Tips to Answering 5 Common Library Interview Questions

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.
  • Example:
    • 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!

 

 

A Library Interviewee’s Bill of Rights

Let’s face it: Job hunting is a grind. Oftentimes a soul-sucking grind. But once you get that invitation to interview, you feel great. Here is where the library, as the hiring organization, needs to put its best foot forward and make the experience for job candidates a positive one.

I’m not mollycoddling here. This isn’t about bringing your mom or dad to an interview (please don’t!) or sending the interview questions to the interviewee in advance (umm, no…I want to see how you think on your feet!). This is about having a set of protocols, a little common sense, and some human decency.

Below are ten tips that I’m calling the Library Interviewee’s Bill of Rights that should be afforded to all job candidates.

1. The library will give you lead time in preparing a presentation
Many job candidates are required to give a presentation (short lecture, teaching demo, storytime, etc.) at an interview. When the offer to interview is extended, please provide the topic (or if it’s “open-ended” then say so) and the time limit of the presentation. A couple of times when interviewing, I was given a topic only 2-3 days in advance. Give people time to prepare!

2. The library will give you a schedule
When inviting a job candidate to interview, send them the schedule in advance (even if it’s a draft schedule at first). Include the names (or groups) of the people they will be meeting with and the length of time for each meeting.

3. The library will plan a humane schedule
This relates to #1 and #2. Can we not schedule a presentation immediately after lunch? There’s nothing like trying to eat a meal knowing that you’re going to have to give the “show of your life” immediately thereafter. I know it’s hard to get people together to watch a presentation, but I always appreciated it when these things are scheduled before lunch.

4. The library will provide reimbursements
What is reimbursable? Be upfront with job candidates. For overnight stays, is the library booking the hotel? For long distance visits, is the library booking transportation? Or is this the responsibility of the job candidate? What about things like gas mileage or airport parking? Provide a list of what will be covered. Remind the job candidate to bring along (or send) any applicable receipts.

5. The library will provide info on hotels/dining
Related to #4. If it’s an overnight visit, where is the job candidate staying? I remember being dropped off at a hotel by a potential future co-worker in the middle of nowhere. I was on my own for dinner. No car. Nothing walkable. The only thing I could get was a pizza delivered. Some welcome! Invite the job candidate out to dinner. Beforehand, give job candidates a few options for dinner (may have dietary restrictions) and let them pick.

6. The library will give you salary info
I know many institutions (or more likely the library’s parent organization) do not post salaries in job ads, but please provide this info during the interview day whether it’s the minimum salary, a salary range, etc. I know there will be some that will say, “well then the job candidate can’t negotiate if the salary is on the table!” Well…this isn’t the business world and the ability to negotiate for several thousands of dollars generally does not apply to most library positions. So be upfront!

7. The library will be prepared
The job candidate is prepared for the interview day. The library staff should be prepared to interview the job candidate. Have notes in order and questions to ask. Also KNOW which person is being interviewed and don’t call the person by another job candidate’s name.

8. The library will have a good attitude
Yes, the library might be interviewing 3 or 4 people in a row. At least act like this is a fresh and new experience and not a chore to get through.

9. The library will keep matters confidential
Example: If the job candidate marked “you may not contact my current supervisor” on HR forms, then the library needs to follow it! This happened to me. After marking the form to not contact my current supervisor, the library director then asked to contact my supervisor. I had 3 good references (my immediate former supervisor at my workplace, a current co-worker, and a former co-worker). I said no. I didn’t want my supervisor to know I was looking for greener pastures. It was an awkward situation.

10. The library will provide a follow-up in a timely manner
Make sure candidates know the length for the decision-making process. Also ask job candidates how they prefer to be notified (phone, email). I know from an HR standpoint, many things cannot be disclosed. However, you can still say “the library is in the decision-making stage and you can expect to hear from us within the month” or whatever. Once I didn’t receive a “this position has been filled” letter until 6 months after the interview! We can do better.

What else would you add? Leave a comment!

Interview Red Flags

I had the pleasure of writing a guest blog post on interview red flags for Jessica Olin’s Letters to a Young Librarian blog. Check out it and read through the great advice written by Jessica and other librarians!

