Career Strategies for Librarians
Interviews: Asking the Right Questions
by Helen Kwaka
You’ve answered the final question in your interview. You have survived! You’re feeling confident about
the answers you have given and you’ve included plenty of relevant examples. Portfolio in hand, you’re
ready to thank the members of the panel for their time and the opportunity, when the panel chair asks:
“Do you have any questions for us, or anything you would like to share with the panel?”
You answer, “No, I don’t have any questions.”
It is not all one-sided as you may think. You demonstrate your knowledge and skills through answering
their questions. By taking an active part in the interview process and asking -- as well as answering --
questions, you can set yourself apart.
Interviews are barriers
Interviews are barriers to fantastic jobs we all wish we had. They can be very formal affairs. A common
interview scenario is a large round table, three people on one side, you in one uncomfortable chair on
the opposite side to panel. A jug of water is placed in the middle of the table, with one full glass of water
in front of you. Each member of the panel takes it in turn to ask a question (if you are unlucky it is a long
multi-part question), which you, as the interviewee, then attempt to answer. Makes me get goose bumps
just describing the situation!
Having experienced both sides, I’ll let you in on a secret - the interview panel wants you to ask them
questions! They are genuinely interested in what you ask them about their library and organisation –
and want to engage and converse with you openly and honestly. The panel knows that the prepared
questions will elicit predictable answers. Apart from providing them with information that they want to
hear, you need to reveal your personality, knowledge, skills, and your ability to communicate
Panel members in interviews erect an invisible barrier to present a professional image to the
candidates. As the interviewee, you need to remove that invisible barrier by asking questions – and not
just at the end when you are asked! As an interviewer, once you do begin to ask questions and
conversing with panel members the interview itself becomes easier and more relaxed for everyone
involved. It will assist you in developing a rapport that sets you apart from other candidates – giving you
Do you really want the job? Then ask questions!
The panel, based on your application, already knows that you can perform the duties of the position.
You have applied, answered all the questions asked of you, and demonstrated you have the skills and
abilities. The question the panel will ask itself is – are we satisfied that you have a complete
understanding of the position – or in other words do you understand what you are letting yourself in for?
Do you have the confidence to perform the duties? Will you ask questions on the job? If you haven’t
asked any questions either throughout or at the conclusion of the interview, it makes it more difficult for
the panel to assess your interest, skill and understanding.
As the interviewee you can help direct the path the interview takes by asking questions throughout – and
not just when you are asked. These questions may be clarifying a point, or restating the question back
to the interviewees to ensure that you understood the initial question they asked.
What questions should I ask?
Prior to being interviewed, I always asked my supervisors and colleagues that very same question.
Their advice to me was simple - think about what you want to know about the library, its operation,
staffing and where the position you are being interviewed for fits within the organisational structure.
However, you can’t write questions if you don’t know anything about the position or the library. In other
words, do your research before the interview – you are a librarian, after all!
The type of research you do prior to the interview depends on the type of library you want to work in. You
· Visit the library. Walk around the library look at the different collections (this may not be possible
for a small, specialised library):
§ How are users accessing the resources?
§ What is the user profile?
§ Sit down with a newspaper near the circulation/information desk and observe the interaction
between staff members. This will help you get a feel for the priorities of customer service, and the
§ Listen to how the staff communicates with the customer.
· Log on to the library’s web site (cross fingers that they have one). Here you will find all you need to
know about their vision and the services available to the community and their electronic services.
· When you are invited to interview, ask who will be on the interview panel.
· Search the internet for information about the library and members of the interview panel – have they
written reports or articles that are available?
· Read library reports. Are there written reports about the library?
· Read the local newspaper. You may find articles about the library and advertised events.
· Talk and e-mail people you know who are in the same library sector. They may know someone
who knows something about the library, the way it operates and the staff. Insider information can assist
you to determine if you really want to work in that environment.
· Read the job description thoroughly and highlight any points about which you want more
· Analyse the skills required for the position – which of these do you possess and in what areas do
you need development? Is this experience going to broaden your abilities and provide you with the
opportunity to extend?
· Think about the qualities are you looking for in an employer. From your observations,
conversations with others and experience – does this organisation fit what you are looking for?
I’ve done the research… how do I write the questions?
It’ll be easy if you follow a few simple rules:
Ask open-ended questions. This will enable further conversation and discussion between the panel
Don’t make the questions too complex
Don’t ask questions if you already know the answers
Don’t be critical about the organisation in your questions
Don’t ask questions that are irrelevant to the position
Ask realistic questions!
Don’t ask about the salary, or any benefits (such as lunch breaks or if you have a desk!). It is likely they
will cover this information toward the end of the interview.
