This interview is over 1 year old and may no longer be up to date or reflect the interviewee/interviewees’ positions
by Sara Dixon, Head Editor, INALJ Kansas
An Interview with Mary Kuipers …Adult Services Librarian
Mary is the kind of librarian I want to be: helpful, always cheerful, and in love with her job. She has given me the opportunity to get some hands on library experience, working in adult reference at the Leon County Public Library in Tallahassee, Florida. Mary was happy to answer questions and share some insight with INALJ website readers. (Her actual response when I asked to interview her was, “Love to! J”) Her love of public libraries is evident in the interview below. – Sara Dixon, Head Editor of the Kansas Jobs Page
Sara: How did you find (and get) your current job?
Mary: Briefly–by obsessively checking Leon County’s job website several times a week.
More fully–while in library school I tried to develop a job search strategy that would cast a wide net but was still tailored to my needs and interests. Public libraries are my passion and at the time I was attending school in southeast Michigan, so using Google and Google Maps I did a search for public libraries within a 60-miles radius of my residence. I chose this distance because, having grown up in the countryside and being used to commuting for school and work, I was willing to drive up to an hour away from my residence. 20 or so libraries resulted from this search, none of which stated on either their own or their related city or county website that they were hiring. But I still sent them all a letter of interest and a resume, highlighting my skills and tailored as much as possible to their potential needs based on what I could discover about each library from its website (which sometimes wasn’t much). I chose not to rely on an online job search engine because my fixed location was limitation enough to narrow my search down to a manageable degree; I didn’t feel I needed a search engine to help me explore opportunities within such a small area. I also didn’t fully trust them–although I regularly check www.indeed.com, I noticed then as now that such search engines sometimes miss available positions I learn about in other ways. Consequently, I preferred to go right to the source–the library, city, or county employment website itself. These efforts did not yield any fruit, but it was good practice for future endeavors.
After graduation (and two internships which I found through an internship-specific search engine that was available through my school), I was still seeking a full-time position. No public library in SE Michigan was hiring, but that was no surprise because there are two library schools in the area so competition is pretty fierce. I knew it was highly likely that I would have to move to find a full-time position, so I was prepared to give up my apartment and move in with family to continue the job search elsewhere. I have a pretty amazing family, so I had two options. My brother and sister-in-law in southwest Michigan were expecting their first baby and invited me to stay with them to help us both out. My sister was pursuing her PhD in northern Florida and she invited me to stay with her in exchange for covering the utilities. I am sooo not a youth services kinda librarian, plus after nearly 30 years in my beloved homestate I was ready to try living somewhere else. So I broke my lease, sold everything from my plush couch to my crumby toaster, packed my clothes, books, and cat into my ’99 Saturn, and drove 1,000 miles south to Leon County, Florida.
Once in Florida, I continued the job search using the same strategy–I again searched Google and Google Maps for all the public libraries within a 60-mile radius from my new residence and sent them all letters of interest and a resume. At the same time I was also visiting dozens of local businesses, mostly retail establishments, inquiring if they were hiring and filling out applications either on-site or online. After about two months I found a part-time job at a local Borders bookstore, which gave me a bit of health insurance and just enough of an income to scrape by. Working for eight bucks an hour in a retail store with a master’s degree and a couple of student loans was pretty hard on both the ego and the wallet. But I continued monitoring my list of libraries within a 60-miles radius from my residence, checking the employment section of their websites a couple of times a week.
At this time I also began using www.indeed.com to search for library jobs across the eastern half of the United States from Maine to Florida. I focused on this part of the country because after growing up surrounded by the summer-green trees and winter-white hills of Michigan, I’m not especially interested in the flat plains and arid deserts of the western United States. I applied for a number of jobs all over the eastern half of the country, each time envisioning what it might be like to live there, each time being disappointed when I received a rejection letter or email, and each time moving on as quickly and hopefully as possible to the next opportunity on Indeed.
