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Career Strategies for Librarians
Love It!  Developing Psychological Skills to Become a Better Librarian
by Milena Ivanova Nikolova

I once came across an essay called “How to Value Life?” The answer was simple: act as you would
when raising a child – love it!

This statement - “love it!” - can be fully applied to the work of librarians. By loving our profession and our
patrons, we can become better librarians. Even professionals who don’t work in direct contact with
readers should have an interest in helping people.

Librarianship is a people-centered profession, so developing psychological and interpersonal skills will
improve a librarian’s everyday communication with students, colleagues and faculty. It will help him to
know himself, control his emotions, behave professionally, and fit in with his team.

Patrons

Librarians not only meet people but also try to get to know them better. They serve as mediators between
information and patrons who use that information. Librarians should view patrons not only as statistical
units but as living human beings with individual peculiarities and intellectual needs.

All library users differ greatly. Patrons possess different temperaments and character traits. One may be
shy, taciturn and introverted, while another is extroverted, talkative, confident, and perhaps even rude.  

Treat every one of these patrons in a different way and adjust your approach to their behavior. Look the
individual in the eye as you talk with him or her. Work together to meet the patron’s needs. If possible,
work with readers individually and shower them with so much attention that you will encourage them to
visit the library again.

Empathy

This ability to feel what others feel, as described above, is called empathy. The Encyclopedia Britannica
defines empathy as “the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s
feelings, desires, ideas and actions.” This is the equivalent of resonance in the physical sciences. To be
empathetic, a librarian should strive to be responsive, openhearted, and helpful.  

Empathy is a skill that you must work at to improve. Like other skills, it may be innate, but it can also be
learned. One method of developing empathy is to increase your positive emotions and feelings about
other people.

First, it is good if you possess a sharp eye and an innate gift for observing people. If you don’t, try to
carefully examine people (both colleagues and patrons) and their reactions, conversations, and moods.
Try to find the best characteristic a person has, and whenever you approach that person, remind yourself
of that attractive quality in his or her character. This particular person will perceive this positive emotion
and will feel welcome and accepted. This rapport will improve communication and remove barriers
between you and other people.

Second, remember that theory is very different from practice. Reading about human behavior is not the
same as working with living people. Don’t be afraid to discard the theory (even that of the best authors) if
it does not work.

How Can I Develop Psychological Skills?

At a library presentation I recently attended, Rebecca Larkin from ProQuest said, ”Only librarians like to
search. Everyone wants to find.” This statement can be applied to the process of acquiring psychological
skills. By using your own professional ability to find information, to search for knowledge, and to read
with a purpose, you will accumulate these important skills.

Psychology is the science that answers questions about our inner world as unique individuals.
According to the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (1985), “psychology tries to fulfill the need to
understand the minds and behaviors of various organisms from the most primitive to the most complex.”

Examining research on the psychology of personality will improve our interpersonal communication
skills. You know how to search for information that you need, so expand your research interests to the
field of psychology and try to put your new knowledge into practice at work.

Listening and the Reference Interview

Patience and good listening skills are very important. Practicing both skills at work will help you better
understand the reader’s question and the person himself. And a smiling face helps any interpersonal
encounter!

I consider myself a good listener. When a patron asks for information, I listen carefully without
interrupting him, no matter how long he speaks. Then I think for a while and answer the question. The
patron’s response shows me if he is satisfied and can continue his research alone or if it is necessary
for me to ask more questions in order to suggest the right search strategy.

Each reader behaves differently in a reference interview. Some ask more questions, some accept the
original answers, and some simply don’t want long explanations or conversations with the librarians. A
librarian must possess tact, alertness and professionalism to differentiate between readers who want
more help and interaction, and those who don’t.

Some users need very little support in the process of finding information. I personally have two ways of
handling the patron who does not wish to continue a long reference interview. First, I simply stop the
conversation. I offer encouragement and withdraw. If the patron does not manage to find the information,
I’m sure he will come back later, so I just leave him to investigate by himself. Second, I may offer him
literature that may not exactly answer his inquiry (perhaps something that may be relevant or may be
written by the same author). He may be satisfied, although I may feel this is not the best service I could
provide.

However, there are other patrons with whom I talk at length. That conversation helps me to reach the
core of the question, to refine the search so that I can give the best answer.  

Teaching

Teaching is another crucial part of the librarian’s work. Strong psychological and pedagogical skills are
essential, as teaching and interpersonal communication are inseparable parts of a librarian’s job.

Librarians teach their patrons skills for locating resources available inside and outside of the library. And
how can you teach people effectively without being concerned for them and understanding them?

Positive Emotions

Finally, librarians should try to be good as a whole: good professionals, good colleagues, good friends,
good parents, and good human beings. Inspired by positive emotions - that is, a love for fellow human
beings - a librarian will be able to work effectively and have time for self-improvement. Developing
psychological skills will not only take your professionalism to a higher level, it will also improve your
whole personality.

About the Author:

Milena Ivanova Nikolova is a Junior Assistant Librarian in the Periodicals Section of the Library of the
American University in Bulgaria. She holds an Associate Degree in Library Science and Bibliography
from a two-year Public Librarian’s College in Sofia and a Bachelor's Degree in Bulgarian and English
Philology from Plovdiv University. She has five years of work experience as a librarian in large public and
academic libraries.  

Article published August 2004

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