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Future Skills for the LIS Profession
Volume 43, Number 2 - March/April 2019

When recruiters at U.K.-based CB Resourcing ( noticed a shift in some of the skills our clients asked for, we decided to do some research to learn about the skills gap, understand what’s really going on, and identify what professionals and managers need to do to be ready for the next 5 years. The research project looked at our two core markets: the legal sector and academic librarianship. For the former, we partnered with BIALL (British and Irish Association of Law Librarians; and for the latter, we partnered with CILIP (The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals;

Both sectors identified a number of key themes driven not only by changes in technology but also by the need to maintain the people skills necessary within LIS teams to deliver value to service users. The results of the surveys provide varying perspectives and insights into the future skills requirements of LIS professionals as well as raising some very provocative questions as to how, as a profession, we may acquire the skills needed for the future.

The Legal Sector

For the legal sector, we used Survey Monkey to query leaders of legal/business research and libraries at top firms, associations, and academic organizations. The survey was aimed at clarifying current activities, identifying skills gaps, and understanding concerns in meeting the evolving expectations of users. We sent emails to 75 potential participants and posted the link on the SLA Legal Connect board. We had 29 respondents. While this is not adequately representative of all potential respondents to be statistically significant, their responses provide some consistent themes and insights.

We found that the majority of respondents have small teams (10 or fewer members) supporting a large number of primary users. The perceived skills gaps in their existing teams fell into four broad categories:

  • Analysis (ability to conduct qualitative and quantitative analysis; drawing insights from data and/or complex information sets): 83% perceived gaps.
  • Technology (utilizing technology-enabled solutions and new platforms for research and knowledge activities, i.e., social media, AI, and intranet): 79% perceived gaps.
  • Communication (ability to influence and inform): 72% perceived gaps.
  • Project management (ability to manage large and long-term projects): 71% perceived gaps.

Significant gaps, both in current teams and with new graduates, were about business and commercial knowledge, particularly in their understanding of how their organization functions as a business and within the larger commercial landscape.

While 97% take the lead in their organization in training users on research tools and methods and 85% report activities to enhance information literacy, skills gaps and team size may be inhibiting the ability to provide a broader range of offerings to users.

Of the 79% who have taken on fulfilling non-legal research requests, only 59% are using new technology and formats, and a mere 55% are drawing insights and delivering value-added outputs. Perhaps this highlights the impact of not having either the capacity or ability to deliver, given the skills gaps in technology, project management, and analysis required to offer these services.

Leaders appear keen to develop their teams and fill skills gaps. Overwhelmingly, they prefer to train existing team members; 52% invest in training on an ad hoc basis. However, existing professional development in organizations is perceived as not focused enough on specific gaps or ubiquitous enough to drive the appropriate skill development.

Hiring people with new skills was favored as an option by 62% of respondents. The skills/characteristics valued in new hires—customer service orientation, legal research and knowledge, communication and business research and knowledge— overlap only marginally with the skills gaps identified.


Responses to this question, “Considering team members you have recently hired or plan to hire, rank in order the skills you value(d) most in candidates,” revealed a concern with achieving a balance between valuing of core skills (information management, knowledge management, research) and offering new capabilities. Evolving expectations around services and value provided has increased pressure to provide more content/sector knowledge and requires team members who can easily flex across numerous skill areas.

A few representative comments illustrate the evolving expectations and challenge:

“Increased ability to conduct in-depth analysis. Looking to move almost towards a consultancy level of analytical ability, which many in the industry are lacking so it is difficult to come by.”

“Appropriate skills to collect, manage, analyse and interpret data. Deep sector knowledge. Ability to impress in front of senior leadership.”

Leaders of LIS are best positioned to judge which skills will be needed to keep their function relevant to their organizations. To meet the future challenges, strategic and creative approaches to forming, developing, and retaining teams will need to be considered. Different staffing models, new hiring profiles, redefining core services, creating targeted training, relevant career paths, and managing stakeholders all play a part.

LIS Skills in Academia

To discover skills gaps in academic libraries, we took a slightly different approach. We worked with CILIP to develop an e-survey, which we sent out to heads, directors, and managers of libraries at every higher-education (HE) institute in the U.K. and Ireland. We also promoted the survey via Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and CILIP. We had six specific aims in mind:

  • Understand the current skills requirements and gaps in HE sector library teams.
  • Gain an understanding of how leaders develop their own skills.
  • Get a picture of the need for professional accreditation and professional registration.
  • Get a picture of how the current environment library teams operate in covering both the physical space, services provided, and technology used.
  • Look at future changes and anticipated challenges
  • Understand where the skills gaps may lie in the future.