After about six months of this, I was delighted to find several positions being advertised on the Leon County Public Library’s website. I applied for two of them, a full-time position in the circulation department that did not require a library degree, and a part-time position in the Adult Services reference department that did. I hit the application with everything I’ve got–having picked up tips from a number of employment books, articles, and websites, I was careful to tailor the application and resume as much as possible to the job postings, deliberately pulling out language from the job description and using specific examples to demonstrate my skills in the required areas. I was excited when I got the call inviting me to an interview and I prepared for it as I usually do, typing up the 10 most common interview questions and what my answers would be if I were asked them. I practiced these answers repeatedly over the next few days, both silently and aloud, generally while pacing around the house. I wasn’t memorizing my answers word for word, but I wanted certain situations and phrases to come readily to mind when asked to provide examples demonstrating skills such as customer service, conflict resolution, communication, flexibility, and familiarity with library resources and technology.
As usual, I don’t remember a word of what I said during the interview–I am capable of interviewing well but it’s always a stressful enough experience that I seem to block most of it out afterwards. I remember that there were three members of the interview committee and that one of them was the library director; I remember that I made a conscious effort to look at each of them while answering the questions. I remember emphasizing my passion for public libraries–I’d been told by my previous supervisor at my internship that it was the passion I demonstrated that got me the job. I took down everyone’s names and sent them individual thank you letters after the interview, again tailored as much as possible to the specific questions they had asked or answered. About a week later I found a message on my phone telling me to call the library. I made my return call while on break at the bookstore; there being no privacy anywhere else, I called from the loading dock behind the store. One of the three interviewers (my future supervisor) informed me that I was their first choice for the part-time Adult Services reference librarian position and asked if I was still interested, which of course I was. I accepted the position, she congratulated me, and I thanked her; after hanging up I danced for joy beside the dumpster behind the bookstore. I later heard from the director that she remembered the letter of interest I had sent six months before and was impressed by my initiative.
For the next year, I worked part-time at both the bookstore and the library and regularly checked Leon County’s employment website for full-time librarian positions. During that time two full-time librarians left the department; happily the county decided to fill their positions, which doesn’t always happen because a shrinking county budget sometimes means open positions go unfilled for months or are eliminated altogether. The positions were advertised as internal promotional opportunities, which is pretty common in Leon County–generally part-time positions are far more likely to be open to the general public and full-time positions are available only to current staff. I was interviewed for the first position to open up when a coworker was promoted to branch manager, but although it was close I was not the committee’s first choice. I was told to hang in there because there was certainly a place for me at the Leon County Public Library, and when another coworker retired a few months later I applied for her full-time position. I didn’t expect to be the only one to apply, but I was–I was offered the position without even having to interview. After receiving this news I called my family and announced that I was at last a full-time librarian, a year and a half after getting my library degree.
Sara: If you could take any of your hobbies and create a job out of them or integrate it into your job what would it be? And how?
Mary: Patrons ask reference questions about everything under the sun, so there are plenty of times when patrons’ interests overlap with my own. But I chose to become a librarian because I want to help people, so regardless of my personal hobbies it’s satisfying enough–enormously so–to be able to help the unemployed search for jobs, students write papers and do projects, seniors citizens master their new ereaders, small business owners find sample business plans, taxpayers download the correct forms from the IRS’s website, and everything else we do at the public library. So except that a coworker and I, having recently discovered the secret door to the roof, are considering installing a rooftop garden at the library, I would say that my hobbies are already sufficiently integrated into my current job. Is helping people a hobby? I enjoy helping others (especially when they’re grateful, which library patrons often are), and I seem to have a need to be needed. This is the part of me, quite apart from my hobbies, that being a librarian satisfies.
Sara: Do you have a favorite library?
Mary: The Canton Public Library in southeast Michigan. It was at CPL that I was first absolutely positive that being a librarian was my calling. My first day on the reference desk I remember thinking, “I can do this. This feels like home.”
Sara: How about your favorite book?
Mary: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – her chilly descriptions of the moors remind me very much of the Michigan falls and winters I remember from my childhood.
Sara: Are there any blogs or websites INALJ readers should be following?
- For job seeking, I use www.indeed.com. Everything else below is not specific to the job hunt but the resources below can help you to become more knowledgeable, confident, and competitive (and therefore more employable).
- For best practices in the library, check out the wiki at http://www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=Main_Page. The job seeking section is available at http://www.libsuccess.org/Looking_for_a_Job.
