consequence of this, they must be able to prioritise multiple projects and tasks to determine what must be the primary focus. Each day a Librarian will be asked a million and one questions from all directions - from frustrated lawyers needing speedy answers to reference questions, to team training sessions and plenty more. It’s key that the library team be comfortable in making quick and confident decisions.

What better way to practice prioritisation than running a pub? A taxing job with long hours and many demands on your time means that assessing priorities isn’t just key, it’s second nature.

Often Librarians will be conducting detailed and intricate work that will require them and their team to have a strong attention to detail. They must be able to remain focussed at all times, not letting that one nugget of data or content slip through the cracks. Errors are simply unquestionable.

A subeditor needs to pay attention to detail. They need to spot errors before articles are published and then make them stand out when they’re live. These are excellent skills for S Lawler to bring over into Librarianship.

Fourthly, your library team must be adept at communicating to a range of audiences. They must be just as skilled at conversing with the c-suite as they are training new associates. They need to know what must be said in order to get their audience to stand up and listen, and to get their message across.

Through her role as a teacher, Suzanne Coleman will have experienced communication with both a young audience through her students and more senior staff members will fellow colleagues. She will have become adept at communicating ideas across audiences and generations.

Learn what management skills you need

Hard skills are teachable abilities or skill sets

Alongside the soft skills above, a successful library team will also need to have been trained appropriately. They will need to know how information is organised, and how best to display it in a way that resonates with the intended audience.

The team must know how to promote the information they are curating, to ensure it has the maximum possible reach with its consumers. The services available must be made obvious and accessible to end users, and it is the library team who have primary responsibility for this.

The value of information and its impact upon people’s lives must be clear to all library team members in order to be successful. To reach true potential in your work it is imperative that you are motivated appropriately, and in this case it is best to have a passion for knowledge and information driving you and your team on to success.

Diverse teams are the only way forward

A #UKlibchat on "celebrating diversity: supporting clients and broadening the profession" led to an open and friendly discussion amongst the library community. As they stated in the agenda, libraries are undisputedly important social meeting places where people from all backgrounds can come together with common purpose and share in activities and learning. 

Individuals started by discussing the benefits and challenges that diversity - among library staff and users - bring to libraries. They pointed out that diversity shouldn't be a quota exercise, nor should it be up to one person to educate their colleagues.


People asked what can we do as a profession to attract and retain more people from different backgrounds. We have established that experience gained in other roles can benefit the library world as a whole. But it does beg the question about the "accidental profession" - it was fascinating for me to find out that not everyone wanted to be a librarian at age 5! 


Ultimately as @libdiverse pointed out, librarianship is just a normal job, with the usual pros and cons. We all work together to provide the best service possible for the good of the organisation. Therefore it pays for library teams to be innovative and imaginative - with everyone involved.

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