I don’t claim to be an expert in much, but when it comes to securing a library job I’ve got hard-won advice worth sharing. For much of my career I suffered from a kind of librarian wanderlust, switching jobs every two or three years, which pretty much means that I spent my first 20 years in this profession engaged in a continuous job search. But I’ve also put in plenty of time on the other side of the interview table, having hired scores of librarians while managing libraries large and small, as well as hiring librarians as editors, back when I worked in publishing.
Although the economy is slowly climbing out of its sinkhole, don’t expect finding a library position to get easier any time soon. State funding is under pressure, and local funding—which now makes up nearly the entire budget of your typical public library—remains flat at best. Although there are more job openings in 2013 than in previous years, there is also more competition for those positions. Jobseekers, especially those looking for their first librarian positions, need to have their game faces on.
Keep Your Bags Packed
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: if you want to be hired as a librarian, get ready to move. Many of you are probably already in a large city or a university town with a library school, plenty of recent graduates, a public library that hasn’t hired anyone since 2008, and academic libraries that are only making part-time appointments. You’re going to need to look nationally, especially to land that first position.
This is tough love—the sort I ignored back in the early 1980s. When I graduated from library school, the national unemployment rate was nearly 11%, and I refused to leave New York City. As a result, I spent two years cobbling together a living as a circulation clerk before I landed a full-time gig. Today, the wait could be even longer.
Do Your Homework
You’re a librarian, so this should be elementary. Found a job ad that looks good? Go into research overdrive and investigate the hell out of the institution—and its people. Comb the Web site for its mission, strategic plan, budget, minutes from any board meetings, annual reports, policies, and calendars of events. Check the Web for news stories, scandals, blog posts. Use your personal network to learn more. Take that library’s temperature—is it progressive, capable of change, responsive to its community? Or is locked in an outmoded model of service? Is the staff able to take initiative? What’s the story with management? Is it a library that would interest you as a user?
Examine the job ad like a forensic linguist. Is it just the standard ad for a reference librarian, or is it loaded with more unique responsibilities? Libraries will often use a new hire as an opportunity to do new things, perhaps to reach out to the business community, expand their pre-K offerings, or improve their social networking. And if a library really underscores certain attributes, like strong customer service skills, then chances are it’s lacking in that area and wants you to help fix it.
It’s a Pitch
All the information you get from your research will be critical in how you pitch yourself in your cover letter—and cover letters are critical. This is your one chance at getting an interview. All you need to do need to do is convince the search committee that you could be the one. So, how do you do that?
For starters, a good pitch isn’t about you—it’s about the employer. Explain how you are going to use your knowledge and experience to help the library succeed. You’re a certified teacher who spent five years in the classroom? Yawn. You want to use that teaching experience to improve collaboration between the schools and the public library? Now I’m listening. I don’t really care that you worked at Best Buy to put yourself through library school. But if you have some ideas on how big-box customer service might translate to a library, I’m interested.
This isn’t a narrative retelling of the accomplishments listed on your resume. Be enthusiastic, passionate, and individualistic in your cover letter. But keep the crazy in check. A ranting two-page, single-spaced, no-margins cover letter (true story) isn’t a pitch. It’s a warning sign.
A Personal Narrative
If you ever listen to a committee sitting around talking after a day of interviewing, what you’ll hear are people remembering the stories the candidates told. The most successful candidates are those who can craft a narrative that makes their application logical, and their hiring inevitable.
That may sound like malarkey, but in fact, storytelling is how we come to know and understand each other, and the more an employer learns about why you believe this job is right for you, the more likely it is that he or she will be convinced.
Why are you interested in the position? Maybe it starts with the story of how, when you were in high school, you realized that your grandfather was making poor decisions about a health issue because he was relying on information he found online—sponsored by a pharmaceutical company; how, in grad school, you studied information-seeking behavior and learned that your grandfather’s wasn’t unusual. Later, when volunteering for an HIV-prevention group that targeted teens, you realized that human intervention can help connect the right person with the right information, and that conversation can help seekers integrate new information into their lives. Which is why you are here today: to provide the community with the best possible information.
