The Work We Do: Reflecting on CARL’s Competencies for Librarians in Canadian Research Libraries

The CARL Competencies

How do you envision your role as an academic librarian? With your job description? The vision and mission statements of your library or institution? Direction from your supervisor or administration? And do you have the knowledge, skills, and values to support this work?

The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) developed a list of competencies for academic librarians, which were updated in 2020. CARL lists eight competencies including collaboration, leadership and vision, equity, diversity, and inclusion, curation, and assessment, among others.

I like how the 2020 CARL competencies spell out the difference between skills (“learning capacities to carry out specific tasks”), mindsets (“collection of attitudes, inclinations, or habits of mind useful in achieving an outcome”), values (beliefs and opinions that people hold regarding specific issues or ideas), and knowledge – and each competency has a combination of these listed. The CARL competencies are comprehensive because they combine hard and soft skills into each competency; I am learning both are integral to working as an academic librarian. For example, under collaboration, listed are skills to build relationships, knowledge of inter- and intra-institutional organization, knowledge of critical and scholarly engagement, and an understanding of how to work with and engage users of diverse backgrounds.

In searching for other academic librarianship-wide competencies, I noticed a lack from other large academic library organizations, such as ACRL or ARL.  There are the ACRL Standards for Libraries in Higher Education, the Medical Library Association’s specialized Professional Competencies,as well as the Reference and User Services Association’s Professional Competencies for Reference and User Services Librarians, but not profession-wide competencies.

Why competencies?

Competencies can be useful for envisioning the landscape of academic librarianship: what youshould know, where and how you should professionally develop, developing vision and mission statements, and what is included in LIS curricula.

I think competencies help guide our profession. Competencies give bounds to a profession, but do we need bounds? Who has the authority to define a profession? What do I care if a large library association says I need to collaborate, engage, and curate?

The point of competencies shouldn’t be to dictate what work we should be doing — whether that’s an opportunity that comes up (e.g. leading an association or chairing a committee) or something I propose and develop (e.g. a library symposium or new library service) — but if you need ideas for areas of growth, you have a guide, useful for early-career librarians. They could also be useful for mid- or late-career librarians, who feel directionless or adrift, or otherwise want to continue to develop in different areas. By their very nature professional competencies are broad, to capture the wide-ranging work we are involved in.

Competencies add professionalization to our field. Those looking at academic librarianship can see our values and skills. This begs the question, are competencies for us or are they for someone else? Are they to crystallize and focus our work or are they for the people we help, so they have a better idea of the work we do?

I am reminded of the public presentations held for entry-level librarian candidates at the University of Manitoba. Many of the candidates based their presentations around the CARL competencies in answering the assigned question on what is required of today’s academic librarian. I know I referenced the 2010 CARL competencies in my own interview in Fall 2019. Here you have new LIS graduates looking to the competencies to envision their work and publicly present their idea of an academic librarian. In this way, competencies help students and new graduates have an idea of the work of academic librarians.

Identify your values and meaningful work

I find competencies useful in identifying work that is meaningful to me. Another way I identified meaningful work was when I came across the idea of personal librarian philosophies after attending a 2021 WILU (Workshop in Library Use) pre-conference session on teaching philosophies. The instructors — Dr. Betsy Keating and Dr. Margie Clow Bohan — suggested while teaching philosophies can be helpful for librarians, it may be more useful to develop a librarian philosophy that could guide not only your teaching, but your entire professional practice, including goal setting.  

After the conference, I set out to write my own librarian philosophy. In my philosophy, I commit to building relationships and community, doing meaningful work, lifelong learning, and supporting myself and the work of others – both inside and outside the profession.

I am reminded of Christopher P. Long, the Dean of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, and his idea of values-enacted leadership: identify core values that are meaningful to you so you can guide your work and check-in with yourself to ensure you are keeping to those values and infusing them throughout your work. My librarian philosophy identifies values that are meaningful to me and help guide decision-making and goal setting.

Our future as academic librarians

Does academic librarianship need more voices to tell us this is what we should be doing? On the one hand, I don’t think so since there’s so many voices already, and voices that need to be amplified. But on the other, we need new direction, vision, and leadership. Professional competencies can unite a profession, by identifying what work is important, or necessary, or meaningful.

By identifying and putting bounds on our work with competencies, we can envision what we’re doing now and where we want to go. Competencies give the profession a starting point, a place to think about the work we do. There won’t be unanimous agreement on which competencies to include. I think that’s okay. There’s something positive about looking inwards to identify the bounds of academic librarianship to expand and strengthen our profession. We need to continue to have discussions on the direction of academic librarianship, continue to identify what it is our work entails, and continue moving the profession forward to better support ourselves and our users.

The CARL Competencies for Librarians in Canadian Research Libraries are available at https://www.carl-abrc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Competencies-Final-EN-1-2.pdf

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