March 16, 2018

The Right Questions | Office Hours

michael-stephens_newHow do we find that perfect hire? A recent email from Kit Stephenson, head of reference and adult services at Bozeman Public Library, MT, got me thinking: “I am trying to find the best questions to find a full-stack employee. A couple of attributes I require are compassion, team player, and thrives on change. I want someone to be a conduit, connector, and a discoverer.” That call back to Stacking the Deck raised this question: How do we find a well-rounded person amid a virtual pile of résumés and cover letters? Please consider the following as part of your potential discovery sets for future interviews.

Ask me (almost) anything

How do you keep learning? Describe your personal learning network (PLN).

This gets to the heart of what I think makes a great librarian. The nuances of this answer could be telling. Unpack it a bit, too: What blogs do you read? Where do you look for answers about professional issues? Sure, the pages of LJ are an excellent start, but I would argue that a well-rounded future hire would be active and comfortable with a cultivated and well-curated PLN, both online and off. Describing it should be easy. I would want to hear about formal professional groups as well as informal ones. What benefits has your interviewee discovered in these networks?

What are some of your favorite books/TV shows/movies/podcasts?

I think this can be very telling. Interest in “Cozy Detective Stories” or Stranger Things or the best of the best from the local film festival will come along for the job. I wouldn’t want it any other way. No one should ever be expected to be an expert on everything—that’s what readers’ advisory tools are for.

How do you like to learn new technologies? Describe your process.

Straightforward and will tap into the potential hire’s learning style. Want a self-directed, explorative learner? Watch out for the “I like step-by-step training sessions and PowerPoints.”

How do you like to learn about the community you serve?

Explores ideas about outreach and understanding in the community. Balance “I would do a survey at the reference desk” with “I would go out to groups who aren’t using the library and listen to discover why.” Also: What types of partnerships should the library have?

Describe your best mentor or supervisor—what did you learn from that person?

This taps into how the person feels about being supported in a position as well as being managed. It may lead to an interesting and insightful story.

Describe a time you learned a valuable lesson about other people.

If the above gets to the heart of librarianship, then this is about being human. Listen closely. Do you hear empathy? Understanding? This puts the emphasis on recognizing and valuing the differences among humans. Compassion seems to be most lacking in people who don’t recognize these differences.

If you’ve asked “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “Describe one of your weaknesses?” ad nauseam, give some of the above a try in your next hiring go-round.

Make it better

I sent these questions to Jessica Gilbert Redman, a recent graduate of the San José State University School of Information and as of this writing in the job search. I wanted her thoughts as one currently on the other side of the interview. “I would love to be asked any of them during an interview,” she said.

Gilbert Redman says these questions may determine if new hires are going to be a “not my job” kind of person who doesn’t want to learn anything outside what they already know and do. This can stagnate the position and the organization. Hopefully, they will be a “let’s see if we can make this work better” kind of person who looks for ways to improve self and organization.

The questions a job seeker asks can be just as thought provoking to the interviewer, so it’s important for job seekers to take the time to craft questions that will tell them more about the position, the library or company, and the people with whom they’d be working. She shared questions she asks her interviewers:

  1. What are some projects that you see this position covering in the next year/three to five years?
  2. How is professional development supported by this organization?
  3. Thinking back to the people who’ve been in this role, what’s the difference between a good performance and a great one?
  4. What do you like most about working here?

I would add this as well: “How do you react to failure?” Libraries should want new employees to feel comfortable, and the freedom to fail is important.

This article was published in Library Journal's October 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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  1. I enjoy thinking about new approaches to interviewing, so thanks for addressing this topic. It’s a tough process on both sides.

    Personal learning networks are important, but interviewees (especially if they are recent graduates) may not be familiar with the term or what could comprise a PLN. Also, I’ve found that others don’t necessarily think a lot about how they learn — they just do it. So someone might answer “I just Google what I need to know,” and it might take some probing for them to respond with the level of detail you’re looking for in an answer.

    One other comment: I think we in libraries generally celebrate diversity of tastes in literature/tv/pop culture, but interviewees are usually on edge during interviews and may not want to share their interests in case they think others might judge them negatively. Certain things, like comics and fanfiction, still have some stigmas associated with them, for example, and so interviewees might get frozen up when asked to share what things they like (I’ve seen it happen in an interview, but only one time). Fandoms can be strong, and dismissal of fandoms can be equally strong. But sometimes asking a relating question — what they do for fun, in their free time, as a hobby — draws out these kinds of responses organically.

    I think the questions about learning from a mentor and other people are great!

    • Linda Luebke says:

      Interview questions and replies can be quite interesting. I have interviewed individuals and asked them a similar question that you have noted concerning what books they are reading currently or found interesting. It was a fun question, individuals seemed to relax when asked it. Since I was interviewing at the time for an acquisitions person, I thought it extremely relevant. I am no longer able to ask it since an individual may answer “inappropriately”, be judged negatively, not get the position and contest the selection saying they were not chosen because of their “inappropriate” answer.
      I have interviewed people who, when asked about their current position, create a fantasy position that matches the position they are interviewing for, not what they actually do. Interviewing for a cataloging position, I have had people tell me they are extremely well-versed in LC classification and then go on to describe Dewey. On the other hand, I have also asked what I consider to be dull or dumb questions, and have been floored by interesting/creative responses. You just never know what people will say.
      I hope to use some of your questions soon.

    • Michael Stephens says:

      Justin – Thanks for this comment. I would hope the person asking the questions would offer a definition of what a PLN is for the perspective hire if there seemed to be confusion. I think recent grads are very savvy in this regard. Our students at the School of Information at SJSU learn about PLNs in one of the core courses and I highlight the concepts in my class “The Hyperlinked Library.”

      Also, I’d argue that someone who is not shy and “owns” the answer to the “What are some of your favorite books/TV shows/movies/podcasts?”question is the someone we might want to hire.