No, this alone isn’t going to get you the job. But it signals to the committee that you don’t just need the job, but that you see yourself actually doing the job.
Exploit Your Past
Sorry, but I don’t care where you went to library school—whether it was a fancy private institution or a huge research university, completely online or in person—what you studied, or how well you did. I’ve never found a correlation between any of these factors and how good a librarian someone is.
But I am keenly interested in knowing whether you’ve worked in a library—either as a part-timer, intern, or volunteer—and what you’ve made of those experiences. I don’t expect these to have been significant training opportunities, but like schools and police stations, nuclear submarines and hospitals, libraries have their own distinct culture, and I would be loath to hire a new grad who had never worked in a library for fear that she’d head for the hills in three months.
At one time, libraries turned a blind eye to any prelibrary work experience. You could be Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter, but for most libraries your career wouldn’t have begun until you took “Organization of Information” or some equally forgettable course. But things are changing, in part because libraries are becoming more open to learning from other industries, and partly because everyone in this country is now doing at least two or three jobs at work.
If you have a prior career, extrapolate the skills that will transfer over to library work and find a way to talk about them. If it was a profession that libraries can make use of, put that out there. You may have run screaming from a career as a graphic designer, but a library’s need to have someone in-house who can design the monthly e-newsletter may be what gets you hired.
Finally, don’t overlook your personal passions, hobbies, and volunteer experiences. I once interviewed a woman who had single-handedly developed a bang-up Web site that profiled all the rescue animals in her county; the site alone was responsible for the annual adoption of hundreds of cats and dogs. She spent over 20 hours a week on this project—which offered a great user experience and excellent organization, and which helped land her the job. How couldn’t it, with all those kitten pictures? But she didn’t even bother mentioning this part of her life until the last five minutes of her second interview.
But be smart. There was also the guy whose digital portfolio included a link to his blog on genital piercing (true story). It was authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date. But do you really want a search committee’s first impression of you to be your four-gauge Prince Albert?
Get the Process Straight
It always surprises me how chaotic the hiring process can be in libraries. If you are called for an interview, it is totally reasonable to ask how long the interview is expected to last, and with whom you will be meeting. If you get names, research them. Typically, libraries will hold brief screening interviews with anywhere from four to eight candidates, sometimes conducted by just one or two people, but often you will meet with a larger committee. Then they will invite two or three people back for lengthier, in-person visits.
The processes that public libraries use for interviewing can be all over the place, while academic libraries—especially when the position is tenure-track—tend to develop gauntletlike, lengthy affairs for their second rounds where you meet with multiple colleagues. I’ve talked about ways to present yourself and your experience, but understanding the process can also be key to nailing the interviews.
Resources to Bookmark
Lucky for you, your fellow librarians are already hard at work developing the information you need to help you get hired.
Naomi Houses’s I Need a Library Job eResource Center includes a great listing of vacancies, and also provides plenty of sound advice.
Hiring Librarians offers interviews and in-depth advice about the hiring process.
Everyone knows you are supposed to ask intelligent questions as part of your interview, but what to ask? Jenica Rogers offers a great starting point on her blog, Attempting Elegance.
Even though they are anonymous, reading the cover letters on Open Cover Letters always feel slightly illicit. Most of these cover letters are examples of what not to do and are not models to emulate.
When it comes to librarian über-sharing, nothing beats the Google doc “Library Interview Questions ‘Database.’ ” It’s chock full of interview questions, and those asked by applicants as well.
Finally, the Facebook group ALA Think Tank (not actually part of the American Library Association) isn’t specifically a job resource, but it’s a great place to pose questions and ask for help. What makes it interesting is that responses pour in from a range of librarians, from newbies to those more seasoned. Happy hunting.