“I graduated from a top library school.” Yeah, so what?

Interesting discussion on the COLLIB-L discussion list. A librarian posted a link to a survey about: “What makes a professional librarian? Discussion on the list then evolved into the state of the library job market. Several people mentioned that they graduated from highly-ranked library schools and had trouble finding employment. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, nor am I denigrating anyone’s education, but it really does not matter which library school you attend.

I’ve never looked at anyone’s resume/cover letter and thought: “Wow, she graduated from X library school!” Library school is what you make of it. The MLS is just the basic requirement for the job. If all you do is take the required courses, but get no work experience, then you are setting yourself up for failure.

The following is some rather BLUNT advice for those in library school, or thinking of attending:

  1. Library school: if you have the time/money to find a school that “fits” you, then by all means. However, it’s completely OK to just pick the in-state/cheapest option. A library school is a library school is a library school.
  2. If you have not worked in a library before attending  library school, why are you making such as a large financial commitment for a career that you have no experience in? A “love” of books and “I like to read” won’t cut it.
  3. Oh, I keep mentioning experience. Yes, it’s that IMPORTANT! Before you graduate with your MLS, get some experience as a student worker, a grad assistant, paraprofessional, internship, practicum, or volunteer work. Get as much experience as you can.
  4. If you are unable to do the above, you are really limiting your options. You will need to decide whether this is even a viable career for you.
  5. I don’t really care what library school course grades/GPA you have. Just get your degree and focus on getting some experience.
  6. Get a mentor! Someone who is a working librarian. Not a library school professor who hasn’t worked in libraries for 20 years.
  7. Geographic flexibility: I understand that not everyone can (or wants) to move across country for a job. Just be aware that you may be severely limiting your options. Again, you need to decide if the expense of library school is worth it, if you are not geographically mobile.
  8. You need to market yourself. Librarians/librarians-to-be need to stop thinking of marketing as an “icky” term. You need a web presence (website, e-portfolio, Twitter account etc.) to promote your abilities.
  9. Do not wait until graduation to start applying for jobs! Start a few months in advance. Many libraries (especially academic libraries) have a long hiring process. I have worked in libraries where we have hired people in their last month, and even last semester, of library school for professional librarian positions.
  10. Don’t blame library school if you cannot find a professional job. You are an information professional. Did you not research the state of the job market?

Off my soapbox!

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

Becoming a Librarian: My Journey

Well somehow the calendar has sneaked up on me and it’s now March. I just realized that February 2011 marked my eighth year of employment as a librarian. My how time flies. Recently I moved into a new place and was unpacking. In one of the boxes I found my application letter to library school, from Spring 2001.

I remember working really hard on that letter. At the time, I labored under the impression that getting into library school was difficult. I admit, I was afraid to re-read the letter, but I did. More on that later…

While I’ve always loved libraries–one of my earliest memories is attending a “Tuesday Toddlers” program at the local public library–I didn’t see it as a calling. Like most college students, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do: television journalism. I started taking mass communication classes and soon realized that television news was rather “fake” and low-paying (yes, less than a librarian!), not to mention cut-throat.

I switched my major to secondary education/social studies: “I’ll be a high school teacher.” When it came time to start volunteering at a local school, I thought: wow, I “hate” high school students! Time for another change in major: I ended up with a degree in history. Despite the changes in major, I still see lots of similarities with what I do: journalists provide information, while librarians provide access to information. And although I didn’t want to be “stuck” with a classroom of students all day long, I still enjoyed helping them in those one-on-one moments, which mirrors what I do as an instruction and reference librarian.

While in college, I needed to earn some extra cash. On a whim, I went down to the campus jobs office. They set me up with an appointment at the library. At the end of my freshman year, I had a student assistant job in the collection development office of the university library. Without it, I can surely say I would never have become a librarian. I did typical student worker tasks: I inputted book orders, checked book prices, pulled books to be weeded, compiled donor lists. I observed the librarians. They liked what they did. I came from a blue-collar family. This was the first time I think I actually got to see people enjoy what they do: it wasn’t just a job, but a career.

