Monday, September 20, 2010

Thoughts on interviewing for (public) librarianship positions

NOTE: The following thoughts are strictly my personal opinions. They do not necessarily reflect the views of my employers. Of course, my opinions do form part of my assessment when I'm interviewing candidates in the course of my job. But I think you'll find what follows as mainly common sense.

During the #singlibtour, @librarianhoi asked if I sat in interview panels for job applicants. I said yes. She asked if I had any tips for interviewees.

It so happened I had read something from a free publication, from In it was an interview with the HR director of Agilent Technologies, Mr Charles Chee:
Question: "What is one blunder you see when candidates apply for a job in your company?"

Answer: "Not knowing what is expected of the job and not knowing what the company does."

Question: "What can candidates do to separate themselves from the rest of the pack?"

Answer: "Be passionately knowledgeable about the job that you are applying for and understand the expectations of the company".

The responses were 100% applicable to any library job interview, I replied to Hoi.

Our conversation got me thinking: what would I say to those interested in public service librarian positions? More specifically, those who have been selected for interviews.

So here goes:

If you're thinking, "The library should hire me 'cos I love to read", think again.

The primary reason is about Service. To serve. To help others.

You must have the conviction and patience to act in a customer-service role, with the broad aim of creating meaningful learning experiences.

Many candidates first start off by saying they love reading (btw, I probably said that myself when I went for my interview 15 years ago!) It's pretty much a given that librarians should be readers. But that alone isn't enough.

You can be a voracious reader but if you aren't sincere about helping total strangers meet their library-related needs, then do reconsider applying.

I can't say this enough: Above all, public librarianship is about the genuine interest for helping others, in non-judgmental ways.

We're are paid to help others. It is a job. The job requires us to make things convenient for customers, not for customers to make things easy for you.

About your educational qualifications. They are merely that -- qualifications. As in, they qualify you to be selected for the interview. Whether you get the job or not depends on other factors.

As to what those "other factors" are, read on.

I've come across a few candidates who seem interested in how the employer can help them progress, career-wise. Such candidates make little impression, or they are not convincing, in how they can genuinely contribute to the organisation.

Often times, I'd like to tell them that they are applying for a job, and not a scholarship.

There are candidates who are able to convincingly show, within that 10 to 20 minutes of conversation, just how much research they have done about the job, BEFORE the interview.

By "research", I don't necessarily mean they have full knowledge of 'what a librarian does' (you can't unless you've been one). The better candidates are often able to show reasonable attempts in learning more about the work that they would be getting into.

Even in today's context -- with the Internet, blogs, mailing lists -- I'm constantly surprised at how some job applicants have no clue as to basic information about the organisation. Such candidates really have no excuse for not making the attempt.

And it's not just reading up on the Internet or memorising key points from mailing lists.

The simplest way is to use the library. Attend library programmes. Make use of the library facilities, materials and services.

Ah, I bet you're asking, "What if a job candidate reads this post and bluffs his/ her way through the interview?"

Well, such people can fake all they want. They can conduct themselves like they were the perfect candidates for the job. But ultimately, they end up fooling themselves. They would have wasted their time during the months or years on the job. Time is opportunity cost.

In my experience, interviewers (there's a reason why they are a panel) can spot rote answers most of the time, no matter how well rehearsed.

Come to think of it, let's say the interviewers are fooled by you at the interview. And you get the job. But would your other soon-to-be colleagues at work be fooled all the time? Which is the worse outcome?

Be who you are, and not what you think the organisation/ interviewer expects you to be. It's less painful for both parties in the long run.

If you sincerely believe the job is for you, that's well and good. Even if things don't work out, I always believe that's OK too. As long as you accepted the job in good faith.

I also think it's absolutely OK to admit to what you don't know during the interview. Better to honestly admit what you don't know, than to fake it.

Even if you're more interested in "what can the organisation do for me" (some people just do, for their own reasons) that's fine as well. Again, as long as you admit that upfront. I can respect that.

Leave your romantic notions of librarianship at the door.

Not that you can't find happiness in librarianship (many people do!) but temper that with a good healthy dose of reality.

Someone once told me that work is called work because it's not fun. At least, not all the time.

As you probably realise, I'm not giving away any secrets here. You wouldn't have any "unfair advantage" over other job candidates (well, maybe you have a slight advantage over those who didn't do their "homework" but that's just proving my earlier point, isn't it?)

Final tip: Honesty, humility and integrity are often the most important values. In my own opinion of course.

Good luck!


  1. I've never interviewed anyone before but I'd really love to interview my future manager from a bottom up point of view. I'd like to ask them about their visions on librarianship, leadership style, their take on customer service (staff first or customers first?). Afterall, I'd love to work hard for a manager who has a keen interest in librarianship. Then again how many librarians out there actually has a keen interest in librarianship too? Maybe it is a big ask.

  2. I love this entry! especially this part: 'THE PRIMARY REASON ISN'T ABOUT YOUR LOVE OF READING'. It's same for publisher, I think :)

  3. Anonymous6:43 pm

    I agree that love of reading should not be the primary reason for becoming a librarian. But if you don't love reading, you shouldn't apply. I beg to differ when you say that the love of reading is a "given" in our profession. I have met fellow workers who rarely read themselves and one even unashamedly told me that she has not read a book for the last 5 years! If glaring can kill someone, she would be dead already. Not having time to read is simply not an excuse for librarians!

