Career Strategies for Librarians
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Interview; or, What Not to Do
by Nancy Larrabee
I have spent the last fifteen years working in some capacity at a public library. As I gained experience, I
made my share of mistakes in interviews and witnessed many others making mistakes. Interviews can
make you painfully aware of your shortcomings. Simply getting an interview can be an all-consuming
process. Studies have shown that the results of an interview are mostly based on the subjective thought
process of the person doing the hiring. So why not just wing it? Sounds tempting, but I would advise
against it. I encourage you to learn from my observations of the interview process.
How should you start? Two books I have recently read may inspire you to action. In her book Fearless
Living, Rhonda Britten tells us that there is a difference between expectations and intentions. We expect
to get a job offer and a high salary; you go to the job interview giddy with expectation.
However, it is hard to keep your attitude upbeat when your phone does not ring after the prospective
employer said he would call. A fruitless job search can be turned in your favor when you change your
thinking to “I intend to have a good interview” or “I intend to do my research and pay attention to all the
You may also want to check out Debbie Ford’s latest book, The Best Year of Your Life: Live it, Plan It,
Dream It!. She makes a clear distinction between goals and dreams and ambitions. It’s ambitious to
declare “I’m going to get a new job in 2006!” or “It’s my dream to work there!” However great these
statements, they are very ambiguous. Turn them into goals by giving yourself a specific date by which to
accomplish them. When you put yourself on a timeline it gives you the motivation to find a job.
Without a first-rate resume, there will be no interview. Employers do not want to talk to you without your
resume in hand. Carefully read the advertisement and be positive that you have the qualifications the
library director or search committee is looking for in candidates. Have a friend read your resume or e-
mail it to yourself so you can see what a potential employer sees. Make the effort to address a cover
letter to the library director or the person in charge of personnel, calling them by name. You can often
find names in the American Library Directory (Information Today, 2005). Addressing a cover letter “To
Whom It May Concern” should be a last resort. Correct any typos in your resume, and be certain to
specify the dates of employment or of an internship. Make sure your contact information is clearly
Reliable information in a cover letter is just as important as it is on the resume. I recall reviewing one
cover letter that indicated the candidate was graduating from library school within the next three months
but his resume stated that he had already graduated.
When I look at cover letters, I am not impressed when an applicant chooses to emphasize activities from
five years ago unless they continue to the present day. Employers want to know what are you involved in
Do not wait to be asked to send your resume.
Do not have conflicting information on your resume and cover letter.
Once you have sent in your resume, following up with a brief phone call will make you stand out as a
candidate. An e-mail inquiry can easily be deleted whereas a phone call cannot be. You have to be an
active rather than reactive searcher in the current job market. Use the telephone to your advantage.
One useful tip that I learned along the way is to stand up while making an interview phone call, so that
you breathe properly and you feel intuitively that the call is important to you. Remember, take a deep
breath and strive to be articulate on the phone. Keep in mind that much of your time as a librarian in a
public library is spent on the phone. You want to impress upon a future employer that you do indeed
have the necessary phone skills.
Whether seeking an interview for a part-time or full-time position, do not bring up the salary question
while making an inquiry call.
Be determined during this stage of your search, or procrastination might get the best of you. You might
be tempted to say, “They must be at lunch right now.” Be a steadfast job searcher and pick up the phone
and talk to staff members. There is little staff turnover in public libraries, so do not wait for employers to
come to you.
Work to find the hidden opportunities!
Do not ask salary questions too soon.
Do not forget that every phone contact with potential employers is a part of the “interview.”
Do not limit your search to advertised positions.
Just like studying for an exam in library school, you need to prepare yourself before an interview. Learn
all you can about the particular library. Do your research in the local newspaper. Find and read articles
about the library staff, events, and other issues that could provide talking points during the interview.
Talking points are opportunities in the interview for you to show your potential employer you came
prepared. Check out the library’s website and explore career websites specific to librarians such as http:
//www.rileyguide.com or http://www.lisjobs.com for further assistance.
During one of my very first interviews, one of the questions asked was, “If you had to choose only five
resources for your reference collection, what would they be?” That was a tough question for a new
librarian. Admittedly, I now use that question when interviewing candidates. Take the time to practice
your answers to the basic interview questions. However, don’t memorize because that will impede the
natural flow of conversation. Take it from me – after I had asked an interviewer one of my planned
questions that I’d taken from an interviewing book, she exclaimed, “That must be the question of the
moment; our last candidate asked the same exact one!”
