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Advice for librarian job applicants

Job hunting is something every librarian does more than once.  I’ve served on a fair number of search committees in my relatively short time as a librarian. Here are some pointers I’ve put together for a friend who’s getting ready to apply for jobs as she graduates from library school.


  • Coursework doesn’t count for much — I’m glad you took a class on X, but that doesn’t count as experience in my book.  It’s important that you learn the theory behind all aspects of librarianship, since those theories inform what we do.  However, theory and practice are not the same thing.
  • Internships count — Being a librarian is like being an archaeologist–they’re both practicing professions. You can study theory from dusk till dawn, but until you actually dig up bones (or help a crying freshmen find a full-text article at the last minute), you won’t know what it’s like to “do” librarianship. Get as many internships as you can, and make the most of them while you’ve got ’em.
  • Don’t apply for a job you won’t accept — Some folks suggest applying for everything because it gives you “practice” and you “never know.” The reality is that it’s more paperwork and hassle for the folks on the search committee. Ask yourself if you would accept an offer for the position before you apply.
  • Fill out the stupid form — Many institutions require you to fill out a Human Resources form of some sort when you apply.  When they say “applications without the form will be marked incomplete and discarded,” they mean it.  Fill it out completely, and if you need to sign the form, sign it.  Not doing so shows me you aren’t really interested in the job.
  • Don’t apply for a job you’re not qualified for — Again, you’ll be adding more paper to stack that’s already too big.  If you don’t have strong qualifications or missed out on getting a relevant internship, apply for an entry-level position (and yes, they are out there!).
  • Write for your audience — A good rule of thumb for anything written down.  You’re not writing for a generic audience, you’re writing for a group of tired, overworked librarians who got suckered into serving on yet another committee.  Wow me.  Get me excited.  Don’t be smarmy or flattering, be genuine. Make me want to meet you.
  • Your cover letter is your voice — This is the most important part of your application packet, because it is your chance to address the search committee.  Tell me why you are interested in this position.  Tell me why you are qualified for this position. Tell me what you’ve done, and how it related to this position.  If you give me a generic letter about your generic qualifications, you’ll get a generic response–not interested.
  • If you can, explain why you’re leaving your current job — This is something that every search committee wants to know so if you can explain it up front, it will save everyone time.  Of course, don’t bash a previous (or current!) place of employment–that shows me that I might be the one you’re bashing in the future.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread — If there is a single spelling, spacing or grammatical error anywhere in your packet, you drop off my list.  I don’t want to have to work with you on a committee, and spend my time fixing your errors.
  • Don’t overload me — If your cover letter extends beyond a page and a half, I’ll likely stop reading (unless you’re a really great writer!).  C.V.s should be longer, but the same rule applies.  I don’t need to know about that 1/2 hour seminar you attended 12 years ago, especially if it doesn’t have anything to do with the job you’re applying for.
  • Ask your references if you can list them — Imagine the awkward silence you’ve created when your reference gets a phone call they aren’t expecting from someone they don’t know.  You can bet that any glowing reference they might have given will be a little less shiny.  It also shows me that you’re not professional or considerate (and therefore not someone I want to work with).

Phone Interviews:

  • Give a land line number — No one wants to have to ask a job applicant “can you hear me now?”
  • Dedicate the time — If I’m asking you about your experience with collection development, I don’t want to hear your child/neighbor/coworker/waitress/flight attendant in the background. And you should NOT be driving.  This is not the time to show off your multitasking skills.
  • It’s OK to be a little nervous — After the first few minutes, it’ll go away.  Practice beforehand over the phone with a friend.
  • Don’t ramble — Remember your audience is tired, overworked librarians.  Don’t put them to sleep with irrelevant anecdotes.  Make sure you’re answering the question that was asked.
  • Be careful of pauses — If you pause too long, it looks like you’re trying to create a bullshit answer.  If you don’t pause at all, it looks like you’re cocky or thoughtless.
  • Send a thank-you card — It’s not sucking up, it’s showing you’re grateful.  Everyone appreciates a little gratitude.

