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Career Strategies for Librarians
Why I Won’t Work for You
by Erin Barta

Economic climate doesn’t always allow us to be as choosy about our jobs as we might like; sometimes
those bills require immediate income, whether we’re comfortable with our new position or not.  However,
it’s important to remember that an applicant is as much an interviewer as the panel he or she will face.  It
is critical to understand the environment in which you will be expected to perform.  As such, you’ll want to
ensure that your vision and values are supported, if not mirrored, by your potential employer. Ask
questions, read body language, and find out as much about the people with whom you’ll be working as
about the work you’ll be asked to do.   Very few jobs will offer everything that you desire, but you may find
that there are situations in which you would not wish to work under any circumstances, even if you are
offered the position.  

Here are some of the reasons why I might decline an offer of employment from a particular institution.
These points can serve as an informal checklist both for library professionals and support staff
searching the job market as well as employers interested in maintaining a positive work atmosphere …
or at least those employers wondering why their libraries appear so dysfunctional.

I have arrived early, am dressed professionally, have smiled and introduced myself, and you’ve already
been rude to me…twice.

Applicants always worry about the first impression they make during a job interview, but occasionally
employers don’t.  Generally speaking, a boss who can’t be polite to potential employees isn’t more so
inclined towards his or her current ones.  Given the rapid (if not rabid) pace of library work, second
chances are certainly wise allowances, but a director/manager who is curt, condescending, and can’t
spare a moment of civility is an initial red flag.  Poor leadership affects each staff member and will cast
an ugly shadow over every project, every decision, and every meeting.   

During my interview, you are rude to your employees, shoot them pointed looks to correct their mistakes,
or are verbally abusive.

I didn’t think I’d ever encounter this in an interview, but unfortunately, I have.  Suffice it to say, if a director
is callous towards his or her current employees, I can surely expect the same if I’m hired.  So why on
earth would I want to be hired!?!  Under these conditions, my hour-long interview is uncomfortable
enough … I certainly wouldn’t want to make the situation permanent.

Your employees clearly do not like each other and appear to be on the brink of suicide.

This is even worse than encountering an unhappy director, and is the most important situation to avoid.  
Teamwork and employee solidarity can help counterbalance bad management.  However, the
consequences of poor colleague cohesion are infighting and bickering, an unstable, hindered work flow,
stalled progress for most projects, suspicion, and a great deal of finger-pointing, just to name a few.  All
of this amounts to a toxic, unfriendly work environment. Employers can expect to see decreased
productivity, an increase in employee use of sick time, a high employee turnover rate (think of all that
time and money you lose in training and recruiting!), and in extreme cases, abuse of employee
privileges (think theft and general mismanagement).  Those who terminate their employment in favor of
jobs elsewhere are usually those with the greatest sense of teamwork and often those with the most
dedication and insight.  Below-average employees who have little energy invested in their workplaces
are usually the ones who will continue to work in such environments; those who remain are often the
causes and catalysts of the toxicity.   In other words, if positive employee relations are not nurtured, you’ll
be left with the dreck – the complainers, the slackers, the problem children.   This is what a new
applicant is in danger of inheriting.   

To make my point more clear, while writing this article I was contacted by several individuals who are in
the process of leaving their libraries or have already quit their library jobs due to unhealthy work
environments created by “employee tattle-telling and spying on one another,” “an unhappy boss who
likes to belittle her staff,” and “general decline of teamwork, employee depression and subsequent lack
of motivation.”   Each identified lack of action and failure to respond proactively on the part of
managers/directors in eliminating these problems as validation of their decisions to give notice.  I also
received two messages from library managers who, though noting their disappointing yearly salary,
planned careers at their current libraries because their work environments were “happy, fun,” “full of
motivated, flexible, people who enjoy working together,” or they had a “supportive and friendly boss.”

For those on the application circuit, it isn’t difficult to determine during your interview process if you’re
about to be hired into a scene from Dante’s Inferno.  I recommend paying attention to eye contact, body
language, and particularly interaction between directors/managers and staff.  If, by the end of your
interview, you’re still uncertain, be sure to ask the following question:  “Do you like your work
environment, do you like each other, and do you feel that you work well together as a team?”  Don’t
expect an honest answer, but watch with great attention how they respond.  

Your computers are out of date and your employees do not have sufficient resources to perform their
tasks.

While behind-the-times equipment isn’t a smoking gun per se, it is noteworthy, as it can indicate
resistance to or ignorance of new technology. It’s also indicative of budget constraints.  In conjunction
with other issues, poorly functioning equipment can make patrons hostile and a workplace unbearable,
especially if job requirements merit access to more advanced technology.  Furthermore, antiquated
machines will limit which databases and software can be utilized, can restrict patron access to needed
materials, and will consistently present security issues.  This translates into much troubleshooting,
diverting attention from actual job responsibilities.

You are the library’s director, but seemingly know nothing about how your library operates or what your
employees do.

There are many professionals who choose the laissez-faire approach to library management.  However,
directors that know little about their own library operations are incapable of properly evaluating
personnel.  Additionally, misunderstandings regarding the nature and scope of library work can result in
inappropriate demands being placed upon staff members.  Such managers/directors can be spotted via
their helpless glances at employees when asked basic questions about their libraries.

Your compensation and rate of promotion indicate a lack of respect for library professionals.

Salary range is usually the primary aspect of a job announcement that interests qualified candidates.  A
significantly insufficient offer or salary range usually means that the employees and the profession are
undervalued; this is especially true if an employer is unwilling to negotiate a substandard offer.1
Applicants should also ensure that opportunities for advancement accompany the position.

You offer little or no support to employees for professional development, or support is extended only to
upper management.

All employees should be offered opportunities for professional growth.  Libraries and library technology
are evolving at unprecedented rates.  As such, it is foolish to expect that all training be self-directed or to
assume that employees possess adequate personal time to master emerging innovations in the field.  
At very least, current library publications should be made available to employees, and staff should be
encouraged to seek out job-related information.  If inquiries regarding level of support for professional
development aren’t already on your list of questions for your potential employer, they should be, since
this can determine the course your career can take with a particular institution.

Conclusion

Again, it’s important to remember your own role as interviewer, even if you’re sitting in the “interviewee”
chair: ask questions, be inquisitive about the people, the institution, the holdings, current or future
projects, and so on.  While your own contributions to the workplace can inspire teamwork and a positive
atmosphere, the last thing you want to do is accept a position whose existing environment can only
make your professional life unpleasant and be potentially unhealthy.   

Note:

1. It should be noted that state libraries are currently in the throes of remarkable budget crises:  in such
times, compensation is not always the will of the library director, and therefore, it cannot be said that all
minimal offerings reflect disservice to the library professions.
About the Author:

Erin Barta has spent the past eight years as an “Everything Librarian,” working in Circulation, Interlibrary
Loans, Reference, and Cataloging.   She is currently Library Services Coordinator for a small academic
institution in California.  In her spare time, she studies kung fu and Filipino Kali, and works with animal
rescue organizations.

Article published December 2004

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