Cover Letters, Resumes, and Interviews, Oh My!

Recently I served as a reference for a friend and former co-worker of mine. After extolling the virtues of my friend over the phone with the hiring committee, I thought: “Gee, I’m now a reference! Where did the time go?” After 8 years of being a librarian, serving on hiring committees, and watching countless candidate interviews, I decided to put together a list of some tips for composing cover letters & resumes, as well as preparing for interviews. If you have something you’d like to add, please leave a comment below.

Cover Letters & Resumes:

  • Strategy: Your cover letter & resume should address your experience/knowledge with the requirements/qualifications that are in the job announcement.  Even an “awesome” cover letter & resume that does not address any of the bullet points in the job announcement will NOT get you called in on an interview. When I’m on a hiring committee, this is what I do: I make a spreadsheet listing our various requirements/qualifications and columns with the names of applicants. Then I go down the rows and check off if you have addressed each of the requirements/qualifications based on your cover letter & resume content. The applicants with the most checkmarks are the ones who get called for interviews. Example: I can’t GUESS if you have experience or knowledge working with a diverse group of library users. You need to TELL me in your cover letter & resume!
  • Yes, I know YOU are wonderful. But I want to know HOW your wonderfulness is applicable to this job! Please explain it in the cover letter.
  • Generic cover letters ALWAYS go to the bottom of the pile. Each job is different. Each requires a different cover letter. And yes, I have seen a cover letter mistakenly addressed to the “wrong” library. No one said getting a job is easy. See the “Strategy” section above.
  • I don’t need to see an “objective” listed on your resume. Your objective is to get the job 🙂 and I know and understand that! Don’t waste the precious space.
  • Length of cover letter & resume: People OBSESS about this. For me, it’s not a big deal as long as you are following the instructions/guidelines. For cover letters: I think it’s OK to go over one page–but generally 2 pages tops. Be careful with font size and margins. Once I read a one-page cover letter in 8-point font with quarter-inch margins! It would have been OK to bump up the font size and go onto the second page. As for resumes, you DO NOT have to follow the business standard of a one-page resume. It’s OK to have multiple pages.
  • I prefer a simple chronological resume, but as long as I am able to determine your skills, experience, and knowledge, I’m not too picky.
  • Don’t overwhelm me with too many fonts, please.
  • Include your references on your resume, or on an additional page (see below).
  • Include a website address on your cover letter and/or resume to your online portfolio.
  • Proofread, proofread, and then consider proofreading some more. Read your cover letter and resume aloud! Have a friend, colleague, or mentor read it, too. I have overlooked a small typo on resumes/cover letters (and am guilty of doing it myself at some point), but not everyone is as forgiving. If “good verbal and written communication skills” are a requirement for the job, then you must not mess up here.
  • Job Hunting Tips and Links

Application Process:

  • Follow the instructions explicitly. If the job announcement says to send your materials via “snail” mail, then do it! Yes, I know you can look up our library’s email address and send it in electronically, but that’s not following the directions. Some libraries/institutions have very specific policies on the hiring process and you will want to follow the directions as they are stated. Anyone with an “attention to detail” will follow the directions. Don’t throw yourself out of the running on something small like this.
  • If you are allowed to submit your materials via email, remember this: your email message should not count as your cover letter (e.g., “Please accept my resume in consideration…”). No! We want an actual cover letter and resume attached to your email.
  • Make sure any electronic attachments can easily be opened by your potential employers. PDF is always great (and follow the library’s instructions on file types–if they give you any).
  • Any electronic attachments should have a helpful file name (e.g. “YourLastName_Resume” or “YourLastName_CoverLetter”).
  • Oh and about that email address: use an email handle that sounds professional.
  • References: If the job announcement says to include references, then do it! I’ve served on hiring committees where we asked for references and some applicants didn’t provide them upfront (again, not following directions!). So, it creates more time on our end trying to track applicants down and asking for their references. On most of the hiring searches I’ve been involved with, we only contact your references if you are a serious candidate.
  • Cold-calling: I know some people in “libraryland” encourage you to call and speak with the library director/supervisor about a job opening that has been posted. You’ll want to tread carefully here. Personally, I would avoid calling, but that’s my personality style. Once someone called me after I had posted a job and asked, “I was thinking about applying, but I wanted to know if you’re able to raise the salary amount by $5,000.” Eeeek. I treat all applicants equally and will spend a good deal of time reading your cover letter and resume. For me, a phone call does not place you ahead of the pack.

