LIScareer.com
Career Strategies for Librarians
Networking Through Information Interviews : What Works
by Elisheba Muturi

As an aspiring librarian, I realized early on that talking to seasoned professionals was the key to
exploring what I wanted to do. I had librarianship experience in my native Kenya, but I needed to research
the North American labour market which is considerably different.  

I set out to carry out information interviews with as diverse a group of librarians as I could find – ranging
from a children’s librarian to an information specialist in a highly technical research institute. I would like
to share the lessons I learnt on effectively networking through information interviews. I will 1) define the
role of information interviews, 2) outline why and when they could be used 3) suggest tips for effective
interviews and 4) finally share specific examples of how what I learned impacted on my choices.  

What are information interviews?

“An information interview is an appointment that you schedule with a particular professional for the
purpose of obtaining current information from an insider point of view” (http://www.career.fsu.
edu/ccis/guides/infoint.html). Unlike employment interviews, information interviews can be arranged
regardless of whether a vacancy exists or not. Roles are reversed, in that you do the interviewing, rather
than being interviewed, as in a job-interviewing scenario. According to Twombly, 1997, “No information
or access through your computer or any published source will be ever as intimate or honest as an
interview with someone who’s already working in the field.”  

Why and when are they useful?

For researching:

a)     learn about the type of position you are interested in

b)     find out more about the institution to assess whether this would be a good fit for you. Knowing this
can help you tailor your qualifications towards their requirements

c)      obtain valuable information for job hunting and career planning – such as feedback on your
resume, skills and experience

For networking: Beyond gathering useful information, information interviews provide an excellent
opportunity to

a)     meet and make a favourable impression on someone who may have the power to hire you in future.
Expanding your circle of contacts is invaluable, since ultimately it is who you know that counts

b)     gain visibility in the library professional community and demonstrate commitment to your career and
development

When job searching:  An information interview at an institution that may not be hiring at the time,

a)     provides an opportunity to obtain “inside tips” on what is needed to increase the chances of getting
a job interview

b)     takes off the pressure of being interviewed as a job candidate, and yet allows interaction with a
possible employer, giving you  confidence and preparing you for “real” interviews. The potential employer
also feels relieved to know that you are not asking for a job, and may readily share useful “inside tips”

c)      ensures an advantage over anyone else who may have only sent in a resume, should a position
later arise

Tips for effective information interviews
(adapted from Tips for Successful Information Interviewing by Diana Twombly, 1997, p. 78)

1) Formulate a clear, specific goal for your information interviewing. Mine was: “To network with at least
15 librarians, especially in non-traditional positions, in order to (a)  explore possible roles for myself, in
the long term, and (b) learn from their experiences, on how to gain the most of my MLIS, in the short-
term.”  

2) Research well first, planning on which particular individuals or institutions to contact, based on your
goals. How do you find these contacts? A good starting point is the local library association, since they
actively promote mentoring and networking (Lee, 2003). Remember that librarianship by its very nature
encourages information sharing, and most professionals you approach will want to be helpful in this
regard. I researched different websites of associations and directories of libraries, to find a
representation of the libraries I wanted to contact in British Columbia, Canada, as well as in the US.

On http://moon.bcpl.gov.bc.ca/focus/ the BC Library Association (BCLA) has an exhaustive directory of BC
libraries, detailing type and size of the library, and contact names.

As I was interested in African studies area librarianship, I researched institutions with significant
Africana collections on the Stanford University website. http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/ssrg/africa/libs.
htm

Canadian library index is fairly comprehensive by geographic region and  type. http://www.libdex.
com/country/Canada-British_Columbia.html
If, like me, you have already applied to a library school, build rapport with the admissions coordinator,
and ask for contacts.

Information interviewees - always ask them, to refer you to someone else you could talk to. Of course,
dropping a name, is  powerful when you want to initiate contact, but do not be intimidated if you do not
have direct referrals. I found that most people that I contacted cold (without referral) were very helpful.
In deciding whom to talk to, have a good representation of not only different types of libraries (public,
academic, corporate/special, non-profit etc.), but also roles (reference, technical etc.) and levels of
experience (new graduates, seasoned professionals etc). I was amazed at the diversity of responses
from librarians in different sectors.

3) Contact possible interviewers well ahead of the time you would like to meet with them, in order to
make a workable schedule. If you work an inflexible 9-5 schedule like I do, it might be a good idea to take
some time off for this exercise. My planning allowed me to conduct an information interview on each of
my nine days of vacation, since I contacted them well ahead of time, and suggested a number of times
when I was available. What worked well for me was preparing a brief but fairly detailed e-mail message
in a professional tone, mentioning where I got their name, introducing myself and explaining my
interests and objectives. I concluded by suggesting a meeting time, and mentioning that I would follow
up with a phone call in a few days. This is important because by not leaving the onus of response to
them, you have the leeway to follow up. Making a telephone call works just as well, except that it is often
difficult to connect with an actual person, which is preferable to leaving a voice-mail message. In
addition, with e-mail you need not worry about whether you are calling at a good time, since they will
respond at their convenience – usually fairly promptly. Remember to suggest the option of a telephone
interview if they are busy, although meeting them in person is more desirable. One of my most useful
information interviews, however, was by telephone.

