Career Strategies for Librarians
See What You’re Hearing: Explicit vs. Implicit Interview Responses
by Erin Barta

It’s Not About Being An Ogre

As human beings, we are inherently engaged in a continual process of translating what we see and
hear into an understanding of both superficial and underlying meaning.  When making the critical
decision of whom to hire, being able to understand the difference between explicit and implicit meaning
is crucial.  Each of us involved in hiring candidates can recall actively making the decision to dismiss
interview answers/remarks that caused concern, offering employment to an individual who would later
cause monumental grief.  With the time and effort invested in training, team building, and professional
development, the hiring process cannot be taken lightly.  As a supervisor involved in assessing
candidates, I have an obligation to my institution to hire the most appropriate individual.  Beyond that, I
believe that I have an even greater responsibility to my existing employees – to hire a team player, a
person who completes his/her tasks so others don’t have to, someone reliable so that others aren’t
forced to work overtime, someone respectful, someone safe, someone personally enjoyable who will
contribute to a positive work environment, and so on.  So when I’m evaluating potential employees, I’m
aware that I also have people and ideals that I need to protect, and that my decisions, good or bad, will
have ripple-effect consequences.  This is not to imply that most of what I see is bad – it isn’t.  However,
there is a weeding process that takes place in the selection of potential employees.  In this situation,
skills in understanding implicit meanings in conversation become remarkably important.

What follows is a rather informal statement-translation analysis specific to the interviewing environment.  
This is not intended to encourage dishonesty during an interview, but to help individuals define what they
desire and what they expect when seeking a job – and more importantly, to be able to frame responses
mindfully.  Bear in mind that these are snippets from years of interviews, and they do not represent the
entire interview process.  They are simply individual comments/responses that sometimes cause
concern.  I use the “universal you” off and on; please don’t take it personally.

$ I Just Want A Paycheck $

Generally, it’s fair to assume that everyone wants to be employed and be productive.  Therefore, stating
that your sole interest is “just getting a job” or “needing a job” isn’t good enough.   In some industries
this may suffice, but in specialized areas such as library services, an employer wants applicants to
exhibit some kind of interest, passion, or excitement for the field.  If all you want is a paycheck, why
choose library work?

Remark:  "I'm interested in this [very entry-level] position because I need experience and it's hard to get
experience without a job..." etc, etc.

Translation:  “I'm going to bounce as soon as I find another position.”  Basically, I've just been told that
the individual is not interested in working for my library, but is, instead, interested in building up a
resume.  The *last* thing I want is an employee providing substandard attention to assignments and
responsibilities because he is under the impression that this is a limbo job.  Apathy toward the field in
favor of constructing a stellar resume doesn’t impress me.

Remark:  "I'm interested in this [entry-level] position, because I want library experience, but if I'm not
bored and I like what I'm doing, then maybe I'll stick around."

Translation:  A variation of the first remark.  While I do my best to provide a positive, fun, challenging work
environment, it’s not my job to guarantee that you’ll be thrilled every minute of the day. It’s not a good idea
to tell me that if you're bored you might not stick around. Sometimes, believe it or not, library work can be
boring – ANY work can be boring. I'm looking for someone who can do the work *anyway,* or better yet,
find ways to make it fun or approach it with humor.   

Remark:  "I'll need xyz days off and I want to take vacation time here, here, and here.  And I don't want to
work [nights, weekends, Thursday afternoons, etc.]."

Translation:  “I haven't even been offered employment yet, but I feel important enough to expect you (the
employer) to adjust to my schedule.” Tough though it may sound, you get paid to work for me. I'm happy
to be flexible, I encourage you to use your vacation time, and I want my staff members to be happy, but
ultimately, I set the schedule according to our library's needs, not yours.  You can either work the job, or
you can't.  Negotiating a list of demands is not something I want to do with someone I’ve just met.

Remark:  "Do I get to work with cash?" [interview continues] "So will I be handling cash?"

Translation:  “Do I get to be around money?”  I don't know about everyone else, but when I have an
interviewee continually ask me about handling money, it raises red flags all over the place.  

People Trouble

Remark:  "I don't think you can/should work in a library unless you have [cataloging, reference, etc.]

Translation:  I'm a library snoot.  Luckily, I have a lot of experience in various library departments, but
what if the director interviewing you does not have experience in the specific area you’ve just
mentioned?  Congrats, you've just offended your potential employer and you've also let the group know
that you'll probably have conflict with paraprofessionals and other librarians who do the task you’ve
named.  This applies to any responsibility, as in "Someone who doesn’t have xyz experience isn’t
qualified to work in a library."  Generally snotty attitude.

