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Career Strategies for Librarians
What to Ask Your Interviewer
by Will Olmstadt

Have you ever come home from an interview and had a nagging feeling that you didn’t ask something
critical about a position?  Most librarians hunt for jobs with a few questions in mind, many of which may
be answered during the process of interviewing.  What a lot of newer librarians may not realize is that an
interview is not only a chance for employers to question prospective employees, but also an opportunity
for job seekers to question prospective employers.

My goal is to present some questions newer academic librarians might not think to ask interviewers.  
These are condensed from a list I started in June 2000 and have since modified based on my
experience.  Some are questions I wish I had asked.  Most are relevant to people interviewing in
academic settings, since that is my background. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, nor is it in
order.  For any position, you should think about what is important to you, beyond the benefits and the
nature of the work itself.   

1)     How would you characterize your library’s relationship with

a.      The main library or main library system (if you are interviewing at a branch library)?

b.      The campus as a whole (if you are not interviewing at a branch, but the main library)?

c.      The city/town in which it is located?

New librarians may not realize how the position for which they are interviewing can be impacted by
decisions made at the main library.  Large central academic libraries can make policy decisions,
personnel choices, and referrals to their branch libraries that could affect the job for which you are
interviewing.  You will likely be serving on committees and task forces with staff from the main library.  
Asking this question gives you a glimpse of campus politics and shows how the job fits into a larger
university library environment.

If you are interviewing at a large academic library, ask how the library interacts with the campus and any
branch libraries.  This also gives you a chance to assess campus politics and the library’s image within
the university community.   

You might also ask if the library is involved in the life of the city or town in which it is located.  Public use
policies vary by institution and could affect the work you do.  If the library prohibits use by the general
public, you have some insight into the mindset of the institution and its administration.

2)     Do you have a mentoring system in place, and what do the mentors do?

Even if done informally, it’s nice to be taken under the wings of an experienced colleague when you start
somewhere.  However, the second part of this question is important. Most libraries are going to answer
this question favorably, but mentoring is an ongoing commitment that requires more than an annual
meeting or a series of e-mail exchanges between the mentor and the mentee.  Try to discern exactly
what kind of support is provided.  Ideally, your mentor should be both an advocate and a sounding board,
capable of talking to you about more than a research project, a reference question, or an OPAC record.

3)     How are decisions made about travel support?

Travel policies vary considerably among libraries.  If the position requires you to be active in professional
associations to earn tenure, promotion, or annual contract renewal, such activity should be funded
appropriately.

Interviewers should be able to specify what activities are funded.  For example, some libraries only fund
travel for personnel who are presenting at a conference.

The costs of attending these conferences will increase substantially when you are no longer a student.  
If your interviewer tells you a fixed sum is provided for each librarian’s travel expenses each year, are you
going to be able to pay the rest out of your pocket and still be able to eat?  This is also a good time to ask
whether or not these costs are paid up front, or reimbursed later.  In my experience, you should expect to
wait for reimbursement.

4)     Where would I physically work?

Your office environment impacts your mood more than you realize.  If a walking tour of the facilities does
not answer this question, ask about where you would work if you were hired.  Think about how you work.

·        Can you work in an open environment with many professionals and staff in one room with dividers?

·        If you will be doing something for which you need a private office, such as employee evaluations, is
the space available?

·        Who else will occupy your office, and did you get to meet them during the interview?

·        What does the furniture look like?

·        Is there a renovation planned or in process?

·        Would you have your own computer?

·        Are there any provisions for working from home?

5)     When did you last hire a new librarian?

This question is a way of assessing the longevity of the staff and – indirectly – how prepared the library
might be to have a new professional.  High turnover is not necessarily a bad sign.  People retire and
leave the work force for different reasons.  Asking this question will also let you know if you would have
any peers, if you haven’t already met them.

Accepting a job offer is an important decision, especially if you are considering moving your family to a
faraway state or country.  But no one can predict the future.  You make the decision with the best
information available at the time.  Academic environments, while sometimes slow to change, experience
upheavals that could affect the position for which you are hired.  Because the appointment process for
academic personnel can be lengthy, the position description – or the library – may have changed by the
time you actually start the job.  Go where you think you can grow as a professional, but remember you
may not be able to predict the ways in which you will grow.

About the Author:

Will Olmstadt is an education librarian at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center Library in
Dallas.  He earned an MSLS from the University of Kentucky and will finish an MPH from the University of
Texas-Houston in 2006.

Article published June 2005

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