Practice makes perfect!
Knowing the questions you want answered is the first step – hearing yourself ask them is the next.
Practice asking questions with someone you know, or make a recording. This presents you with an
opportunity to hear what you sound like, your voice tone and its inflections. How do your questions sound
to a listener? Be courageous and ask a friend.
Can I take written questions in?
Yes – interviews can be nerve wracking! By end of the interview you can have easily forgotten all those
well thought-out questions that you left in your car. As an interviewer, I don't mind if people take notes
into an interview – it doesn’t make them look less confident. Having prepared questions demonstrates
that you are organised, and have done your research and given thought about the position and
organisation. Remember the smoothest talkers with the best-looking application are not necessarily the
best candidate for the position. For some candidates, their notes provide security. They are there in
case they forget. I would rather see an interviewee hanging on to their notes rather than their portfolio
that they never showed you throughout the interview.
Yes, asking questions does take confidence!
Asking relevant and direct questions in an interview does take self-assurance – and practice. Your
future employers need to know that you are an active participant in the interview process who possesses
self-confidence, initiative and the skills and abilities that their organization needs. Do your research,
write the questions and practice! What have you got to lose?
Lastly, some questions to make you think…
Here are a few questions that I put together. You’ve probably seen, heard, and asked some of these
yourself before. Remember the questions you ask should relate to the position you are being
interviewed – think carefully about their relevance and what you want to know before asking them.
1. What are the most challenging aspects of this position?
2. What are the resources available to this position to meet its objectives?
3. What are the hurdles faced by the person in this position to achieve success?
4. How many staff does this position manage?
5. Who does this position directly report to?
6. Can you explain the relationship of this position to the other team leaders with the library?
7. What is the experience of the library team members that this position supervises?
8. What are the day-to-day responsibilities of the position?
9. What is the organisation’s policy about professional development?
10. What format does performance appraisal take within the organisation?
11. How often are performance appraisals conducted?
12. What are the possibilities of gaining experience at higher levels within the organisation?
13. What are the current challenges faced by the team?
14. Can you describe for me the responsibilities of the position?
15. What type of support from other staff or team leaders does this position receive?
16. What freedom do I have in determining my own project goals?
17. What are the current project goals that this position needs to meet?
18. Who is this position accountable to?
19. What are the more difficult problems faced by the person in this position?
20. Could you tell me more about the staff that make up the team that this position will be
21. What are the three top priorities of this position that need to be achieved?
22. As a manager how will you provide support for me as a new employee?
23. What are the goals for this library in the next five years?
24. What have been some achievements of this role in the past?
25. What inspires you about working in libraries?
26. What are the strengths of the organisation?
27. What do you see the role of technology in the library?
28. What is your management style?
29. How do you categorise the management philosophy of the organisation?
30. In the past year, what has been the libraries’ biggest success?
31. How does the community perceive the library and its services?
32. What are the usage statistics like?
33. What perception does the Council (or whoever is the funding body that is responsible for the
Library Service) have about the library?
34. What is the common quality that a successful employee possesses within the organisation?
35. Can you describe for me the types of people that are successful within the library
36. How long have you been with the organization as manager/team leader?
37. What initiatives are programmed for the next year?
38. What do you enjoy most about coming to work? (it is unusual but believe it or not this was
asked of me in an interview)
39. What has been your most rewarding project?
40. How did this position become available?
41. How do the staff work together?
42. What is the longest time that an employee has been with the library?
43. How do you feel this library compares to other libraries within the industry?
44. What type of support does the library receive from Human Resources when dealing with
45. What do you see the role of <insert name of type of service> in the library?
46. What will be the format for the training for this position?
47. What is involved in the induction process?
48. How long is the probationary period?
49. How much of the budget allocation goes to <insert name of service you wish to know about>?
50. What is the dress code for the staff working in the library?
51. Who are the three main stakeholders that this position deals with, and what are their roles?
52. Are there any significant changes that are planned for the library service within the next two
53. What are the most important tasks this position undertakes?
54. How does the library management team make decisions?
55. How does the management team work together?
56. What involvement do other levels of staff within the library have in the decision making
57. Can you provide me with more information about the library staff culture?
58. What questions do you have about my abilities to perform the job? (Can’t remember where I
read this – although I’ve never had the courage to ask it!)
59. When can I expect to hear from you?
About the Author:
Helen Kwaka is a librarian – Client Services at the City Of Tea Tree Gully Library, in South Australia.
Previously she did quite a few bad interviews – until recently. Loves bright colours, lighthouses,
combining travel with visiting libraries around the world to expand her library bag collection, and would
like to visit Easter Island.
Article published June 2004
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