Career Strategies for Librarians
Moving from Public Services to Systems: Interview Strategies
by Jon Forest
Last year, I applied for a systems librarian position after spending the first part of my library career
working in reference and circulation. I had previous experience providing technical support for Internet
services, but nothing quite like this position, in which I would serve as administrator for three statewide
systems. I found myself wondering how someone with a public services background can break into
administration and support of an integrated library system (ILS) when it can be difficult to gain relevant
While preparing for the job interview, I found plenty of good information on various aspects of systems
work. I read several articles and book chapters on hiring technical staff written from a manager's
perspective; these usually covered the challenges of filling positions with library staff who don't have a
strong technical background or with computer experts who don't have a library background. However, I
found relatively little written for job applicants looking to jump from public services to systems. I was
looking specifically for something intended to help guide the applicant through the interview process.
Because I did not find anything addressing that need, I decided to keep notes in order to write my own
article . I hope my experience might help others who find themselves in a similar situation.
Start with a literature review.
The best and most direct advice I found on interviewing tips for this situation was in The Accidental
Systems Librarian by Rachel Singer Gordon; anyone looking to move into library systems work should
start with this book. I also recommend these two articles:
"Ping, Touch, Head, Tail: Or, How to Become a Systems Librarian" by Joe Tarrant. He points out that
"library systems work is heavily about people" and includes "five required qualities to make a good
"On Being a Systems Librarian" by Eric Lease Morgan. Some of the specific technologies are dated, but
he shares valuable advice on how to break into the field as well as this interesting perspective: "Systems
librarianship is like a midwife for the profession enabling our clientele to 'give birth' to new ideas through
the use of ... electronic data and information."
Decide on your story, then tell it.
The most interesting piece of advice I found while preparing for this interview was from a Wall Street
Journal article called "How to Answer Any Interview Question." Author Perri Capell says this can be done
"by preparing and knowing how to direct the conversation to the topics you want to cover." She
recommends choosing several personal qualities you want to convey and preparing a set of anecdotes
that demonstrate these traits. Answer the specific interview questions, but take control of the situation by
steering the conversation back to the examples of your strengths. This is your opportunity to tell the story
of your professional life and explain how your unique qualifications can benefit the organization. John
Glover's recent LIScareer.com article "Telling Stories to Get the Job" discusses this technique in the
Do your homework.
In reference work, you have to know how to find out anything about anything. If you can do simple
research, you can figure out what it takes to keep systems running. Take this opportunity to put your
research skills to work. Find out as much as you can about the organization to which you are applying
and the systems they use. Look at the web sites of the vendors who make the systems and read
through all the public documentation available. Many vendors consider their training materials
proprietary, but you will probably be able to find user-group forums or mailing lists where you can learn
about current, real-life issues that other information professionals are having with these products.
Emphasize your ability to learn new systems quickly.
This was key for me. Talk about your experience working with a wide variety of software and how long
you have been doing it. Discuss how you go about learning new applications and systems. For me that
usually means exploring all the menus, clicking around to see what does what, reading whatever official
documentation there is in the software and online, reading user- group forums or mailing lists, and
speaking with colleagues who have been using the system longer than I have. If you have worked with a
different ILS in previous positions, talk about the similarities and differences to the system you would be
using in the new job. It is easy to interview if you can say that you have done exactly the same type of
work in another position. However, when you are trying to break into systems work, it becomes very
important to convince the hiring committee that you are capable of learning their software, and fast.
Be prepared to talk about stuff you've never done before.
In my interview, they asked me to talk about three things that I had no experience doing: administering an
ILS, creating statistical reports, and manipulating MARC records. It helps to keep in mind that job
announcements are written to attract someone with an "ideal" set of qualifications, but that person may
not exist among the real applicants. Point out that whoever accepts the position will have a lot of
learning to do to get up to speed with the particulars of this library's systems. Again, this is a good time
to talk about how you learn. Even if you have not performed a task firsthand, think about ways you have
encountered that situation (or the results of that task) from a staff or patron perspective. What might you
do differently or the same? Your experience as an end user is relevant and can provide insight.
Emphasize your ability to work well with people and machines.