In-Person Interviews:

  • Be professional — Be on-time, well dressed, polite, etc.  Librarianship is a profession–act like a pro.
  • Let me know who you are — In a search, we can’t ask anything about your personal life that doesn’t relate to the job–unless you volunteer it.  So if you like cats, knitting, mystery novels, or biking, please volunteer that information.  It makes you look a little more human, and who knows?  We may have the same hobbies! However…
  • It’s ok to keep personal stuff personal — If you’re not sure you want to mention your spirituality, political views, or cosmological philosophies in conversation, then don’t. If you don’t want it questioned or discussed further, don’t bring it up.
  • Interview me — Remember, this is a two-way street.  Ask thoughtful questions that show me that you’re really thinking about joining our team.  Just as much as we’re interviewing you, this is a chance for you to interview us.  Hopefully, you’re looking for a good match for your career goals and skills, and not just a paycheck.
  • Be kind — Librarians, as a rule, are bonkers.  That’s what makes us able to do our jobs so well.  So if there are one or two cooky folks in the group you talk to, just smile and nod.  But at the same time, imagine working with them every day.  If my level of neurotic organization would drive you insane, chances are you don’t need to work with me.

I’d be interested to hear of any other advice you have for recent LIS graduates, or folks who are getting ready to hit the pavement yet again.  Leave a comment!

21 Responses to “Advice for librarian job applicants”

  1. This covers all three categories and seems obvious (but isn’t): Carefully research the institution to which you are applying. I chaired a search committee at a small branch campus of a large state university. During the phone interview process, it became obvious that at least two of our ten candidates believed the position was located at the main university campus.

  2. Seems like good advice all around.

    When I was a newbie, I put my elective coursework on my resume in the theory that it would demonstrate my interest in the subset of librarianship I was pursuing. But I also listed some of the projects I did in my classes and internship to show the more hands-on aspect of what I was learning in library school.

  3. One slight variation to the list — while I agree that you should never apply for a job that you know you won’t take, it’s perfectly fine to apply for a job that you’re not sure you’ll take. After all, it is a two-way street and sometimes you’ll find that a job that only looked mildly interesting looks very good after you’ve done the interview. Sometimes it’s the other way round. If you limit yourself to only applying for jobs that you know you’d take, you may leave yourself missing out on an opportunity that could turn out to be perfect for you.

  4. T Scott, I completely agree. Some things look great on paper, and not so hot once you get on site…and vice versa. More good advice–thanks!

  5. Unfortunately, the “give a land line number” item is a luxury some people just can’t afford. I live in the Bay Area and having a “house phone” is impractical as most of my years here have been spent living in shared houses with complete strangers. Speaking as someone who only has a cellphone, and is often as frustrated as anyone else about cellphone reception, this shouldn’t be taken as anything other than a simple economic decision.

  6. Here’s how I got the job. Before the interview, I got the names of the team that would be interviewing me. I also composed thank you letters ahead of time, with blank areas. When I got home, I personalized each letter, filling in the blanks with specific things that we talked about. Then I took the letters to the post office in our local mall, which is open late. The letters were delivered the next day. Score!

  7. I’ve been on both sides as a librarian, and I’ve worked as an outplacement counselor and an executive recruiter, so I’ve seen it all! Most of what you say is very on point; the quibble I have (and Karen S. had) is with “Don’t apply for a job you’re not qualified for — Again, you’ll be adding more paper to stack that’s already too big. If you don’t have strong qualifications or missed out on getting a relevant internship, apply for an entry-level position (and yes, they are out there!).”

    If you can show, via courses, internships, etc., that while you might not have the exact qualifications they [think they] want, you do have experience that would make you a good fit, I say go for the job. Don’t apply if your experience is seriously outside the job description (I once had a law librarian get snippy because we wanted someone with prior school library experience!).

    I’d also recommend being reflective in an interview: what do you do/read to help you improve your practice? The last thing I’d want is someone who thinks they’ve basically learned it all and has no one they turn to for inspiration or reality checking.

  8. I agree completely with Lazygal (I would’ve added something to that effect earlier, but I try to stick to one point per comment). Don’t undersell yourself. We (and I say this as someone who’s been a library director for nearly twenty years) often write the qualifications for our “ideal” candidate, without thinking through the fact that we may be discouraging people who would be very good, but might not be a perfect 10 for every item on our list. If you think you can do the job, and you have some evidence in your background to make that case, go ahead and apply. Guts also counts for something when I’m looking at applications.

  9. Thanks so much for this post! The internship advice is especially helpful for me because I’m just starting out. Question – I’m an aspiring MIS/LIS student, most interested in Community Informatics, currently working for a nonprofit in Minnesota. The way I see it, nonprofits need librarians and don’t know it. What advice or resources do you have about librarians looking to work outside of libraries? Or specifically about bridging library and nonprofit work?

