Editorial: What Not to Do When Applying for Library Jobs


This week we decided to do a “collective wisdom” post about job hunting mistakes. This is an issue affecting every librarian, whether you’ve got a job, you’re in the market, or you’ll begin looking five years down the road. We’ve all made errors in selecting jobs to apply for, drafting our cover letters and resumes, and during interviews. Once we realize what we’ve done, we promise ourselves never to repeat them again and create strategies that work for us. Many of us have also been on the other side of the table, interviewing great candidates who are amazingly well prepared, and also some applicants who fail to put their best foot forward. This group post is our way of pulling together our collective experiences as both interviewees and interviewers and offering up some practical advice to our readers. We welcome your thoughts, advice, and questions.

Plan Ahead!

Before you look for a job, while you’re still in school or if you’re getting curious about another facet of the library profession, it is most advantageous to you to schedule informational interviews. Ask engaging and meaningful questions to show your curiosity about the institution/organization. Ask about work duties, ask about the organizational culture. Really get a feel for the place and decide if it’s something to keep on your list for a place of employ in the future. When it’s all said and done, write thank you notes to the people who took the time to speak with you. They will remember you when you return for an interview and in the future you can talk about this experience in your cover letter. If it’s not some place you want to work, you can still occasionally email these people and “update” them on your professional life. You never know, they might have some inside skinny about jobs in that area. Currently, I am employed in a library where I conducted an informational interview two years before I eventually landed an actual interview at the institution. Colleagues with whom I work everyday are people who received thank you notes from me while I was still in graduate school. -Emily

As You Consider Applying

Don’t worry about your inexperience. While many hiring employers look for applicants with experience in the job for which they’re hiring, some don’t. I, for one, would rather hire someone who demonstrates the desire and capacity to take on a new job. They bring a fresh perspective and an eagerness to learn that those hired laterally often don’t. -Joan Bernstein

Don’t apply for a job for which you have no qualifications. You are wasting the time of the people reviewing resumes and your own! They may remember you, and when they do it might be a time when you are qualified. Sadly, by then you may have annoyed the wrong people. -Derik

Along those same lines, think hard before applying for a job for which you are extremely overqualified. Many libraries won’t hire someone with an MLS for a non-Librarian position. There’s less of a danger of inciting quite as much ire, but it’s still a waste of their time and yours. -Ellie

Don’t go out for jobs without learning about the organization first. For the most part, the people who have hired me, and, to some extent, the people I’ve hired, are people I know. It isn’t that I’ve ever benefited from nepotism, at least not that I know of, or hired folks because I knew them, but the dynamics of filling open positions, even in the best of times, encourages employers to be risk averse. There’s usually high demand (many current and potential applicants) and low supply (usually just one or two open positions), and there are significant opportunity costs associated with making the wrong decision. The way to reduce a potential employer’s sense of risk is to get to know them in advance, or, at the very least, make sure mutual acquaintances advocate in your behalf. I look back at the times I attempted the job application equivalent of cold calling and shudder. -Brett

Don’t forget about your needs. Focus on yourself and your future working life. If you know you don’t want to commute an hour and half in the car each way to work every day, don’t apply for a job that would require this commute. Likewise, if you know you are qualified for a position but it sounds like you’ll hate the work, don’t apply. It’s tempting to make these sacrifices, especially in our current economy and with the seeming scarcity of library jobs in certain markets (like Portland), but it’s just not worth it. You’re better off poor and happy rather than miserable at your job or hating your commute. (I’ve done both and have vowed never to do either again.) -Emily

Don’t develop an emotional attachment to a job listing. This seems to have occurred most often for me when I applied for a job that seemed perfect, usually because I hadn’t done my networking, so I romanticized the position and employer. Emotional attachments also seem to accompany the reach applications, the feeling of, “it would be great if they hired me,” rather than the, “I’m going to be really great at this job the moment I start.” -Brett