Remark:  Long, detailed, irrelevant description of home life, children, family, or pets.

Translation:  I haven't the foggiest what this translates to, but I've seen it millions of times; I even saw
one person take family photos out of a wallet and pass them around.  Honestly, I really don't care – it's
nice, it's just not relevant, and it’s eating up my time.  Telling me how smart and talented your children
are and what they're doing in school only tells me that you can't separate the personal from
professional.  Based on my observation, the people who do this during an interview and manage to be
hired spend 2-3 times as many work hours taking personal calls, chatting on the phone, and generally
letting their work time be utterly and continually disrupted by personal matters.   

Remark:  "Oh, I didn't follow your directions for submitting my paperwork (or parking in the space
assigned, or notifying the receptionist) – it seemed like a lot of trouble."

Translation:  “I can't follow directions because I don’t pay attention to them, or because I exercise my own
set of rules based upon what I think is important.”  Mistakes happen, but if this person can't follow
directions for a simple interview, or willfully declines to abide by guidelines, I can't imagine trying to
assign her responsibilities or projects.

Remark:  "You're in charge of the library?  You'd be my supervisor?  But you're so young."

Translation:  “I might have a problem taking direction from someone younger than me.”  This leads to big
problems later.   

Remark:  "I got fired from my last job because my manager was a jerk."

Translation:  At minimum, “I'm not a good communicator; I can't even tell you in a professional and
appropriate manner the events that led to my termination, how I tried to resolve the issue, or what I
learned from it.”  This also makes a potential employer wonder whether the candidate was really at fault,
whether the candidate resents authority, and so on.  Don’t criticize your former employers in an interview.

Remark:  "I'm interested in this [entry-level] position, because I'd like to be in charge of something – like
the [Reference Department]."

Translation:  “I might try to take someone's job or assert authority in areas where I have none.”  It's a big
leap, and rather vague, to say that you want to be the head of "something," especially if it’s a position for
which you’re not currently interviewing.  Also, don't expect the person currently holding the position you
want  to like you or trust you very much.

Remark:  "Weaknesses?  I'm always late/I get bored easily/I'm not good with people/I don't like
answering phones/I take a long time to get things done/I like to talk forever about things before I do them
..." etc.

Translation:  These are all just bad responses.  The merit of the “weakness” question has been
debated; sometimes, it is asked in order to find out what an applicant can do with a dud question.  
However, if you can take a seemingly dead question like “weaknesses/strengths” and turn it into
something honest, interesting, informative, introspective/productive, you’ll have the attention of the whole

Fixing It

These are just a few of the most common negative remarks I’ve encountered, and they aren’t
condemning in and of themselves.  However, each has its own weight and, as a part of the whole of the
interview, may contribute to a poor experience.  Everybody occasionally botches an interview; it happens.  
The point of sharing these problematic responses is to get you to think about your implicit statements –
not because you want to manipulate potential employers, but because you should evaluate *why* you
respond to a question the way you do, and modify your outlook, if necessary.  If you don’t like answering
phones and you’re not good with people, then maybe you need to evaluate why you’ve chosen a “people-
intensive” vocation like library work, and whether or not it will give you a satisfactory life experience. If you
tend to criticize others’ perceived lack of skills, maybe it’s time to ponder why you meet colleagues in a
competitive and superior manner, and work toward changing that.  Consider the importance of following
directions and the impact that ignoring them may have on other people before you dismiss them as
trivial.  Your interview responses correspond to how you approach your relationships with co-workers,
bosses, and institutions. If your perspective is negative or appears self-motivated, perhaps you need to
work on positive, collaborative interaction.

As an encouraging word of advice, the most important thing to remember is to be yourself.  View the
interview as an opportunity to have a great conversation with new people about your professional life and
library services.  Focus on what you can contribute, have fun with, and collaborate on as opposed to what
you can get.  If you’re a likeable person who is conscious of the intention of your responses, you’ll
probably do well.

About the Author:

Erin Barta is a self-described Everything Librarian.  She is the Associate Director of Library Services for a
small academic institution in California where she does circulation, interlibrary loans, cataloging,
reference, acquisitions, web services, outreach … everything.  In her spare time, she studies various
styles of kung fu and volunteers with animal rescue organizations.

Article published Apr 2007

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