- For ongoing training as well as to keep up with what’s hot right now in the library world, check out the websites of your local library organizations. The three I use most are the Panhandle Library Action Network (http://www.plan.lib.fl.us/), the Tampa Bay Library Consortium (http://tblc.org/), and OCLC’s webjunction (http://www.webjunction.org/).
- To keep up with tech trends, check out the Pew Internet Research’s library page (http://libraries.pewinternet.org/).
- For informal training opportunities, check out TechSoupforLibraries (http://www.techsoupforlibraries.org/).
- For a fun/weird/interesting slice of library life, check out reddit’s libraries page (http://www.reddit.com/r/Libraries/)
Sara: Do you have any good job hunting advice?
Mary: Find what part of librarianship you’re passionate about. Demonstrate it during your interview. I got my last two–and my favorite–library jobs in part because I demonstrated my passion for the positions. A former supervisor told me she chose me because of this–she said wanted someone who brought energy and enthusiasm to the job because, “I can train you to do anything, but I can’t light a fire under your butt.”
Sara: What about anything people should avoid whilst job hunting?
Mary: I’ve been on three library hiring committees since being hired by my current library, and I’ve seen the following behaviors decrease a prospective employee’s chances of being hired:
- Not showing up. Yep. That would be a big one. The committees I’ve been on have been fine with someone being slightly late and with someone calling and needing to reschedule. But just not showing up is pretty much the biggest shot in the foot you could give yourself. At least call in advance if you’re having some kind of issue that will prevent you getting to your scheduled interview.
- Bashing your previous employer. The interview is your chance to show off your best self and demonstrate why you’re the solution to the library’s hiring problem. Don’t waste it saying negative things about another employer when you could be saying positive things about yourself.
- Being crippled by nerves. Of course you’re going to be nervous–interviews are stressful and jitters are expected while you’re sitting in the hot seat, especially if it’s a committee situation where you’re being asked questions by multiple people. But at least try to look at the people who are asking the questions, and make at least brief eye contact when answering. It’s pretty off-putting when someone spends the entire interview staring fixedly at a cabinet behind everyone’s heads.
- Not having prepared specific responses. You don’t have to memorize everything you’re going to say as if it were a script. But check out a couple interviewing websites or books and you’ll quickly see that variations on the same few questions can be expected. Why do you want this job? Tell me about your library experience. How do you handle conflict in the workplace? Questions like these are common, so think about what you’re going to say. And while you’re saying it, use specific examples to demonstrate your point. You say you’re good at customer service? Tell a brief, specific story from the workplace that demonstrates this. You’re good at communicaton? Briefly describe a situation where your communication skills kept everyone abreast of something important. Conflict resolution? Tell that story about how you tactfully handled a sticky situation with a coworker. We all have these stories–the interview is the time to tell them.
Apart from the interview, there’s one other thing I would recommend avoiding: don’t give up. Job seeking can be a truly soul-sucking experience–you can do everything right and still receive rejection after rejection, and it can be very hard not to wilt a little each time you open that email or letter. Don’t wilt. Draw deep on all your resources. Talk to your family and friends when you feel discouraged. Go do something that inspires you. Reread the best parts of your favorite books or listen to some soaring music or go outside for a minute and soak up a little nature. If you’re spiritual, pray. Job seeking can be grueling, but keep it up. It’s a tough economy out there but the Old Guard is finally starting to retire, and I’ve known very few things more worth the work and the wait than my library career.
A little bit about Mary (bio):
Mary is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Information and an Information Professional (which is what they call us reference librarians now) in the Adult Services department at the Leon County Public Library in Tallahassee, Florida. Her professional experience includes staffing the adult services reference desk, supervising library assistants, teaching basic computer classes, and acting as site coordinator for LCPL’s Ask a Librarian chat reference service. Mary is passionate about public libraries, where her interests include helping job-seekers connect with employment resources, helping those with low computer skills increase their technology literacy, using social media to connect with patrons, improving public library marketing, and anything related to ebooks. In her free time she enjoys hanging out with her friends on St. George Island, and if you haven’t been there she recommends you evisit it right now at http://www.blueparrotsgi.com/multimedia/livecam.htm.