Application Materials

Don’t use valuable space in your cover letter to summarize the job description/announcement or rehash facts from your resume. The people reading the letter know what they are looking for, so you should focus on why you are the person that fulfills those qualities. Show them how, with narrative that won’t be found on your resume: details, story, analysis, anything that might be relevant, interesting, and positive. -Derik

I agree with Derik that it’s a bad idea to summarize the job description in the cover letter, but on the other hand if you don’t address every job requirement listed in that description and explain how you meet it, you’re also missing out. Your search committee members may be reviewing one hundred or more applications, so you can imagine how tempting it is to look for excuses to eliminate candidates from the pool. The cover letter can easily be a make or break element in that initial application review. If you don’t manage in the first page of the cover letter to make it clear how well you fit (and hopefully, exceed) all the requirements of the job in question, your application may get tossed into the backup pile pretty quickly. -Kim

But don’t bank on your cover letter either. Personally, I read every cover letter that comes in and place an extreme amount of importance on applicants’ writing skills. I barely skim the resumes. But I know others who do the opposite. Make sure your resume is just as perfect and tailored to the specific opening. Don’t bank on your beautiful resume formatting either. Chances are you’ll have to put it through some terrible online form that will destroy it. When that happens to me I always clean it up as much as humanly possible for the form, which usually means removing all of the formatting, and then email a PDF. Speaking from the hiring side, I’ve only ever received the ugly forms, so either no one else is sending a follow up email or HR isn’t forwarding them. Take the time to make the online submission look as nice as you can. -Ellie

Don’t pretend it’s all about you. The “cold call” application also seems to lead to other mistakes I’ve made myself and see all the time in others: telling employers why you want a job or how it will benefit you rather than demonstrating how well you understand the organization and how useful you’ll be in helping the organization achieve its aims. If they don’t know you already, it’s natural to try to introduce yourself (see also: the only thing I’ve ever learned from Seth Godin). In my opinion, introducing yourself is almost always a mistake. Don’t say anything about yourself until you’re asked, in person, and you’re sure they’re really interested. And then keep it brief, something I’m not good at, especially when I’m nervous or eager. -Brett

Don’t overestimate your qualifications. One of the strangest resumes I ever received came from a plumber who applied for the Head of Reference position. I guess “MLS degree” didn’t mean anything to him, so he thought it couldn’t be important. While this is an extreme example, I think it’s important to not over-analyze your qualifications. Obviously, you should be in the right ballpark, but even if you’re not sure you’re the perfect applicant, go ahead and give it a shot. It’s the employer’s decision who to interview; don’t do that job for him by ruling yourself out. -Joan Bernstein

Don’t lie or exaggerate (excessively) in your cover letter. You may get called on it and look the worse for it. If you claim something is your research interest, be ready to answer questions about that interest with some modicum of intelligence and enthusiasm. -Derik

Don’t write application materials in times of emotional duress. This might seem pretty simple to most people, but I recently had the experience of submitting a job application at a very emotional time. In my case a family member had just passed away and the application deadline, which I had been keeping in the back of my mind, got completely forgotten. I awoke one morning (the day before the deadline) and gasped as soon as I had opened my eyes remembering in shock that I hadn’t yet drafted a cover letter for the position. Hurriedly I pieced together a draft over my lunch break and spent my evening hours “refining” the cover letter before I printed the application then drove it to the institution in order to get the application in on time. Two days later I revisited the materials out of curiosity and was ashamed to see what I had written. Sentences in my letter were missing prepositions, sentences were incomplete. To make a long story short, I should have passed on this job application opportunity and taken care of my emotional self over hurriedly applying for a job. At the very least, I should have had someone else read the cover letter before I pressed “print.” -Emily

