Library hiring from the other side of the table

George Hawtin, Head Editor, INALJ Saskatchewan

Library hiring from the other side of the table

George HawtinIn my misspent youth, I served on my hometown’s library board, where one of our duties was to hire a new chief librarian. Later, I served on the selection committee to hire my own replacements at the library board. I would dearly love to share with you the graphic details of what the person we hired did right and what the people we chose not to hire did wrong, but this would violate all sorts of confidentiality agreements. Therefore, let me share some more general advice, from the perspective of someone who’s sat on the other side of the table.

What are library boards looking for?

1. Self-awareness.

Know who you are. Know what you can do, what you’ve done before, what you can learn to do, and what you can bring. A candidate who demonstrates awareness of her own shortcomings is much more appealing than candidates who thinks his greatest flaw is that he’s too good-looking. (This may or may not be something someone actually said to me in a job interview – curse those confidentiality agreements!) Every time, I’ll hire the candidate who’s day-one ready to excel at 80% of the job, who’s excited to learn to do another 10%, and who has a realistic plan in place to delegate to others those few things they honestly aren’t the best at. Every time, I’ll have grave misgivings about the braggadocious candidate who has no experience, no education, no self-awareness, and is completely sure they can do everything better than everyone.

Confidence is wonderful…but it doesn’t always need to look like extroversion. Sometimes it just means awareness of your own abilities, and your own limitations.

2. Simplicity.

Generally (especially when you’re dealing with boards or HR people and not librarians doing their own hiring), whoever is hiring you doesn’t know as much about the job you’re applying for as you do. When I was a 23-year-old library trustee who’d never had a library job before, I wouldn’t have been impressed with cover letters that were dissertations on the intricacies of AACR2. Mastery of library jargon would have been technically impressive, sure – I would have thought, “Wow, this person sure knows library jargon!” but it wouldn’t have resonated. Keep it simple. Tell your story. Tell what you did in previous jobs—what ideas you had, what programs you led, how you made your last workplace better, how you’ll make this workplace better. Five years later, I don’t remember which of the candidates was a motivated self-starter who served on this, that and the other CLA committee – I remember the ones who did interesting and innovative things and told me about them in easy-to-understand, non-cliched language.

3. Fit with the corporate culture…

People in library HR are looking for people who’ll fit in with the existing organization, so if they call their patrons “customers”, it’s a good idea for you to call their patrons “customers” too. It’s about demonstrating that you play well with others – that you’re socially agreeable, that you can put on a happy face when dealing with the public, that you’re here to further the library’s mandate and not your own. But it’s also about fit.

From the job-seeker’s perspective, there’s one (1) of you, and one (1) job you want, and you have your LT diploma or your MLIS, and you have the requisite years of experience, and you think you’re pretty great, so why shouldn’t they hire you? But from the hiring committee’s perspective, there are two hundred applicants, a hundred of them have all the qualifications, and the best ten are substantively identical in their qualifications. What’s going to set you apart? Fit. This means that if you’re enthusiastic about serving “patrons” in “libraries”, and all of a sudden you find yourself applying for a job serving “users” of a “learning commons”, you could be at a disadvantage. How to address this? Try to mesh with the culture of where you’re applying, whatever that might be…but if you can’t, recognize that it could be a blessing in disguise and that a job where you do fit could be just around the corner. I’ve regretfully voted against hiring candidates who were excellent, because there were other, equally excellent candidates who were better fits. It (probably) doesn’t mean the hiring committee hated you.

4. …but not to the point of losing your own identity.

Next to boastful candidates, my least-favourite phenomenon is candidates who try too hard to sell that they’re a “fit”. If there is a fit, this will be readily apparent to the applicant and the hiring committee. So in your application and interviews, tell them who you are and how your qualities will serve the library. If there are particular things that draw you to this library beyond needing a paycheque, let them come up organically. Don’t be the candidate who spends the entire interview fulsomely praising the library (or, even worse, the profession of librarianship) while not making the sale that you’re the best person to fill this role. Focus on yourself and on what you can do for the library.

The people doing the hiring already think their library is great. They already know they have the best circulation stats in the region or the catchiest motto. Definitely acknowledge things you like about the library, definitely demonstrate knowledge about the position, but only in the service of explaining what you can bring to the role, not to demonstrate how much trivia you’ve memorized.

The library leaders I’ve hired have had these things in common: they’ve known who they were and what they could bring to the library, they’ve known how to communicate that to me in a simple and straightforward way, they’ve been a good fit for the role they were seeking, and they’ve made that clear in an organic way. If you can develop these traits, you’ll be the next INALJ success story!

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