Career Strategies for Librarians
Telling Stories to Get the Job
by John Glover
Preparing for a job interview is no cakewalk, especially if you're fresh out of library school and don't have
any interviewing experience. There are a hundred different things to be done as you prepare for your
interview, from studying the library's web site to shining your interview shoes to brushing up on current
library trends to arranging the time off from work or school. With all that activity it's easy to spend all of
your prep time on the details without considering the big question: how can you best present yourself so
that the hiring committee will offer you the job?
Many activities can help you prepare for the interview. Reading sample interview questions online or in
LIS career handbooks exposes you to actual questions that have been asked of candidates. Studying
the job posting can provide valuable clues about the library's interests. At the interview, however, you
have to impress committee members and make them remember you.
If you've been invited to interview, the committee considers you a possible future colleague and wants to
see the best you have to offer. They might be working with you for years or even decades, so they want to
know that you're both a competent professional and the kind of person they can talk to at the water
cooler. You are competing with other candidates to show how your interests, experiences, and abilities
meet the library's needs, and you have to hold your interviewers' attention while doing so. One way to
meet these challenges is by learning to tell stories about yourself.
A method sometimes taught to prepare job seekers for interviews is the STAR method. STAR is an
acronym standing for "Situation," "Task," "Action," and "Result." This method is designed to help
interviewees cope effectively with behavioral or open-ended questions, but can apply to many situations.
Situation: a situation in your past that had a successful resolution
Task: the task(s) necessary to bring about that resolution
Action: the action(s) you took while performing that task
Result: the outcome of your action, and how it contributed to the resolution
I didn't use this method early in the hunt for my first job because it felt too generic, and I couldn't see how
it meshed with the kind of interview questions I'd seen. When a kind colleague suggested using stories
to help show interviewers "the real me," I fell back on the STAR method—and my interviews improved
significantly. Interviewers displayed greater interest in what I said, asked follow-up questions that let me
talk more effectively about my experience, and many of them found something in my stories they could
latch onto and use to start conversation when we spoke later during the course of the interview.
How do you create a STAR story? Look at your resume and think about exciting or challenging
experiences you had while in a job or class. Go through lists of questions asked in library interviews and
think about past experiences you could use as examples in your answers. Don't limit yourself to
experiences that happened on the job, especially if you haven't held a professional position yet—
consider experiences from volunteering, student organizations, practicums, and so on.
Now that you've chosen a few experiences from your past and considered how they fit the STAR pattern,
when do you use them? Many interview questions practically demand a STAR answer. These start with
something like "tell us about a time when..." or "give us an example of a situation where...." These are
examples of what are often referred to as behavioral questions. They are designed to tell interviewers
how you are likely to act in the kinds of situations you might encounter in the job for which you're
interviewing, and to provide some insight into your psychology.
Behavioral questions can also include inquiries about your inclinations in general types of situations or
hypothetical questions ("You are sitting at the reference desk and an angry patron approaches; what do
you do?"). Unless you are good at improvising, it can be difficult to answer these questions well without
solid preparation, both highlighting your own strengths and matching them to the institution's concerns.
If you've prepared stories in advance using the STAR method, all you have to do is figure out which story
to plug into the question.
The stories you bring to the interview don't have to be reserved for obvious behavioral questions.
Sometimes you will be asked very general or ambiguous questions ("Discuss your experience with
government documents"), and having a story ready can help provide focus for a question that could
otherwise leave you floundering. There may be other less formal situations where it might be
appropriate to use a story, such as an interview lunch or dinner. A well-placed story can serve as a
reminder of the value you can bring to an institution while also helping you to keep up your end of the
conversation when you're dealing with interview fatigue.
The inevitable question about your weaknesses or failures is particularly well suited to the STAR
method. These questions can be both stressful and awkward to answer, but don't fall back on the
overused "I'm a perfectionist" or "I work too hard” unless that’s truly accurate. If you take a hard look at
one of your failures and figure out what went wrong, you can tell a captivating story about something
imploding and describe what you would do differently next time.
Sometimes, of course, a story is not the answer. Explicitly hypothetical behavioral questions may not be
the right time for a personal story. If an interviewer asks how you'd go about preparing your lunch if you
walked into the kitchen and found the sink had vanished and been replaced by a purple ox, she wants a
specific, improvised response.
