February 16, 2018

Interviewing Across the Generations | Not Dead Yet

Job interviewing in libraries has changed over the years I’ve been in the profession. When I started out, interviews tended to last less than a day and you met with one or two folks during the interview. Now, interviews typically last longer than one day and candidates meet with folks from all over a library and institution. Many of the techniques I’ve learned over the years can be applied today, but there are new techniques and interview skills that smart candidates can use to give them an edge in the interview process. At the same time, I’d like to remind interviewers that there are skills they need to employ to make an interview successful. Here are a few suggestions for both interviewees and interviewers across the generations:

To the candidate, I suggest:

  1. Do your homework beforehand: in the past, non-Internet world of print this could be difficult to pull off, but nowadays there is absolutely no excuse for a candidate not to be intimately familiar with a great many details about a library—from the web page(s) to the online guides, etc. This is a major difference between interviewing twenty years ago and for a job in today’s libraries. The kinds of institutional details available online to candidates now are legion, and the candidate who does their research ahead of time and inserts some of these details during the interview will likely impress, if not blow the socks off of, a search committee. Conversely, the candidate who has done little or nothing in researching the institution before showing up for the interview will be much less impressive, not to say considered lazy or uninterested in the job.
  2. Know the job description, and interview according to that job description. That means you should showcase how your skills match the requirements and desirable skills listed in the job description. Ignoring the job description, talking about what you want to do in the job without making a good case for how you can fulfill the needs of the job, is not only off point—it’s foolish.
  3. There’s little latitude for attitude: this sounds like a no brainer, but it isn’t. The attitude you display during your interview is very important to your success or lack thereof as a candidate. Being upbeat and positive, inquisitive, thoughtful, and outgoing are plusses. If your personality is simply not any or all of these, let me list the characteristics that will count heavily against you: arrogance (confidence is great, haughtiness and self-importance are job losers); dismissiveness (most interviewers are looking for people who can actually listen as well as speak); inflexibility (can’t roll with the flow of any glitches that arise during the interview? What does that say about your ability to work in the real world?); glibness (be too slick and savvy, and interviewers will question your credibility and substance; be able to back up quick answers with concrete examples of what you’ve done and you’ll be seen as smooth and able).
  4. Be mindful of those with whom the interviewers let you talk: if there is an obvious person or group “missing” from the interview, that is something you might want to explore further if you’re really interested in the job and want to know just what you’re getting into.
  5. Thank you notes: these can be important or totally insignificant as a capstone to your interview: some search committee members may simply read and dismiss them, others will count them in your favor (or against you, if you don’t send them). The trouble is, you never know who’s going to consider them important and to whom they’re insignificant, so I suggest you send thank yous, if not to every person with whom you met, at least to the members of the search committee and other folks with whom you met for significant periods of time. I also suggest that you send, if not personalized thank yous, then thank yous that have been personalized sufficiently to fall outside the realm of form notes. Form thank you notes will likely be dismissed by all.

To the interviewers, I suggest:

  1. Get the candidate to talk and don’t monopolize the interview yourselves: the idea is to get the candidate to talk about themselves, what they’ve done, what they can do, and what they can offer to your library. The idea is not for the interviewers to talk about themselves, their projects, their hopes and dreams. You have such a short time to spend with each candidate—every minute interviewers waste talking about themselves is a minute you can’t use to find out more about the candidate and whether they’re someone who can do the job, someone who will bring good things to the library, someone you will want to work with and collaborate on projects with. Some candidates who don’t, for one reason or another, want to talk further about themselves are perfectly happy for interviewers to take up large swathes of time talking about themselves—be suspicious of such candidates. What don’t they want to talk with you about? Why?
  2. Don’t engage in side conversations: if, during an interview, one of the interviewers begins talking privately to the candidate, the interview is going off track. Whatever is being said is not being heard by the group doing the interviewing, and can’t be drawn on to assess whether this candidate is suited to the job or not. It also sends a truly dreadful message to a candidate about process in the organization.
  3. Pay heed to what the candidate is actually saying: if, for example, during the interview the candidate states that they don’t like doing a particular part of a job, that is a tip off that perhaps this candidate and the position won’t be a good fit. If the particular part of the job they don’t like to do is the main function, or one of the main functions of that job, that is a red flag. A bright red flag. Flapping vigorously in the wind.