Don’t use the same resume without revisions. Your resume should be tailored to the job that you’re applying for. It’s critical to take the extra time and attention to showcase how your skills and experience meet the job requirements as described in the position description. And remember that the job requirements are usually ordered from most critical to least critical in terms of reviewing applicants as a good fit for a position. So, if strong communications skills is a requirement that is listed first, make sure you pay particular attention to showcasing what you can bring to the position in terms of your ability to communicate effectively orally, in writing, and in interpersonal communications. If the position description requires experience or expertise with certain programming languages or software and you have that experience, be sure it makes it onto your resume. If your qualifications match the position requirements, then you’ve made it that much easier for the search committee to identify you as a qualified candidate. Make sure that there are no spelling errors, that you’ve elucidated each acronym (where appropriate), and if you have gaps in your work history, be sure to clarify why they exist in the cover letter. -Hilary

Don’t experiment with unusual organizational schemas in your curriculum vitae or resume. The search committee is going to be reviewing a whole lot of resumes and it helps them to be able to easily identify your educational background, work history, and other qualifications. If you decide that, say, grouping your past jobs by state sounds like a good idea, you’re going to drive them nuts unless there’s a really good reason to do so. And that’s just not a good foot to start out on. -Kim

But don’t be scared to try something different if it really makes sense in your particular situation. I came to librarianship from another career and with no library experience. I included a paragraph towards the end of my resume highlighting how my prior experiences explicitly related to the current position’s requirements, then briefly listed the job titles and dates. As I gather more library experience, that will come off, but at the time it showed that I was an experienced professional already and eager to apply those skills to a new field. -Ellie

Once you’ve decided to apply, here are my tips, based on my experiences from the other side of the table:

  • Don’t get the name of the library wrong. Hint: use the name as shown in the job posting.
  • Don’t be late! Apply on time—by posted end date.
  • Don’t ignore instructions. If asked to apply by e-mail, don’t show up in person with your resume.
  • Don’t omit a cover letter. Cover letters are important. Include one. It shows that you are literate (hopefully) and it spotlights the strengths that make you suited for job. You, not the hiring manager, have a stake in identifying what sets you apart from other applicants.
  • Don’t generalize. Make the cover letter, and resume, position-specific. Generic applications don’t show much commitment on your part, and they communicate laziness.
  • Don’t randomize your resume. List most recent experience first. The hiring manager wants to know what you’ve done recently, as well as seeing a pattern of career progression.
  • Don’t be vague. Be specific about your past responsibilities and accomplishments. Don’t exaggerate, but don’t be too modest, either.
    -Joan Bernstein

Screening Phone Call with HR

Don’t ignore HR. This is where you have an opportunity to ask questions about the position and the timeline of the search committee process. And this is where you show who you are and your enthusiasm for the job. The people who call you are typically going to be very skilled in listening for how easy you are to talk to, how forthcoming you are with answers to questions, if you’re nervous or if you’re holding back. They bring this information along with your expressed level of interest back to the search committee. If you’re in a hurry to get the phone call over, it will be noticed. Be genuine, be honest, be open, and be cheerful. -Hilary

Phone Interviews

Don’t be concise! If your phone interview runs less than a half hour, chances are you didn’t give your interviewers a good flavor for who you are. It’s incredibly difficult to make conversation with invisible people you’ve never met, and it’s doubly difficulty to put the required energy into selling yourself to them on top of it all, but if you don’t you’re going to find yourself back at square one. Think of the phone interview less as an interview where you get grilled by the search committee and more as an opportunity to state your case. Prepare your message in advance: identify two or three main points you want your interviewers to remember about you and fit those points into whatever questions you get. Make the phone interview do what you want while still answering the questions. It’s extremely challenging, yes, but if you can pull it off you’re likely to stand out. -Kim