Finding references can be difficult, particularly if you do not have a lot of experience in the field. Ask the
people you plan to use as references before submitting their names to a perspective employer. Do not
let weeks go by before you say to the person, “By the way, Public Library X might be calling you.” As a
conscientious and detail-oriented job hunter, remember to supply your references with an updated copy
of your resume and to keep them informed of your job search progress.
Getting a Good Start
The interview starts when you arrive at the library. Your punctuality plays an essential role in the interview
process. Even if the interview is right down the street, plan to get there at least fifteen minutes ahead of
schedule. If you breeze in at the last minute, what will the employer think? Allow plenty of extra time for
unexpected traffic jams. An accurate set of directions is another key to your interview success. I once
went to an interview at a public library where I managed to find the correct street address – but in the
wrong town! If the location is relatively near, try to locate the library before the day of your interview so this
is not a worry.
It sounds like simple advice, but dress appropriately for the interview. Even if you are seeking a
promotion in the same library, make the effort to wear professional clothing. Bring any extra supplies
with you to help with clothing emergencies. What you have to say is most important, but it helps to be
dressed appropriately to show that you pay attention to the details.
When an interviewer approaches you, be demonstrative and seek to shake his hand first. My sister was
the one who taught me about the importance of a simple, firm handshake. This effort shows that you are
forthcoming and willing to take initiative. No one enjoys a “fishy” handshake!
Having done your research, you should already be familiar with the names of key staff members. Eye
contact can also make an impression on your interviewer and is essential when speaking and listening
During the interview, it is important to have something to say about yourself, but be careful not to
dominate the conversation. I suggest developing a brief synopsis of your career and education
highlights. A planned outline comes in handy at in-person interviews as well as telephone interviews. I
remember one unremarkable candidate who could not remember the year she graduated from library
Interviewing is harder if you are new and do not have a lot of experience in the field. You have to
emphasize qualities that may not be easily measured. Don’t make up things! Once I wanted a children’
s librarian position so much, I created and took pictures of various craft projects that I could potentially do
with children. This did not impress the library director once he found out that I had not done these
projects with children. Employers want to see what you have actually done. They will be the ones to
judge your potential.
As your interviewers ask questions, remember to take your time. Take a breath before answering.
Breathing helps you calm down and focus on what you want to say. Candidates tend to be so afraid of
silent pauses that they rush themselves. When a conversation is dotted with “umm,” the interviewer
starts to wonder, “What’s making her so nervous?” You might simply be anxious, but your interviewer is
waiting for a clear-cut answer to the question.
Be courteous when discussing past employers. You do not know who knows whom in a library system.
If things do not work out well at one library, you might be successful at another. Be civil when talking
about your relations with your old boss. Do not think that the interview is a private conversation!
Negative comments to an interviewer have been known to be repeated. Your off-putting comments
might ruin a potential opportunity for you.
Not Over Yet!
Make every effort to send out thank-you notes to each interviewer when you get home. After a long
interview, you might be tempted to be too familiar with each person on the committee and use his or her
first name in a thank-you note, as I did after a four-and-a-half hour interview. This, as I know now, was a
mistake; maintain that sense of formality until you have been hired. Make sure to spell the interviewers’
names correctly in a thank-you note.
At the interview, inquire about when a hiring decision will be made. If you haven’t heard from them in that
time frame, call them to see if the position has been filled. As a potential employee, keep the
conversation focused on their impending choice. One possible employer promised they would call after
a week; when I called back, the first person to pick up the phone told me that “the position had been filled
last week.” Employers have many details to attend to and sometimes may not get around to calling you
In the End
You are your own job search manager. If you discovered an employee was procrastinating, losing
paperwork, and constantly forgetting to make necessary phone calls, your immediate response would
be to fire that employee.
You are your most valuable resource. You are the one who is responsible for your actions. Seek to
learn from your mistakes and reach for the opportunities in each and every interview.
Britten, Rhonda. Fearless Living: Live without Excuses, and Love without Regret. Dutton, 2001.
Ford, Debbie. The Best Year of Your Life: Dream It, Plan It, Live It. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
About the Author:
Nancy Larrabee has worked as a librarian at the Greenburgh Public Library since 1993. She writes with
experience from both sides of the interview table.
Article published Apr 2006
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.