Preliminary Interview:

  • For preliminary interviews, such as a phone interview: schedule yourself enough time to get where you need to be (e.g., home). If at all possible, do the interview in a quiet place, door shut, pets away, TV off, etc.
  • Confirm the date/time, and if needed, the correct time zone.
  • Before the preliminary interview, think about some questions that might be asked of you. See: Sample interview questions.
  • Generally, you will be given a few minutes to ask the hiring committee questions. Please do! We are excited to be interviewing you, and we hope you are excited in return. See: Sample questions to ask.
  • At the end of a preliminary interview, make sure and ask about the time line and process for any in-person interviews and start date, etc.

In-Person Interview:

  • It’s ALWAYS ok to dress conservatively for an interview. No jeans, no t-shirts, no sneakers. As you probably have seen, librarians as a group, aren’t known for their fashion sense, but please dress professionally. For a male: I’d at least want to see shirt/tie/trousers (I’ll admit, I don’t own a suit!),  for a female (you have more options): business suit, skirt/blouse, trousers/blouse–or throw in a cardigan/sweater w/ the combo. In reality, I only wear a tie at work when I absolutely have to, and jeans on Fridays or in the summer are the norm. But not on an interview day. Dress for success–that’s what they say.
  • Arrive on time, or a few minutes early–especially if it’s a large library and you need to be at a specific office.
  • If the interview day is long, be prepared to answer the same question multiple times by different groups or individuals. Pretend you’re answering it for the first time (with enthusiasm) because the person you are telling it to is hearing it for the first time.
  • Come prepared with a list of questions that you would like to ask your potential supervisor, hiring committee, co-workers, etc. Failure to ask questions is a BIG negative in my book! See: Sample questions to ask.
  • Emphasize the key points as to why you are the BEST person for this job. You will generally be able to emphasize this in your responses to questions asked of you (e.g., “What is it about this job that interests you?”)
  • Remember, even in quieter moments of the interview day, you still need to be “on” – avoid sharing anything that might be considered unprofessional.
  • Presentations: If required to give a presentation make sure you have multiple options if your tech fails (e.g., have presentation on a flash drive and also email it to yourself). If using handouts, bring plenty. Follow any instructions given on presentation topic, etc. Clear up any questions about the presentation before the interview day.
  • A good library will factor in bathroom breaks, etc… If you need to use the restroom or get a drink of water, by all means ask!
  • Don’t forget to smile 🙂 , shake hands, demonstrate good body language, etc…
  • Remember to ask about the time line for the interview process, when a decision will be made, etc…
  • After the interview, sending a thank you card or thank you email to the potential supervisor or hiring committee is always appreciated.
  • See: Interview Pitfalls to Avoid

Got a Bun in the Oven? Illegal Interview Questions

When you get a job interview, you spend your time prepping for possible questions: Why do you want to work here? What’s your greatest strength or weakness? Describe how you manage multiple tasks.

What you don’t often think about are illegal questions that may be asked of you. Employers should know better. I remember this story from library school: one student (a woman) who was about to graduate was asked by the library board of small town public library: “Now, you’re not going to go off and get pregnant on us, are you?” The year was 2002, not 1962.

I have updated the Library Interview Questions page on the Nailing the Library Interview site to include a few links to “illegal” interview questions, but I’ll list them here, too:

The links are good for those on both sides of the hiring process: job applicants and hiring managers/search committees.

Nailing the Library Interview

In keeping with the spirit of moving into this WordPress thing, I’ve folded the Nailing the Library Interview site into my WordPress blog. Originally, it was on PBWorks, but this will allow me to more easily update it. Also, it allows for easier feedback from readers.

Nailing the Library Interview is divided into four sections:

I’m always looking for suggestions of questions to add, etc.. so feel free to comment!