Don’t freak out. When the people interviewing you on the other end are all in a room together with a speaker-phone, its downright freaky. There are awkward pauses and sometimes you can’t tell whether you’ve lost the phone connection. And you wonder to yourself if they are making faces at each other based on your responses. In my dark, dark past, I royally screwed up a phone interview and I will probably never apply to work at that organization again because of it. I under-prepared and got lost in my responses. However, I learned from it and modified my approach. First, don’t plan on conducting the phone interview in a setting where you’re worried that you’ll be disturbed (is someone likely to knock on your office door?, is it possible that the fire alarm will go off?). Stay home or go someplace where you are sure you’ll be left alone. If you’re using your cell phone, make sure you’ve got solid battery life. Second, take the advice in the section on “Interview Preparation” below and practice responding to interview questions. Write out your responses and practice them out loud and get them so well-ingrained that you can spout them out at a moment’s notice. I was so scarred from my previous horrible phone interview experience that I wrote my responses on single sheets of paper and color coded them based on the topic so that I couldn’t lose track of what I wanted to say. I practiced these backward and forwards, and on the morning of my next phone interview I taped them up on the walls of my apartment and practiced them again. This phone interview went super—I had a new method that worked and I had regained my confidence in being able to conduct a great phone interview. Bottom line: over-prepare for phone interviews. And remember, the people on the other end of the line also probably hate phone interviews too and those awkward silences are because they are writing notes to themselves or are trying to negotiate who responds next without talking over each other. -Hilary

Interview Preparation

Don’t be a generalist. Look up the mission statement of the library and/or institution of which it is a part. Be prepared to answer why you want to work in that particular type of environment specifically (e.g. academic, public, community college, etc.), not just libraries in general. Ask for the names of the hiring committee, find out what you can about them, and whenever possible apply what you’ve learned. Some academic hiring committees will have non-librarian faculty on the hiring committee. A particularly impressive applicant tailored her information literacy presentation to a specific assignment on that faculty member’s syllabus. Even if you aren’t able to get that specific, be sure to tailor your presentation to the appropriate audience. A presentation on advanced search techniques in a mostly graduate level science database is not going to score you many points with a community college committee. I also have to agree with the others who have mentioned preparing questions for the committee, and not just logistical questions about benefits or when you’ll hear back. You want to know if you’re going to like it here, too. Ask them what they enjoy most about coming to work each day at this particular institution or what they think the biggest challenges facing them are in the next year or so. -Ellie

Don’t interview cold. This is important: you must, absolutely must, review the materials that you sent in with your application (resume, cover letter, references, etc.) and make sure that you have the key points about each experience or qualification ready to leverage to answer the interview questions. Just as it is vital that you know your own resume and cover letter forwards and backwards, it’s also critical that you know the job requirements and that you have prepared key talking points about how you meet each of the requirements. There are tons of librarian interview question sets on the web (Google “librarian interview questions“): use them to prep yourself. Write out your responses to the questions, then say your answers out loud. Practice with a trusted friend or relative. Be prepared to use examples from your past work/classroom experiences to help illustrate what you can bring to the position or to help you answer a question. If you’ve got a list of the people you’ll be meeting on your interview, do a little investigative work on the web and see what projects and initiatives they’re involved with both at the organization that is interviewing you and in the profession as a whole (e.g., are they active in LITA, ALA, Code4Lib, SLA?). Knowing a little bit about each person will give you some insight into what is compelling to them and that will give you an edge in how you respond to interview questions and what kinds of things to chat about when you are walking with a search committee member between sessions or over lunch. And, by all means, prepare questions to ask—write them down and take them with you (Google “questions to ask in an interview” if you need ideas). You will be asked if you have any questions during your interview and if you don’t have any questions for them, then it tells your potential employer that you’re really not that interested. -Hilary

Seconding Hilary here, in particular—have answers prepared for all the standard questions along with an example from a real life situation. There are a chunk of questions you are almost guaranteed to be asked, don’t let them be the ones that stump you. -Ellie

Don’t treat every library as if it were the same. Do your research about each place you interview, and know at least a few unique projects or initiatives that characterize them. If you can drop specific references during your interview you’re going to impress the heck out of them. Wow, they’ll think, this person really wants to work here. And that’s what your interviewers want to find—the person who fits their position and their organization. -Kim


