Career Strategies for Librarians
Libraries Have Cliques Too! Understanding Interpersonal Relationships in Libraries
by Michelle S. Millet

Often, when you are interviewing for a job, the librarians who work at your new, potential place of
employment put their best feet forward and play the part of a wonderful, collegial staff. The interpersonal
relationships between these co-workers can often be a key to how happy or miserable you will be in this
new job. Yet, how can you recognize honest collegiality and enthusiasm for the library from an interview
when everyone in the room can be faking it? Just like in every other workplace or social organization,
libraries too have cliques and you will have to decipher the signs and watch carefully during your often
long, grueling interview day to spot these. The following article outlines some clues to look out for when
surveying a potential employer and contains advice for those who are just looking to get along in their
current job.  

Collegiality in the Workplace

Obviously, not everyone will get always get along in any organization, including a library. Libraries are
often filled with introverts and extroverts, competing personalities, shy individuals, and alpha
personalities. What you truly need to ask yourself when interviewing for a position is, "Can I fit in with
these people and work with them?" Now, while you may not be in this position forever, it is best to
imagine if you could stand it for the long haul. So, as much as you should be interviewing the people to
find out important information about the town, the boss, and the job expectations, you also want to work
on your observation skills. Watch the people interact with each other. Is the person who will be your
supervisor domineering? If so, can you handle that or will your personalities clash? Do these people get
along with each other fairly well? Is there any obvious animosity between individuals? Is there a lot of
teasing going on? Joking around with work colleagues can often be the sign of a relaxed, casual
atmosphere. That may be a great thing, or you may prefer a more rigid, professional work environment.  

True collegiality is nothing more than a relationship between colleagues. You want to make sure that you
look for a work environment in which people have goals, accomplish them, and thrive together. If they all
get along, that is just an extra bonus! Ask questions like, "If I had an idea, how would I get it
accomplished?" or "What are the obstacles to getting things done?" In the search committee's answers,
specific people being mentioned as obstacles may be a warning sign that collegiality is missing in this
workplace. If the obstacles are purely bureaucratic, that's another thing to consider; however, your most
important allies in your library should always be your co-workers, so make sure this is a place where you
could build those relationships.  

Management and Collegiality

Another thing to look for is the collegiality between librarians and management. Do the people in
management positions (director, dean, assistant director) understand what the librarians do on a day-to-
day basis? This may seem like a trivial question, but a director who does not know what everyone does
in their organization may signal a serious disconnect. Does the director take part in some of those same
activities that librarians do (collection development, outreach, instruction)? If so, that can signal a director
who can be sympathetic to trials and tribulations you may have on the job, because they are in touch with
your job duties.  

Another reason to be aware of a manager's collegiality with the librarians who work for him or her is to
understand if the library is a house divided. You want to avoid, at all costs, working in an organization that
is divided between those who support and like a boss and those who do not. Things will be hard to
accomplish in this environment, which will often contain underlying animosity. The same can also be
said about a work environment that is two-sided; in libraries, this often means the public services
department versus the technical services folks. Ask some people point-blank how the two areas get
along. Do people in your prospective department even know those in the other? This is a key question to

Sometimes, however, you cannot control working in this atmosphere or sometimes a division occurs
after you are already working somewhere. If so, the best advice for the new librarian is to stay as neutral
as possible. It is not wise to be the low man on the totem pole and choose sides. Remember, you will
have to be working towards things like promotion or tenure and you do not want to create any tension
between yourself and others who may be part of that decision-making. Avoiding choosing sides is as
important as understanding that libraries also have cliques.

Cliques and Workplace Culture

Everyone has had experiences dealing with cliques. You had them in high school, you had them in
college and, yes, you have them at work. This does not automatically mean cliques are a bad thing.
Sometimes your clique could be you and three other people who were all hired at the same time.
Sometimes a clique exists, however, that could make working in a place a little bit harder for you. Most
often, in my experience, cliques exist among those with similar work habits who work well together. This
kind of group mentality in the workplace can be a positive force of energy. If there's a group of people that
always seem to get things done and like their jobs, by all means try to be a part of that group. The clique
you want to avoid at all costs is the group of people that like to complain. They may even be hard
workers, but a negative attitude at work will almost always produce negative results. You may not even
recognize it, but often someone who is unhappy and has a bad attitude can rub off on you.  

Cliques can also evolve based on the topic discussed above: those who are for the boss and those who
are against. Again, I would highly recommend avoiding these cliques if at all possible, whether you are
the new person or not. You need to be aware that every workplace, including libraries, has cliques; don’t
be naïve about the impact they may have on decisions, workflow, and happenings in your library. Aligning
yourself with the right or wrong people could have serious consequences on your job and even your
happiness outside of work.  


Remember, there are specific things that you can look for when you interview for a position that will help
you understand the workplace culture and make a decision about the job:

·       Do these people seem to genuinely get along?

·       Are there domineering personalities that you would find hard to work for or with?

·       Do you sense any tension between future colleagues?

·       What is the management style of your future boss?

If you are already in a position and struggling with the culture, here are some points to consider:

·       Stay as neutral as possible.

·       Get involved with others who have similar personalities, career goals, and work habits.

·       Be aware of organizational changes, like a new director, that could signal a shift in workplace

As librarians, we are constantly working on our interpersonal skills when it comes to networking with
librarians in other organizations or working with our own constituents, but we often forget to work on our
interpersonal skills in our own workplace. Every workplace has its own distinct culture. You, as a new
librarian or potential job candidate, need to learn to navigate the intricacies of different personalities,
cliques, and management styles. Understanding people and how they interact together will go a long
way towards your success in a position.

About the Author:

Michelle S. Millet is the Information Literacy Coordinator at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She
received her M.L.S from the University of South Florida in 2001 and an M.A. in History from Florida Atlantic
University in 2000.

Article published Feb 2004

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.