4) Prepare thoroughly. Have a list of questions that address your interests and concerns, carefully
tailored to each interview. Use open-ended questions to generate a discussion rather than one-word
responses. Research the organization beforehand, to ensure that you have some background and can
talk knowledgably about their basic functions or services, and on the basis of this, proceed to ask for
specifics. As in a job interview situation, you would like to make a favourable impression by
demonstrating an interest in the organization and/or position of your interviewee. Avoid asking for routine
information which is readily available elsewhere, to optimize the use of your time as well as your
interviewee’s.

5) Framework for the questions:

The basic formula from which further questions can be derived can be summarized as follows (adapted
from Bolles, 2002):  

HOW (How did you get into this field/your position? How do people find out about positions in this
organization?)

WHAT (What is the labour market currently like, what are the prospects for new entrants? What trends do
you see in the industry in the next 3-5 years?)

PLUS (What do you find rewarding about the field/your position?)

MINUS (What are the toughest problems you deal with? What would you like to see change?)

GENERAL ADVICE (How well suited is my background for this field? What skills  provide an edge –
which electives can provide these? What experience, paid or volunteer, would you recommend? What
professional involvement/journals have you found useful?

HOP (Two referrals)

Other questions that might elicit interesting and insightful responses are 1) If you were to make your
career choice today would you make the same one? 2) What advice do you have for a new entrant into
the profession 3) Would you critique my resume and suggest improvements.  Remember that giving the
interviewee an opportunity to talk about themselves, will usually elicit positive and enlightening
responses.

6) Etiquette

·          Dress professionally – as you would for an employment interview.

·          Be on time – not earlier than 10 minutes.

·          Begin by thanking the interviewer for taking the time to meet with you.

·          Advise the interviewee of the agenda and time frame and respect the time allotted. Ideally, do not
exceed 30 minutes unless they wish to proceed or offer to show you around. For me, the most productive
information interviews were those in which a tour was included, but this may not always be possible.

·          Remember to ask for referral to other contacts. Since they may not have the names/contact details
handy, be sure to leave them with your business card so that they send this information to you later.

·          Always follow up with a thank-you note letting the person you interviewed know specifically in what
ways they were helpful. One gracious contact I talked to, wrote thanking me for the note, which she said
was “eloquent” and had “made her day.” You want to leave a lasting positive impression, constantly
remembering that the library world is very small, and you do not know when your paths might cross
again.

·          Remember to keep the information that you receive in perspective because the librarians that you
are talking to are expressing their biased viewpoints, depending on their sector and personal
experience. You may therefore need to filter the information in deciding what applies to you. I had the
interesting experience of getting conflicting responses to the same question, and so I had to decide
which one to believe. On a positive note, you appreciate that your interviewees are sharing their candid
opinions in good faith.

Benefits that I gained
As a result of my interviewing, I picked up the following lessons, which were of tremendous benefit:

1)     As a result of a discussion with a dynamic public librarian, I analyzed my interests and past
experience. As I have a masters in development studies, a good knowledge of French, and keen interest
in international studies, I realized that I could target departments of international studies as well as
international organizations. Also, my native knowledge of Swahili and publishing experience in an African
country provide the perfect background for specialization as an African area studies bibliographer.
Talking to this librarian opened my eyes to many possibilities that I was not consciously considering.

2)     One enthusiastic librarian explained how she had gained invaluable experience as a result of co-
op* study and she encouraged me to consider this option. Needless to say, as a result of this most
fruitful exercise, I made a decision to follow the co-op route, and I am now in the process of contacting
possible hosts in my areas of interest.

3)     I was interested in academic librarianship, but worried about a weak subject background. I was
reassured after talking to one librarian who had majored in French and worked in a business library in
an accounting firm before her current position as an information specialist in the highly technical field of
Fuel Cell research. From her I learned that subject background did not have to be the sole determinant
of what I could reach for, as long as I had the determination to learn and believed in myself.

Whatever your purpose for conducting them, information interviews enable you familiarize yourself with
potential employers, hone your interview skills, gain valuable feedback on your resume, and most
importantly, “demonstrate assertive job searching behaviours by selecting, scheduling, participating in,
and following through, interview appointments.” (Twombly, 1997)

Note:

*Co-op study in Canada involves studying and working alternately – gaining paid work experience in a
professional capacity for two four-month periods, or a continuous eight month duration in the course of
the MLIS. This provides much more significant work experience than a practicum which is often about 2
weeks. A considerable number of institutions and federal government departments take on co-op
students, but the arrangement is usually between the institution and Library School rather than the
student directly.

References
Bolles, Richard. What Colour Is Your Parachute. Berkeley, Ten Speed Press, 2002
http://www.career.fsu.edu/ccis/guides/infoint.html
Lee, Suzan. "Internships or Practicums -- Does It Matter?"  (LIScareer, May 2003)

Twombly, Diana. Getting Back to Work. Toronto: Macmillan, 1997.
About the Author:

Elisheba Muturi currently works as an administrator, providing information and referral services at a
community program in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Prior to this, she worked in the publishing industry and
for Library of Congress field office in Nairobi, Kenya. She has a Masters in Development Studies,
University of Bristol, England. She will be joining UBC School of Library and Information Studies in Fall
2004 and is keenly interested in Africana and development studies.

Article published March 2004

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