Don’t wing it. Look sharp—business casual or suit attire are expected. Iron your clothes or get them pressed. Wear kick-ass shoes. Get a fresh hair cut. You need to feel good about how you look and on an interview day, this is absolutely critical. Get sleep so that you have energy. There’s nothing worse than having to interview a candidate who looks tired, acts tired, and is slumping in their chair. Shake people’s hands and be confident when you do so. You want these people to like you so you need to offer them a genuine, welcoming, warm handshake. Shake everyone’s hand in the room, or at the very least, give recognition to everyone in the room. Have a pencil and notepad ready if you feel you need it, but don’t write in it excessively while you’re being interviewed. And don’t write down everyone’s name when you’re introduced to them during an interview session. You can always request a list of the people that you met with from your HR contact at the end of the day if you really need to have an inventory of the folks who interviewed you. If someone asks you a question, look them in the eyes when you respond. If your gaze is all over the place or is focused on the paper in front of you, that tells the people who are interviewing you that you either aren’t confident in your response or that you have poor interpersonal skills. If you’ve practiced what you’re going to say and how you’re going to present yourself, then you should be able to look each person in the eye and express your genuine self. Never, never denigrate or complain about someone at your current or former place of employment. Seriously, this is a red flag to your potential employer that you have no tact, no professionalism, and no respect. Thank each interview group for meeting with you and smile at them! It’s surprising how often nervousness will cause a candidate to keep their face unwelcoming and “frowny”—if you smile, they will smile back at you and you will feel good. Simple as that. -Hilary

If you are doing a presentation as part of your interview, don’t make boring slides: lots of text, lots of bullet points, ugly pre-made templates. Often, a presentation is a time during your interview when you will be seeing the largest number of people at once. Catching their attention is important and that won’t happen if you are reading bullet points off a long sequence of slides. Show creativity, if not originality, or at least steal from someone who shows creativity or originality. -Derik

Don’t be shy! The interview is the only chance your interviewers get to see you in action, so pull together all your reserves of extroverted energy and make the most of the opportunity. Be prepared with a list of questions and topics for small-talk to ensure that there is no dead air during your meetings. And for goodness sake, show interest in your interviewers! The easiest way to fill up awkward pauses is by asking them about their jobs and projects. -Kim

Don’t tell the committee you’re nervous. Of course you are, everyone is, you don’t need to draw attention to it. If your nerves are acting up so badly that you’re stumbling over the questions excessively, ask to take a moment to collect your thoughts, take a deep breath, a sip of water and continue. -Ellie

Don’t be late. If you are chronic late-runner, the interview is not the time to let that quality shine through. -Emily

Here are my tips for when you are called for an interview:

  • Don’t come in unprepared. Study the institution’s Website. Google the institution and the person who’s interviewing you. This will demonstrate that you prepared for the interview and will distinguish you from other applicants.
  • Don’t act disinterested. Be ready with good questions. You are a better candidate if you are able to engage the hiring manager in discussion. I always appreciated questions that I had to think about before I answered. This showed interest in the position and depth of thought—two definite pluses in a candidate.
  • Don’t ever badmouth past employers in an interview. I always thought that if I hired that person, maybe someday he’d be saying that about me!
  • Don’t forget to follow up with a thank you note. It’s common courtesy, and also an opportunity to reemphasize your skills and interest in the position.
    -Joan Bernstein


Don’t only keep in touch with your references when you need their help. Your references will be more willing and able to provide good information about your work if they have a personal stake in your well being. Send them an e-mail at least a few times a year to let them know how you’re doing, what projects you’re working on, etc. even when you’re not looking for a job. -Emily

Don’t leave your references unprepared. Obviously, you want to ask people who you trust will say good things about you to be your references. When you apply for a job and you send your references’ names and contact info as part of your application, make sure to tell your references that you’ve just applied for this job. Better yet, tell them before you send in your application materials. Maybe they have colleagues at the organization to which you’re applying and can give you some insight to help you better craft your resume and cover letter. By all means give your references the heads up and make sure they have the resume (and maybe even the cover letter) for the job that you’re applying to as well as the job description. Tell them why you’re interested in this particular position. You want to prepare your references for being interviewed about you! Don’t leave them empty-handed or surprised when they get a call from an interviewer. Imagine the kinds of questions that they could be asked (Google “references interview questions” if you can’t imagine what these would be) and feed them potential responses by telling them about how you qualify for the job, what you like about the job, and what you like about the organization to which you’re applying. -Hilary