With this information, we hoped to provide a current snapshot of the sector and what the leaders working within it saw as key developments and disruptive events that would shape the future, specifically during the next 5 years.

We had 283 complete responses to the survey; 163 respondents had leadership responsibilities or held a specific leader ship post. Another 84 were subject specialists, and the remaining respondents were library assistants or the equivalent thereof. As the aims of the survey initially were to understand the challenges of leadership in academic library services and the environment in which leaders work, in our analysis, we only considered those 163 respondents holding positions with a leadership focus.

Overall, the survey proved that academic libraries are highly affected by technology. Artificial intelligence, data mining, and text analysis technology to support and assist students with research is a developing area that will grow in importance in the near future.

Library services are key to enabling the university to develop and grow student numbers. The service that HE libraries provide is key in enabling the university to develop and grow student numbers. Space within the library and the effective management of it will continue to be of importance into the future as technologies develop and customer requirements change.

Today’s HE librarians must have a broad range of skills in their toolkit, covering everything from general management, subject expertise, and technical skills to persuasion, advocacy, and influencing skills. To be effective in this environment librarians need to have an excellent customer service focus, strategic viewpoint, and an ability to be adaptable and resilient to an ever-changing environment.


Looking at today’s library, we asked respondents to consider the areas in which the library had grown in the last 5 years. Digital services came out on top with 89% of respondents choosing it as a growth area. This was closely followed by study spaces at 80% and then by computer areas at 53%. This is a good picture of how the use of space in the library has changed. The traditional image of the library full of shelves with books and journals has transformed into open areas, dedicated spaces for specific activities like study spaces, and café areas for use of technology, particularly laptops.

Interviewees confirmed the growth in study spaces as a top change. The management of space within the library to proactively meet student requirements was considered a highly important priority with dedicated resources allocated to the research of needs, management of usage, and creation of strategic policies to ensure the optimal use of space. Indeed, as the competition between universities for attracting new students increases, the library’s offerings and its ability to support and meet students’ needs are two important selling points.

How the library HAS developed and changed

In looking at how the library has developed and changed during the last 5 years, we hoped to get a picture of the changing environment and its immediate impact on skills and skill requirements. We first considered the importance of traditional skills in the current environment.


What clearly stands out is that people management, academic liaison, and information literacy education and training have come out as the most important skills, with 75%, 68%, and 67% of our respondents, respectively, listing them as very important. All the other skills listed appear to have an important place in today’s HE library, although cataloging and classification seem to have had a mixed bag of responses.

Exploring these traditional skills further with follow-up telephone interviews, we found that traditional skills have their place within the library, although technology is changing how they are used. This is particularly the case with cataloging and classification, with much of the work being automated or outsourced. Because an understanding of the process is needed, the skill remains important. Information literacy and digital literacy are increasingly important, as are research skills, as the library seeks to support its customers as completely as possible in order to assist the university in increasing student numbers.

Subject knowledge varies in importance from university to university. Requirements for traditional skills now are more service-led. A good understanding of the process or method is important. Anything that can be used to support customer needs, such as knowledge and usage of research methodologies or subject knowledge, is important.

Working within the academic environment, interviewees noted a need to work with peers in other departments in environments that are often complex and political. Achieving what is needed for the library is about promoting its services and illustrating its value to the university and its goals. The four skills noted above provide a strong matrix of resources from which to draw on to achieve progression in this situation. Resilience is of value in most customer-focused roles, as is being able to deal with difficult situations and unhappy customers.

General business skills—the ability to think and plan strategically, look at the whole picture, and prepare for future changes and developments— were also seen as important. Sound financial management and budgeting skills, good promotional skills in terms of marketing the service, and good people management skills were also seen as highly important general business skills. This ties in with what we saw earlier on in the report—the complexity of winning budgets, management of budgets, and proving the value of the library in line with university business goals being important skills to have. It is also reflective of the way universities have changed the way they function within the last 10 or so years to operate more like businesses.


Both surveys were presented as panel discussions—the legal survey at the June 2018 BIALL annual conference in Birmingham, and the academic survey on Sept. 20, 2018, at the CILIP headquarters in London. Across both discussions, this is what was very apparent:

  • Information management and core librarian competencies are more important than ever.
  • Customer service focus is a critical consideration when hiring, but it must be accompanied by competence in other core skills.
  • Digital literacy, particularly with data-related technology such as AI and data and text analysis, is increasingly important to both sectors.

The ability to see the bigger picture to navigate complex stakeholder relationships is a key consideration for new hires.

Simon Burton is 2019 President SLA Europe and managing director, CB Resourcing.


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