This advice from one of my library school classmates, Bill Kelm (Systems Librarian, Willamette
University Library), sums it up best: "When I interviewed, I went with the notion that I could play both the
people side and the systems side. I did not want to program all day and still don't want to, because I
really enjoy working with the staff to make their jobs more effective. I used a sports metaphor that I could
play center field, where left field was programmers and right field was working well with people."
Be ready to talk about the future.
Don't just think about where you see yourself in five years, but where the field of librarianship is going
and how we will use information technology to get there. The interviewers may or may not know much
about emerging technologies, but they certainly expect you to. Be prepared to talk about how online tools
can be used to improve access to library resources. Mention specific technologies (for example, blogs,
instant messaging, RSS, tagging, user-generated content, wikis) and talk about whatever experience
you have applying them to your previous work. The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County
has published a list of "23 Learning 2.0 Things" that provide a good place to start if you need inspiration.
Come with specific suggestions on improving the system.
Take time to explore the resources that you will be working with Where is there room for improvement, to
better "save the time of the reader"? If possible, talk with users and/or library staff to find out what they
would like to change. I was fortunate to have worked for nearly a year as a patron and staff member with
all the tools I am now maintaining, so I knew their strengths and weaknesses. Even if you have not
worked or studied at the library at which you interview, spend some time looking critically at the systems
you will be running. Come up with at least two specific recommendations for things that could be done
better. The hiring committee might not agree with the suggestions, but at least it shows you have done
your homework and can bring fresh perspectives to find new solutions.
Ask probing questions.
This is your one and only opportunity to find out as much as you possibly can about the place where you
could be spending forty hours a week more or less indefinitely. Many articles I read mentioned the 80/20
rule, where the interviewee is expected to do 80% of the talking. This is your chance to get the people
across the table to open up for their 20% and tell you about the unique work environment they inhabit.
What will be the top priorities of the person who fills this position?
What would the person in this position be doing on the first day, and on a typical day?
What projects have been waiting for this position to be filled, and what projects are planned for the next
What will the training process be like?
Where does this position fit into the library's organizational structure, and with whom will this person be
working most closely?
Are there regular performance reviews and evaluations?
What is the budget situation of the library in general, and of information technology in particular?
Where will the library and its systems be in five years?
Is there anything else I should know, or any other questions you would ask if you were in my place?
Are there any weaknesses in my answers that I could address or points I could clear up?
When I have asked that last question in several interviews it usually surprises the panel, but I feel it
shows a forthrightness and willingness to address any weaknesses, which is important in systems
work. This could be your final chance to clear up any misunderstandings or add information about
specific topics the interviewers might want to return to.
Write down all the questions you want to ask. Make a list of specific accomplishments, qualifications, or
skills you want to be sure to mention. Actually put down in writing the attitudes, emotions, and particular
phrases you would like to express. These might be: enthusiasm, excitement about the position, vision
for innovation, or interest in libraries as a systems environment. Having notes in front of you will make it
easier to stay focused on the story of yourself you want to present and to remember what it was about
this position that attracted your attention in the first place.
Cultivate your references.
Make sure those people you listed in your application or cover letter (perhaps weeks or months ago)
know about the interview so they may expect a call. This is a good time to reinforce old connections with
former supervisors and strengthen networks. Fill them in on why you think you are a particularly good
match for this position. These are the people who will help you get the job; it's only fair that you prepare
them for the task.
When you're done, relax.
My initial reaction after my interview was that I did not do well. I lacked direct experience with some key
areas they asked about. I did not have the same feeling of confidence and of things "just clicking" that I
have had after other successful job interviews. In short, I was pretty sure I did not get the job. But
throughout the interview, I emphasized my ability to learn new systems quickly and to communicate well
with people who lack a great deal of computer knowledge. These two factors were key to my landing the
job. My success in moving from public services to systems goes to show that interview preparation can
About the Author:
Jon Forest is Library Automation Manager for Maine InfoNet, a joint project of the Maine State Library and
the University of Maine System. This job involves managing three statewide systems and providing
support to over 100 libraries. He previously worked as Reference Librarian at Bangor Public Library, and
also worked in a variety of positions at Timberland Regional Library in Tumwater, Washington.
Article published Oct 2007
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.