Career Strategies for Librarians
An Ideal Job Candidate: What Do Library Employers Want?
by Priscilla Shontz
Are you looking for a job? Do you sometimes wish you could read the minds of library managers, HR
officers, and search committee members? How do they evaluate potential candidates? What appeals
to them, and what turns them off?
While writing our book What Employers Want : A Guide for Library Science Students (due out in May
2012), Rich Murray and I asked librarians who participate in hiring decisions, “What qualities or skills do
you look for in an ideal employee?”
Some of the most-often mentioned traits included enthusiasm, optimism, communication, collaboration,
initiative, innovation, and flexibility. These skills can help employees in any job, at any stage in a career.
So how can you, as a potential job candidate, demonstrate these skills to an employer?
Do you love what you do? Are you excited about entering the library and information science
profession? Let that enthusiasm show in your cover letter and your interview. New graduates, in
particular, have an advantage in this area. You are generally full of new ideas and are excited about
becoming part of your chosen profession. Don’t scare your potential employers off by appearing manic
or desperate, of course. You don’t want them to roll their eyes and bar the door when you leave, or to pat
you on the head and say “Oh, these new graduates, aren’t they cute with their new-fangled ideas and
energy?” But don’t be afraid to let your warmth, interest, and enthusiasm show.
Employers want to hire someone who has a positive attitude. Your future co-workers want a team
member, not a complainer. You don’t have to love everything and everyone at your job, but you should
work to approach obstacles and frustrating circumstances with a positive outlook. Don’t just point out a
problem (“Can you believe it? That’s ridiculous!”). Suggest a proactive solution and offer to help lead
the efforts to solve the problem (“Here’s a suggestion; I’d be happy to help lead this project if it’s
In an interview, you may be asked questions such as “Describe a problem and how you solved it” or
“What would you say is your greatest weakness or challenge?” Use these questions to illustrate how
you handled a challenge in a positive, proactive way. For example, “In my last job, I improved shelving
turnaround time so that books were shelved within 48 hours of being returned” or “When I began my
graduate program, I did not have much public speaking experience, so I have attended training
sessions and taken opportunities to speak at local meetings.” Be honest; don’t claim that you did
something you didn’t do, because your interviewers can check out your claims. Be genuine; don’t act
like Little Miss or Mister Adorkable if that’s not your everyday personality. But show your potential
employers that you can handle hurdles with a positive attitude.
Communication & Collaboration
Many employers stressed the importance of strong written and oral communication skills. Even if you do
not work in a position that directly deals with the public, you must communicate effectively with co-
workers and supervisors. You may also communicate regularly with students or staff who report to you,
vendors, community members, and others.
Learning to communicate clearly, diplomatically, and tactfully can help you get things done more
effectively. Let’s say you want to change a policy in your department. Isn’t it more likely that your
supervisors will consider your idea if you present a clear, well-researched, tactful proposal, than if you sit
and mutter in a meeting, or post on Facebook, about how unfair the policy is? Parents often say “don’t
whine” to their children; it’s a good reminder for us as adults, too.
Employers will be examining your cover letter and resume as a sample of your writing ability. Proofread
your documents and ask trusted friends to give you feedback. Something as small as a typo on a
resume can send your application into the discard pile.
At an interview, your potential co-workers are sizing you up to determine if they think you will be a good
team player. They want someone who will be a positive addition to their team. Show that you can work
well with diverse personalities. This can be difficult to demonstrate in an interview, but employers may
ask your job references how you have worked with others. They may ask interview questions such as
“Describe how you might handle a patron who complains” or “Describe how you have dealt with a
difficult supervisor.” Prepare responses that illustrate how you dealt with a situation in a positive
manner, but be wary of giving too many details. Never disparage a supervisor or co-worker. Your
interviewers may assume that you would speak negatively of them, as well.
Innovation & Flexibility
As a new graduate, you’ll be expected to be up-to-date with emerging technologies. Employers expect
you to be comfortable with technology and with change in general. Again, this is an advantage you have
as a new grad. Show your interviewers that you are aware of current and emerging technologies and
that you can learn new things quickly. Be prepared to continue adapting to change – in technologies,
organizational structure, employer expectations -- throughout your career. Read and keep up with trends
in the field.
However, also remember that you may be interviewing with or working with people who have worked in
the same institution for many years. They may say they want an enthusiastic new graduate with new
ideas, but sometimes you may feel as if every idea you present is met with “We’ve never done it that way
before.” Sometimes it’s your co-workers, but sometimes it’s the larger institution -- change can happen
very slowly in large organizations. Don’t get frustrated at what may seem a lack of willingness to
endorse change. Get to know your environment, learn the history so that you know what’s been done
before, find out who makes decisions, watch how certain people actually get things done, and follow
their lead. Sometimes you can use effective communication skills strategically to join forces with others
to get things done. And sometimes you have to choose your battles wisely.
Be willing to do whatever is needed. This can be especially true when you are a new graduate or a new
employee. Don’t turn your nose up at a task that you feel is “beneath” you. As a team player, you
sometimes need to pitch in and help with some of the routine and sometimes menial tasks that keep
your library or organization running. For example, yes, sometimes you have to fix printers, unjam
copiers, or shelve books. Don’t let yourself become mired in menial tasks all day long, but be willing to
help cheerfully when needed, and then get back to your “real” work.
Don’t wait to be asked. Employers want employees who can hit the ground running, learn new skills
and operations quickly, and do whatever is needed without always being asked. If you notice a need,
take care of it, or propose a positive solution to your supervisors.
In a resume or interview, demonstrate your initiative by showing what you have done in addition to
earning your MLS. Have you worked in a library or related setting? Volunteering or interning in different
work environments shows that you are interested in learning about various aspects of the field. Perhaps
you have used research skills in your non-library job; clearly describe those skills in your resume and
your interview conversations.
Don’t forget the power of job references. When asked for references, name people who can talk about
your interpersonal skills. Talk with these people before employers call them. Give them a copy of your
resume and of job ads that interest you. Remind them of specific projects you worked on. In other
words, give them concrete examples of illustrations they can use, or help them remember how you
worked together. Use your employers, co-workers, supervisors, teachers, friends, or fellow volunteers
… anyone who can reliably speak about how you perform tasks and how you work in a team
environment. Your references can be one of the most effective factors in your job search.
An Ideal Employee
Developing interpersonal skills such as these can help you not only on a job search, but in your everyday
work in any job. During a job search, however, your potential employers will be evaluating your fit as a
future team member. Use your resume, job references, and interview to show prospective employers
and co-workers that you would be a beneficial addition to their team.
About the Author
Priscilla Shontz edits LIScareer.com and writes about library career management. She has worked in
libraries for more than 18 years. She earned her MLS from the University of North Texas and her BS in
journalism from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Article published April 2012
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.