One request I have received repeatedly to Nailing the Library Interview is answers to interview questions. I put out a lot of resources on questions YOU might be asked on library job interviews, but answers? Not so much.
The reason I have hesitated is that an interview requires you to think on your feet. It’s more of an art than a science. Canned responses won’t often work here. This isn’t like a multiple choice exam with only one correct answer.
However, there are a few common questions you will likely get asked regardless of the job. Below are a few pointers to help craft your responses.
1. Why are you interested in this position? / Why do you want to work here?
- The Job Description: You need to mention something related to the job description. Did you read it and think “this is something I can’t pass up!” – let the hiring manager know that.
- Your Prior Experiences: If you have experience in areas related to the job description, you need to work that into your response. Or perhaps you have transferable experiences.
- Passion: Hopefully there is something in the job description that you are passionate about (e.g., children’s services, information literacy, scholarly communication). Try to work in your philosophy or vision to that specific area.
- Personal Stuff: Avoid leading with something personal to your situation. That will put a lot of hiring managers off. Case in point, at my current institution, the real reason I was interviewing there was because my husband had accepted a job in that geographic area and frankly it was the first job posting I saw that I was qualified for. Did I lead with that? No. However, at the end of my response, I did mention my husband’s job and the fact that my in-laws live in the same community to demonstrate my commitment to the geographic area since I was an “out-of-town” candidate. Some people will say avoid anything personal. I disagree. It shouldn’t be your first answer, but personal anecdotes help to humanize the interview process. We’re not robots!
2. What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
I HATE this question, but some hiring managers will still ask it. I don’t ask it as people are apt to spin the negative.
- Strengths: Know what your strengths are (e.g, organized, good communicator, strategic thinker) and have a list of 3-5 in your head. Try to tie them to specific examples from your past experiences.
- Weaknesses: Rule number 1: Don’t raise any red flags (e.g., “I’m always late to work.”). Rule number 2: Avoid spinning your response into something trite like “I’m too dedicated” or “I care too much.” We’ve heard that before. Rule number 3: It’s OK to admit something that you would like to improve upon, as long as it doesn’t break Rule number 1: “In the past, I’ve had a hard time saying no to people often to the detriment of myself. So I’m learning to set more boundaries since all of us have large workloads. So really, it’s about communicating with my co-workers and making sure high priority projects are getting completed first.”
As opposed to biggest strengths and weaknesses, I prefer asking:
Based on the job description, which of the duties do you feel most comfortable with and which do think may take some time to learn?
I like this question because it demonstrates to the interviewee that the hiring manager is a human being and doesn’t expect you to know ALL THE THINGS on your first day. In response to “which duties do you think may take some time to learn” it would likely be institution-specific tasks and processes that would take the most time. Try explaining how you plan to get up to speed. For non-institutional specific duties, try to address how you would plan to increase your knowledge in those areas (e.g., training, free webinars, networking with other library folks in similar positions).
3. Describe a failure you experienced and what did you learn from it?
Like the question above, this is another question I DON’T like. For me, failure on the job is to occasionally be expected…and it’s part of the learning process.
- Know a Failure: Be prepared to think about a failure you have encountered. Stick to work/education-related failure, not your personal life.
- Be Succinct: Don’t dwell too much on the explaining the failure during your response. Instead focus on your reflection, what you learned, and what you would do differently.
- Self-Improvement: Self-improvement is the key takeaway that hiring managers want to hear. I prefer asking a slightly modified version to the “failure” question:
Can you describe a time when something you did at work didn’t go as planned, and what did you learn or what would you have done differently in hindsight?
4. Tell me about a workplace conflict/issue you have encountered and how you went about resolving it.
- Preparation: Don’t get stumped on this answer. Be prepared to provide an example. Hiring managers don’t really want to hear “Oh, I haven’t encountered much conflict.” Really? You’ve never disagreed with anyone or any policy at work?
- Negativity: Avoid badmouthing a workplace. Do not specifically name a co-worker or a library patron. I also tend to avoid the pronouns “he” or “she.” Instead, I use “this person” or a job title like “Assistant Manager” (e.g, “The Assistant Manager and I disagreed on…”). This demonstrates discretion.
- Be a STAR: Use the STAR approach to responding to behavioral interview questions. S = situation, T = task, A = action, R = result.
- Situation: Library Administration implemented a no “large bags” policy that impacted homeless visitors.
- Task: As a librarian, it was my job to enforce the policy even though I disagreed with it. Homeless visitors were often upset with the policy and staff were often berated over it. It caused a lot of low morale. I often felt like the “bag police.”
- Action: I started to do some research and see what other libraries were doing. I also talked with social services agencies in our community. I met with my department head to see if we could find a solution.
- Result: Although Library Administration wasn’t willing to budge on the policy, we worked with our Friends group to install 10 large lockers near our entrance where people could secure belongings. This improved the library experience for our homeless visitors and helped with staff morale.
5. In the library, how would you work to create an environment that is welcoming, inclusive, and diverse?
- Brainstorm: I love this question because there are a million different ways you could go with it. Could be services/programs for your community, online resources, or library spaces itself. I want to hear both practical ideas and big ideas! Provide 3-5 examples of your vision. This is a chance to display your creativity.
- Connections: Explain connections the library can make in the community (or school, or campus…). Libraries are about PEOPLE.
- Follow-up: When you have the chance to ask questions, it might be good to ask the hiring manager how the library is accomplishing this. Remember, interviewing is a two-way street!