    Honestly, if librarians don't even have the love for reading themselves, how can they passionately promote the importance of reading to others? And how in the world can they tolerate sitting amongst books everyday? So.

  4. Hi Ivan,

    A posting that is interesting and nostalgic to me. Brings back past memories of job interviews (and experiences in previous workplaces).

    Would end by saying... enjoyed reading your postings. Have a nice day. : )

    Wei Meng

  5. @Hoi - good point about asking questions at interviews. It's one way for the interviewer to assess the quality of the organisation too. Of course, the catch is that your actual/ direct supervisor and colleagues may not be the ones in the interview panel.

    One other point - if you do ask questions, my personal (stress *personal*) suggestion is that the interviewer must be careful not to come across as pushy. You also don't want to scare off your potential employer by creating the wrong impression with the way you ask questions :)

  6. I was an academic librarian, so perhaps standards differ, but first impressions still matter. Poorly dressed (out of date by 20 years), messy hair, dirty fingernails, yellow teeth, muddy shoes--hey! Don't make the committee dig for the real you! If we can't make it past your appearance, we probably won't read the resume either.

  7. Hi Norma, first impression does count. In any job interview. Oh yeah, couldn't agree with you more on this: "Don't make the committee dig for the real you!".

  8. I really enjoyed reading this particular blog post, Ivan. You touch upon a lot of issues that if explored would soon lead into questions of what a library is or ought to be and thus what a librarian is or ought to be. In fact, some of your remarks reminded me not just a little of one of QQ's posts on the definition of a library - which generated something like twelve very interesting and provocative comments.

    I also enjoyed reading the responses to this post. (Halfway through reading the first paragraph of Anonymous' comment, I said to myself, 'This is Ivy!' And I was very happy to see that I had guessed correctly!)

    My own take on the reading issue is close to Ivy's. I mean, like, it just never even occurred to me to wonder if librarians like to read. I've always just assumed they do! And I've also always assumed that the job of librarian, being a service profession, entails first and foremost - wait for it -service! So, for a job candidate to say that they're applying to be a librarian because they like to read - well, I'd be very tempted to respond with, "You need to apply for the (unfortunately unsalaried) job of library patron. In this position you'll get to read all you want." Also, while actually behind the counter, when does a librarian find time to read for her-/himself? Whenever I visited LKC Reference Library, no one seemed to have time to sit back and enjoy a good book. It was pretty obvious that the reference librarians were busy serving, and this at several levels - which gives me my transition to an additional point that might be worth making: the idea of serving at many levels. For what my opinion's worth (not much), seems to me that it's crucial for prospective librarians to consider who and what they're likely to be serving. Such consideration would very quickly take them beyond books and patrons into areas having to do with the relations between information access and colleagueship, administration, patriotism, nationalism, and symbolism.

    You've touched a nerve here for me because while in Singapore I often wondered if I could be an effective librarian. I did - and do - so like the folks at LKC that I wanted to be one of them myself. And you already know how much I love the country.

    Well, I've said enough. Thanks for YOUR service, Ivan. You're a great role model!

  9. Hi Ollie, most librarians I know say they read on their own time, outside of work. A 2004 survey, cited in this book, also infers that 76% of librarians surveyed read during their personal time :)

  10. Hey, Ivan, thanks for responding to my comment. Yes, of course the vast majority of librarians read - which may be why Ivy was so appalled when she came across one who apparently didn't. Because of the assumptions I make about librarians, I probably would have shared her glare.

    Your blog this time has kept me thinking about what a librarian is and does. (Not having much of a life, I tend to think about these kinds of things when someone piques my interest.) By librarian here, let it be understood that I mean reference librarian.

    What I've been contemplating is the "What's in it for me?" question that every person probably considers when they apply for a job, especially a job in one of the professions - though one would hope that they gave some thought to this query prior to or during their schooling/training to qualify for the position in the first place. What I'm getting at is the same issue that confronted me as a teacher: since no one gets rich teaching or "librarianing," the rewards must lie elsewhere. So, where? At the most individualistic level, I believe they lie in a kind of selfish unselfishness. I bet most librarians are like teachers: they get their kicks from helping others, they live for the moment when a patron lights up and thanks them for finding that crucially important piece of information they've been desperately searching for. Better librarians probably take the information search a step further and not only find the piece of information for the patron but also teach them how to find it for themselves next time - and what a gift of knowledge and power that is! The patron and the librarian both feel it and it's a wonderful feeling, this empowering of others. For a microsecond, one feels like a small god, a lesser Prometheus.

    At a higher level, and certainly at a less individualistic one, a person as they mature begins to understand that the greatest fulfillment is living and working for something bigger than themselves; that striving to make the library better and feeling that one has in some small way done that, is a great feeling, especially if the library in question is a national library. Then, one understands that in making patrons better, in making the library better, one also makes one's country better - and now I ask you, how good is that? I can't think of a better way to spend one's life, of a better legacy to leave behind than that.

    Well, the ang moh has gone on and on again. It's your fault, Ivan, for writing such thought-provoking blog posts. Take good care.



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