7 ways librarians can grow their library skills to meet the needs of today’s libraries

illustration with a librarian reading a book

As a community's needs evolve, so too must its libraries — and its librarians. These days, librarians routinely go above and beyond their core job descriptions. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this change in expectations, and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, have added still more challenges and opportunities. 

Librarians have taken on new tasks ranging from mental health support to leading workshops in information literacy, critical thinking and research skills. 

This evolving role of librarians places more and more focus on the tools and resources available to support them as they upskill. As we enter a new year, it’s the perfect time to reassess technical skill sets and look into professional development opportunities.  

Before we dive in, though, let's take a look at what the American Library Association (ALA) considers the core competencies of library professionals, including public, academic and school librarians.

See also:   

Core competencies of librarianship


Updated in January 2023, the ALA's core competencies of librarianship include the following, among others:

Gateway knowledge: Library professionals are expected to demonstrate that they have acquired the foundational skills and understanding to employ the values of the library profession; promote democratic principles and intellectual freedom; and understand the legal framework in which libraries operate, including laws relating to copyright and fair use, privacy, freedom of expression and accessibility.

Information resources: They should also have the skills and knowledge to consider the issues related to the lifecycle of recorded information and to apply the concepts and methods of collection management, including acquisitions, selection, purchasing, processing, storage and de-selection.

Lifelong learning and continuing education: This competency is rooted in the idea that library professionals, regardless of their specific title or role, should have the foundational skills and understanding to participate in and lead ongoing professional development and to recognize the role and value of the library in continuing education and lifelong learning initiatives.

Social justice: The ALA defines social justice as "both a process and a goal that includes the knowledge and skills necessary for library professionals to create library collections, services, personnel, facilities, and programs that foster equitable access to and participation of all people to utilize the library".

Technological knowledge and skills: Librarians should be able to identify appropriate technologies and uses that support access to and delivery of library services and resources, and conduct regular evaluation of existing and emerging technologies and their impact in terms of accessibility, practicality, sustainability and effectiveness.

The ALA notes that "continuing education, professional growth, and a commitment to lifelong learning are key components of a well-informed library professional". With that in mind, we’ve identified some tools librarians can use to upskill with a focus on key library skills to help them better serve their communities. 

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1. Take a free online course 

With an abundance of great online tools and professional courses available for free, it’s never been easier for librarians to upskill flexibly and at their own pace.   

What you can learn: 

Librarians can find online courses spanning any number of valuable topics. For instance, marketing knowledge is becoming more and more beneficial for librarians to keep their patrons connected and informed about library programs and services. A course like 4 Simple Ways to Beef Up Your Marketing can provide librarians with a practical library-specific marketing crash course to help round out this library skill. 

A modern marketing strategy includes a strong social media presence and juggling several platforms is a skill many librarians have had to build as they go. Getting Hootsuite certified can help librarians be up to date and confident as they navigate the digital marketing world.  

Here are some more online course databases to explore:  

  • LinkedIn Learning has over 16,000+ professional video courses taught by industry experts in software, creative, and business skills.  

  • Libraryskills.io is a curated collection of free learning resources designed specifically for library staff. 

  • Wiley University Services offers an upskills program that includes webinars and resources for employees with a focus on IT. 

  • ALA’s eLearning Catalog includes courses, webinars and customized eLearning content for library and information workers in all types of libraries and related organizations.  

  • Open Learn provides free, open university course materials on many topics including management, finance and report writing. 

2. Attend an external training program or workshop 


Finding opportunities to participate in training or workshops beyond the walls of their own branch is a great way for librarians to expand their thinking, gain new skills and network with their peers.  

What you can learn: 

One area to consider developing as libraries navigate shifting access to funding and new digital resources, is budgeting. Library Juice Academy’s Academic Library Budget 101 course can help librarians stay ahead of the budgeting curve with library-specific information on prioritizing and budgeting for new programs and projects.

Check out these organizations that offer industry-relevant training: 

  • The American Library Association (ALA

  • Librarians' Research Institute (LRI

  • The Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL

  • The M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries (M25

  • North West Academic Libraries (NoWAL

3. Mental Health First Aid

One area in which library leaders are stepping up to support their local communities is in connecting library users with resources that support their mental health. The right training can equip a librarian to teach mental health workshops and show community members how to access library resources on mental illness and related subjects.

What you can learn: 

Many library staff members receive training in emergency first aid and CPR, but fewer are trained to recognize signs of mental health distress and identify ways to help in a crisis.

As American Libraries magazine has pointed out, such training “can defuse tense situations, provide needed resources, and most importantly, help patrons through crises.” 

Mental Health First Aid training is intended “to raise awareness and break down stigmas, and make mental health first aid as common as physical first aid,” according to Joseph Miesner of San Diego Public Library, which offers an eight-hour certified public education program in the subject. 

Participants in the National Council for Mental Wellbeing’s Mental Health First Aid course learn “risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help.” .

4. Conferences and summits 

In the academic library and scholarly publishing sectors, there’s an abundance of professional conferences and summits that offer learning opportunities. Conferences like The ARDC Digital Research Skills Summit and the Access library technology conference are great opportunities to build on important library skills.  

What you can learn: 

As libraries become increasingly digital, shifting from a focus on physical resources to digital assets requires a whole new set of skills. For instance, librarians must stay current on cloud-based storage and the mobile environment to ensure their proper integration into the library’s information systems and portals. They also need to learn about the procurement and implementation process as they look to incorporate any strategic library automation product.  

Conferences can inspire innovation and offer training in these areas. Find a list of highly regarded annual library conferences here

5. Academic programs and professional accreditation


Some staff members may seek more formal study programs such as an academic program, a vocational qualification or a professional accreditation through a fellowship with a professional association. 

What you can learn: 

As the industry evolves, being able to manage change effectively is a top skill for library leaders. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and into the era of ChatGPT and other game-changing technology, libraries have undergone radical changes and librarians are on the front lines, serving the public in the face of entirely new challenges.  

Not only must librarians understand how to manage change that impacts them and their teams, they must develop strategies to engage others in change initiatives — that’s why courses like the IRC Change Management program at Queen's University can be valuable in helping librarians sharpen these skills. 

6. Job shadowing, coaching and mentoring 

A cost-effective way of supporting staff development is to enable knowledge sharing within your library’s own workforce. Not only can teams learn from one another in a cost-effective way, but this type of collaboration has the added benefit of building cohesion among colleagues. 

What you can learn: 

Community engagement skills are critical to the role of the librarian. Public and academic librarians work in collaboration with patrons, faculty, students and partner organizations to build programming that best serves their communities. Librarians need to continuously develop and nurture their rapport with community members to build trust and understand how they can best offer support — but these aren’t always skills you can learn from a textbook or lecture. Oftentimes watching how others handle these responsibilities is the best way to grow your own skills. 

7. Reading groups


We all know librarians love to read. Encouraging library staff to create reading groups can allow for reflective time to read and discuss topics that impact the industry. 

What you can learn: 

Whether it’s climate change, media literacy or emergency aid, libraries provide physical space and a platform for information and discussion. Advocacy is an important skill for librarians who must lead by example as mentors for their communities. Reading groups are a great opportunity to build up these skills with colleagues and invite discussion that can foster critical thinking and deeper understanding of relevant issues. A great place to start these discussions is with the readings found on the Public Library Association Advocacy page.  

With so many resources available to build up library skills, librarians are in a great position to prepare for the inevitable change that will continue in the years ahead and set themselves up to better support their communities.  

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