Being away from home, the librarians (Carol, Stan, Ming-ming, Hilde) treated me more like a family. I appreciated that. Whether they realized it or not, they became my mentors. Side note: C&RL News has an article on student mentoring from its Feb. 2011 issue. One day, one of the librarians asked me if I thought about attending library school. My response, “No way!” I wasn’t ready to succumb just yet. However, the more I worked, the more it made sense. After returning from a semester abroad–and ready to get back to my “home” in the library–my mind was made up. Library School, here I come!

I didn’t fuss around when choosing a library school. A MLS is a MLS. I stayed in my home state and went to Indiana University. My librarian mentors gave me lots of good advice: the classes are boring, lots of busywork, concentrate on employment. I was surprised on my first day of classes to learn that there were students who had never worked in a library. Asked by the professor as to why we were here, one student said, “I like to read.” My response: “I like to eat, but you don’t see me in culinary school!” We’re librarians. We all like to read.

Some students complained that the work wasn’t challenging enough. It is what you make of it. I’ve always thought of the MLS as a professional degree, as opposed to an academic degree. Frankly, I was working 39 hours per week as a student library assistant at various jobs–and taking a full load of classes–I was ok with it not being “challenging.” The classes gave me a good foundation and provided me with the theoretical background I needed.

The highlight was the various work experiences: I worked as a reference assistant at the IU undergraduate library and the school of education library. I also spent a year as a technical services/archives assistant at the Kinsey Institute. This is where I gained the skills that led to employment–not the classes. The MLS is just the base requirement for employment as a professional librarian. You need to show more than just that.

I ended up being able to finish a semester early, with a December graduation date. One year post-9/11, the job market was still in a slump. However, I was geographically mobile and somehow managed to land three job interviews in my last few weeks of classes (graduating in December, I started sending out resumes in October). I had my first professional librarian job lined up by the week I graduated. I started the job the following February.

There’s no secret to this: it’s demonstrating relevant work experience, projects, internships, etc., a well written cover letter and resume, exemplary communication skills, sense of adventure, and a sense of humor. And yes, a bit of luck or faith (depending on your preference–or maybe both?).

So back to that library school application letter. Why did I want to become a librarian? I was expecting to read it and see myself as a tad too optimistic (Not that I’m jaded now. I just like to say I’m a realistic optimist!). There were some hackneyed phrases about wanting to “be a broker in the information age,” but the gist of it holds true for me: I enjoy connecting people with information. Information is the key to life-long learning. Libraries are about open access to all. I mentioned that I “could not imagine doing anything else.” It still holds true for me today. I like what I do and I haven’t looked back. Each day is something new and I enjoy that.

Does it matter where you get your MLS?

Interesting question posted to the NEWLIB-L discussion group: Does it matter where you get your master’s degree in library science? Short answer: nope! The questioner wanted to know if transferring to a more prestigious library school would make a difference when it came to job hunting. Unless you’re focusing in a narrow aspect of library or information science (preservation, archives, etc…), it probably doesn’t make a darn difference.

I’ll go a step further: if you’re thinking about library school, research the schools you are interested in and go to the one that costs the least amount of money, or the one that gives you the most financial aid assistance or scholarships. If you live in a state that does not have an ALA-accredited program, look at some of the out-of-state schools that offer in-state tuition to those residents. If taking classes in the online environment works for you, research the schools that offer online-only MLS degress.

Never once on a job interview has anyone commented on the library school I attended (at least prestige-wise). I don’t even recall being asked about my grades. Some were interested in the courses I took, but that’s about it. The search committees I’ve served on (my experience is in academic libraries) have never given much thought to the pestige of the library school–primarily because I would regard the MLS as a professional, as opposed to “academic” degree.

My advice: don’t worry about the “prestige” issue. What’s more important is experience. If you have not worked in a library before, get some experience in library school, if at all possible. Get a job as a library assistant at the academic library, or your local public library. Do an internship or a practicum. Do a class project where you can partner with a library (collection study, public library programming, library web site design, etc…). These are the keys that will help you get a job. Just taking the coursework is not enough. For me, it was the library work I did–not the coursework itself, that helped land me that first job.

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!