Don’t give lame references. If the people you list on that page are not past supervisors, professors, or other professionals who can really speak intelligently about your strengths and skills, you’re only hurting yourself. The people on your references list should easily match up with your education and work experience listed on your CV or resume. -Kim

The Offer

Don’t underestimate your value. That’s one error I hope never to make or have to deal with again: not knowing your price. Knowing an organization and its expectations doesn’t just mean knowing that you’re going to be an asset, it means knowing how much of an asset you’re going to be. It means getting a starting offer for what you’re worth (and accepting it happily) or being willing to walk away if you don’t get an offer that meets your demands. There’s nothing worse than colleagues who whine about their salaries except, perhaps, being the one who’s doing the whining. -Brett

After You Land the Job

You’ve just landed a plum job. A nice little bump in pay, something more aligned with your interests, a city you’ve always wanted to live in. Time to file the resume away and unsubscribe from all of those pesky jobs RSS feeds that were taking up all of your time?


Odds are, this isn’t the last job you’ll ever have. And if you wait until two weeks before the application is due to get yourself ready for the next job, you’ll find you’ve got a lot of last minute scrambling to do.

Many library job applications include essays and a brief window of time in which to apply. Prepare the basics in advance, and when you’re ready to apply you can focus on customizing your application. Have a master resume on hand, something that you update every few months with new accomplishments (while you still remember them). Rather than including a general summary of duties, pull highlights from your monthly reports that reference specific projects.

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on job postings, even if you’re not on the market. You’ll be in a better position to identify trends, compare salaries, and track which skills potential employers are seeking. You’ll also have a better sense of what you’re getting yourself into. A month or three of scanning the want ads when you’re searching for a new job gives you a snapshot of the current atmosphere. With a year or two of trend watching under your belt, you’ll spot signals that are more subtle or nuanced. Why does McLargeHuge Library repost the same position every eight months? Why does TinyTown Library have such high turnover?

By keeping your ear to the ground, you’ll be in a position to act on a good opportunity when it catches your attention, rather than settling for the best you can get when you’ve realized it’s time to move on.  -Heidi Dolamore

Guest contributor bios

Heidi Dolamore lives in San Francisco with her cat, bicycle, and unpaid library fines.

Joan Bernstein recently retired as director of the Mount Laurel Library (NJ). She has spoken, written, and consulted nationally on subjects including the merchandising of public libraries and privacy protection in the library. She served as the president of the New Jersey Library Association from 2006–2007. She can be contacted at joanbernstein@verizon.net.

34 Responses

  1. Pingback : Link Roundup: July 2009 | Melissa Fortson

  2. Linda

    Well, for starters, I don’t recommend sending an email message like the one I received a few days ago. That message, and my original one, are below (with names omitted):

    From: Xxxx Yyyyy
    Sent: Thursday, September 09, 2010 7:16 PM
    To: Aaaaa Bbbbb
    Subject: Re: assistant position

    fuck off

    On Tue, Sep 7, 2010 at 2:48 PM, Aaaaa Bbbbb wrote:

    Dear Xxxx Yyyyy,

    I’m sorry to let you know that we selected another candidate for the position here at the Rrrr Ssss Library.

    Please continue to check the Employment section of our website, as we do have other openings from time to time. We very much appreciate your interest in working with us.

    Sincerely yours,

    Aaaaa Bbbbb

  3. Wow, Linda, I don’t think anyone will argue with your point! Hard to believe anyone would really send a response like that, but human beings do send unwise things sometimes when we’re emotional. Clearly they should’ve had their mail goggles on!

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