  10. Great, great, great stuff! I have a few minor quibbles, but only one real beef: What’s this about not applying for jobs you’re not qualified for???

    I’ve always preached just the opposite to friends and relatives (often female), who resist applying for jobs because they don’t think they’re qualified. Over and over again I’ve seen them gather their courage, put in an application, and get job offers (sometimes accepted, sometimes not–that’s my other quibble–you may not know for sure whether the job is right for you until after you’ve gone through the interview process.) I say, don’t count yourself out. Apply and let THEM decide whether or not your qualified. You might be pleasantly surprised. (Oh, and that also goes for anyone thinking they’re not qualified for awards, leadership programs, etc.)

    Anyhoo, great piece, very practical, thanks for sharing!

  11. Hi Emily! If you’re interested in library work in nonprofits, be sure to check out the Special Libraries Association (esp. their Student Groups, in your case).

    There’s also a great selection of books out there on “non-traditional” jobs in librarianship. If your library uses LCSH, check out “Library science Vocational guidance.” and ” Librarians Employment.” for good starting places.

    And don’t forget to keep an eye on the job boards for nonprofits. But be warned–the librarian job may not have the title “librarian.” Good luck, and feel free to ask me any more questions–I’m glad to help!

  12. As a professional and certified HR Manager, Cliff’s list is comprehensive, concise and portable across many professions. Very well done.

    A couple of my own thoughts.

    Your cover letter needs to speak to the qualifications of the position. Bonus points if you can integrate the organization’s mission statement and values.

    I have applied for jobs and turned down the offers extended. Mostly because of cultural misfit or work/life conflict. My purest of intentions became stained by reality.

    Be Well.

  13. Thanks for the great post Cliff. I agree with many of the statements you’ve made and I would add that candidates should be prepared in terms of what questions they might be asked. These can range from “what are your strengths and weaknesses” to “How would you help a patron who needs information on X?” The variety of information on the web really sticks to mainly typical business interviews and the standard type of questions. There are some sites that have examples of more specific library interview questions, which definitely help new grads. I think it is also great to think of questions that might be more specific to the library and community of users that the candidate would be serving. Sometimes I have become so focused on the organization’s plans, mission, and other documents that I forget about the community of users. I think that is another important component to the interview process as well.

  14. Your point about coursework versus internships is well-taken and something I’ll try to address in my remaining MLIS semesters, but I wonder if you have specific advice for someone transitioning from another profession/field. I know it’s up to me to make a solid case for why aspects of my previous career are relevant to librarianship and the specific position, but how open do you think libraries are to these kinds of claims? (Asking for a horrible generalization, I know, but it’s an issue that weighs on my mind!)

  15. Hi KMN! I think the openness depends on the institution. Most of the reference librarians we’ve hired here have been straight out of grad school (myself included!), and several of them as a second career. In many cases, a non-library work background can be seen as an asset instead of a detriment, but that depends on the attitudes/perceptions of the search committee, as well as your presentation of yourself. Remember–they’re interviewing you, not your past.

  16. Cliff, I couldn’t agree more on the “If there is a single spelling, spacing or grammatical error anywhere in your packet, you drop off my list” thing. I’m astonished on a daily basis by the level of “professional” writing that’s allowed to slip through. I don’t mind a casual, respectful tone, but I expect you to know the difference between their and there and they’re!

  17. Great advice, and thanks, but did notice your spelling error in the following: “Ask your references if you can list them — Imaging the awkward silence …”

    Did you mean “Imagine”?

  18. Thanks Liz! I suppose that’s the perils of doing my own proofreading on the blog!

  19. What is the point of going to grad school if coursework counts for nothing?! I know that job experience is important, but it’s an insult to say that coursework doesn’t count for much. So we’re spending tens of thousands of dollars a year for NOTHING????

    I am beyond angry at this article. Way to discourage us new graduates.

  20. I totally agree with Anonymous – thanks for helping to devalue the MLIS.

    What you forget is that by the time we’ve finished that “degree” you consider as less than important, we’ve had six years of academic library experience finding reference materials for our own work as students. We’ve probably interacted with seasoned librarians who may or may not have the customer service skills you are seeking and we are probably more in tune with Web 2.0 resources.

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