I’d love to hear other suggestions about interviewing in the new, real world. Send ‘em to me at claguard@fas.harvard.edu or comment below.


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Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. Thank you! I’ve had great success getting interviews, but I have yet to get a job, so I appreciate any interview advice I can get. One piece of advice I have for interviewers is to please thing specifically about what kind of technological skills you’re looking for in a candidate. There seems to be a mismatch between older and younger librarians about what counts as technological “skills.” Too often, I’ve answered the tech question by going into detail about my knowledge about a particular advanced technology that’s specifically relevant to the job description – e.g. library databases – only to find that the interviewer wanted to get at my skills in Microsoft Word or something. If the interviewer doesn’t know what questions to ask about technology, then they might miss out on a candidate with the right skills just because they didn’t know what to ask. I’m a millennial – if you ask me about my “tech skills,” I could probably go on for two hours. Be specific.

    • Hi New Grad,
      Thanks for writing. When I ask a candidate a question in an interview I’m very often interested in hearing what the candidate makes of the question, in the expectation that the candidate will ask for more information as needed (“when we’re talking tech skills, would you like me to tell you about my skills in office applications or with web-based authoring skills or with online databases…?”). This is an opportunity for a candidate to show their ability to think on their feet and to reframe questions appropriately (important for just about any library job). So I’d suggest that rather than expecting interviewers to ask the “right” questions, you take a question like that and run with it — and use it as an opportunity to showcase all your tech skills.
      That’s my thought — anyone else have a suggestion?
      Best wishes,

  2. Interviewer says:

    New Grad, if you feel a question is vague, ask in what areas. Let them then provide focus for you.

    • I agree, Interviewer! And in the process of asking for more information to answer the question, the candidate can actually showcase more skills.
      Thanks for writing,

  3. I’ve received a number of responses about this column in my personal e-mail. The one that follows touches on several important things I figure job seekers will want to (and need to) hear, so, with permission from the sender, I’m posting it here anonymously:

    “I am responding to your article about interviewing, in an indirect sense. I cannot recall if one of your prior articles addressed this or not, but there are things they can do before even getting to the interview level. One point you mention is for interviewees to prepare to basically sell themselves for the job that is advertised. Over and over, in the applications for positions I review, people seem to almost ignore the job description. For example, if I ask for an individual who has experience using an integrated library system, I would expect them to name the system(s) they have used, or at least indicate that they have used one. Even in this day and age, I cannot assume that all libraries have an ILS. Some work in libraries where I know the library is automated, and may even have exactly what I use in my library (which would be advantageous, since I would have to do minimal training) and yet they say nothing. I have had cover letters, resumes and applications describing qualities unrelated to the position being advertised but not the ones I am seeking. And please, do not send me a resume saying your goal is to be an instructional librarian when I am advertising for a cataloger or have someone else’s name from another institution as the salutation on the cover letter.

    A personal pet peeve of mine is misspellings and typos on applications. Frequently, many positions, in the library and elsewhere, require “attention-to-detail” which is frequently lacking on applications. Where I work computer-generated applications are required. The conveniences of spell check or even googling are at their fingertips. And yet, I come across application after application with misspellings and/or typos. In the last batch of applications I recently reviewed, I had people who were “mangers” of their section (not an uncommon error). My favorite of all times, was someone who worked for Stanard and Poor’s. Their position? Proof reader.

    Thought I would just share a few of these thoughts about before-the-interview.”

    Thanks to the sender again, both for writing and for letting me post their comment! Hope this is helpful to library job seekers.