Stories from the (Imaginary) Trenches
The following examples illustrate different types of questions and experiences you can draw on for
interviews at various types of libraries. None of them precisely match the question so that you can get an
idea of how to match a similar-but-not-exactly-right situation. If you’re asked what you’d do if a lost child
shows up at the reference desk, and you’ve been on a reference desk when a lost child showed up,
that's probably the best story to use.
Public library. "How would you handle a censorship challenge as a children's librarian?" This may not be
a situation you've handled, but you've definitely thought about it. You've read ALA’s Library Bill of Rights,
considered the censorship vs. selection debate, and think you have the theory down. What sort of
experience would you want to relate here? You could respond with a story showing that you can handle a
potentially irate person, defend a policy, and provide guidance to patrons if they wish to complain further.
What about the time the editor for the magazine you worked at wanted to pull an article on abortion due to
a few readers’ complaints and you had to justify running it?
When you worked retail back in high school, what did you say when a customer complained that it was
unethical for your store to sell sweatshop clothing?
Academic library. "What qualities do you think make you successful as a reference librarian?" While you
could just list your best traits, why not describe a situation where you displayed those characteristics?
Again, you don't have to have been a professional reference librarian to have experience with the relevant
skills. The interviewers want to hear about your ability to determine patrons’ needs, to make them feel
welcome and encouraged during the transaction, and to provide satisfactory information.
How about those volunteer hours at your community hospital’s information desk, dispensing all sorts of
information to patients, staff, and doctors?
What about all the hours you've spent as a social worker, trying to get straight answers out of difficult
clients in order to give them the information they most need?
Special library. "Our CEO tells you Monday at 4pm that she's leaving for China the following night, and
she needs seventeen different items... by noon... that we don't own. What do you do?" It’s likely you haven’
t been in this position, so you have to find an analogous situation. They want evidence that you've
handled a difficult task for an important patron, under time pressure, and that you delivered a successful
Remember that huge group project where one member flaked out two nights before it was due, and the
rest of you stayed up 36 hours straight to finish it?
How about that committee where your co-chair got appendicitis and you alone had to assemble and
present the committee's findings to the university librarian?
Pitfalls, Booby Traps, and Landmines
The fast interview. Some interviews are lengthy, multi-day affairs where an institution wants to get to
know you and assess your character. Some interviews last half an hour, and sometimes a phone
interview will be over in ten minutes. Take your cues from the interviewer, being mindful that he may have
to collect answers to a preset list of questions, and you may not know how long that list is until he's
gotten through it. If the interviewer seems to want to press on, follow his lead.
Stories not wanted. Instead of behavioral questions, some interviews consist entirely of traditional
questions, ranging from a list of your three favorite reference sources to a description of your average
workday. While you don't necessarily want to be brief in answering these questions, it may not be a good
idea to answer with a lengthy story. Again, follow the interviewer’s lead.
Bad stories. While this may seem obvious, don't tell a bad story. If a story does not conform, more or
less, to the STAR method, ask yourself whether it effectively demonstrates your abilities as a librarian.
This is one of the reasons why it's a good idea to plan stories in advance, rather than trying to improvise
them on the fly without having reflected on their suitability for a job interview.
Really bad stories. Be careful what you say about your current or former colleagues. How does the story
you're thinking of reflect on your former institution(s)? You don't have to paint a bad experience as a bed
of roses, but at the same time you want to be careful not to identify anyone who plays a negative role in
your story, either explicitly or by an unmistakable description.
The Perfect Story
Once you've selected your stories, decided when to use them, and know when not to use them, it's time
to polish them. Fiction writers often refer to the last stage of editing a work as "polishing"—the moment
when everything important is finally in place and it's time to sand off the rough edges. This applies to
your stories as well. What parts are going to be most interesting to a search committee?
Practice your stories as if you were going to be giving a speech, and then find someone to listen to them.
It can be a colleague, an adviser, a fellow student, or even your golden retriever. If all else fails, practice
in the mirror! Interviewing can be a tough job in itself, and anything you can do to make the interview go
more smoothly is worth it. A well-told story will give the hiring committee something to remember you by,
a possible opening for future conversations, and it will give you a great opportunity to connect your
interests, experiences, and abilities to the needs of the library.
About the Author:
John Glover is the Reference Librarian for the Humanities at Virginia Commonwealth University. He
graduated from the Information School at the University of Washington in June 2005. He enjoys telling
stories, both for fun and for profit.
Article published June 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.