Further Questions: How are Library Directors Hired?

This question is from an anonymous reader who is applying for a library director position.  Good luck to you, anonymous reader!  She writes:

I am trying for a position as library director … and there’s been a real dearth of questions and information on the hiring process for a director that I could find online. Lots of info out there on reference librarians, catalogers, etc, but I’m guessing that there simply aren’t that many interviews done for directors compared to reference librarians, so this topic is left out. But if any of your “peeps” (lol) have been on the hiring committee for a director, I’d love to know the questions asked, and what the process was in their particular case. Of course it will be different in my case, but I still would like to hear how it went elsewhere.

So this week I asked my peeps:

Can you please give us brief run-down of the process of hiring a library director?  What are some of the questions that candidates are asked? What are the most important qualities candidates can demonstrate? Any other advice for hopeful directors?

Christine Hage - Dark backgroundThe process of hiring a public library director will vary greatly depending on the type of library. Is the library part of a municipal government or an independent taxing authority? Libraries with governing library boards and independence from other municipal bodies will set their own hiring procedures which may vary from the civil service style of recruitment.
Another differentiator will be whether the library uses a consultant or not. Larger libraries usually will be doing a national search and are more likely to use a consultant. If you are mobile you might want to foster a relationship with the major consultants. Let them know you are looking and describe the type of library situation you desire. Smaller libraries are less likely to do a national search as there may be a supply of local candidates so can handle the search on their own and forgo the cost of a consultant. You might want to put feelers out to other local library directors who may have insight to jobs opening up in the area.
Travel expenses for serious out-of-state candidates typically will be paid, but only after careful screening of potential candidates. Unless you are driving from a distance, I wouldn’t expect to be compensated for mileage to the interview. Phone interviews may be used to weed out candidates before invitations to a full interview are offered. I would be shocked if anyone hired a candidate solely based on a phone interview.
Once on site, candidates may be interviewed by a committee that includes representatives from the board, community and or staff. Tours of the library facility may be given and often time meal meetings or coffees are scheduled. Once you make contact with anyone from the potential job site you are being interviewed. The person that picks you up at the airport will share their impression. The staff member that shows you around the building will share their opinion. Even people at an informal lunch or coffee hour will be “interviewing” you.
Although the document A Library Board’s Practical Guide to Finding the Right Library Director is aimed at library trustees, it contains sample interview questions that you might want to use for practice. Make sure to research the library so you are familiar with their employment relationship with employees (union/non-union), facility needs, technology status and plan, and the role the board would want you to play. Will you be expected to be out in the community most of the time with another staff member responsible for the day to day operations or will you be focusing more on staffing and internal issues. What expectations are there for your fund-raising responsibilities? Political activity?
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that an interview is a conversation. Even though the library representatives are interviewing you, you also are interviewing them. You need to be comfortable that your style of management and their expectations are going in the same direction. I wouldn’t jump into a new job until I had done a lot of research. We spend too many hours on the job not to be fully comfortable with the work environment. Make sure you have a good fit with the library before you accept a position.
- Christine Hage, Director, Rochester Hills Public Library
Petra MauerhoffWhenever I have been hired as a library director (in a public library environment), there has been a hiring committee made up Board members who are involved in the interview process. Since I was usually interviewing from a relatively big distance, the first interview is almost always via phone and for my current position the first interview took place via video conference.
Typical questions I remember from these interviews always involved experience related to the budgeting process, experience managing staff and experience in working with a board, and by extension, municipalities.
The second part of the interview has generally been an in-person interview on site. For the in-person portion of the interview, there is often a certain amount of repetition of the questions and also generally a presentation component.
Sometimes during the in person interview process staff members are invited to participate in the interview. Since many boards don’t necessarily have much practical library expertise they often rely on staff to evaluate the practical knowledge of a candidate. And especially for the position of director the board wants to know that staff feel comfortable working with that person.
Being interviewed by a committee made up of board members and sometimes staff means you will encounter different personalities during the interview and being able to positively interact with all of them shows professionalism and flexibility.
However, keep in mind that you are getting information about them while they are getting about you. You will be working closely with the board, and the board chair in particular and if there are any red flags for you during the interview, it pays to pay attention to them. Ask the board what directions they see the particular library moving in over the next few years and check any documentation (strategic plans, etc) you might be able to find related to this. Then ask yourself if this is the kind of direction you can see yourself leading the library in.
The relationship with the board is an important one, especially for first time directors. It’s not always easy to find the balance between working independently and still deferring to the board for major decisions. Many boards have difficulties with this as well and it is important that the roles of Director and board are clearly defined.
A lot of boards put a lot of weight into the opinion of staff participating in the interview process, as staff will be the ones having to interact with the potential director on a day to day basis.
- Petra Mauerhoff, CEO, Shortgrass Library System
On the process of hiring a library director:

  • Great question. Some of the mechanics vary from institution to institution.
  • From my experience on a hiring committee:
    • Search firm was used to do the initial screening and also to help obtain candidates (because of other searches they had run).
    • Search committee had members from various campus academic and administrative areas, plus a student member, and a member of the library’s “friends” group.
    • Several candidates came to campus and had two days of meeting with various campus groups and library employee groups.
    • Candidates also made presentations.
    • Candidates also had receptions (social time) with the campus community.
    • Search committee made recommendation, not the final decision.

On some questions that candidates are asked:

  • Be prepared for questions about handling shrinking budgets — that’s a given in today’s economic climate.
  • Be prepared for questions about fundraising.
  • Be prepared for questions about making difficult decisions and managing staff, even if the library organization has an AD that handles human resources matters.
  • Be prepared for questions about one’s “vision” for libraries, the future, academia, technology.

On the most important qualities candidates can demonstrate:

  • Be prepared. Don’t have an “off the cuff” presentation. Practice, respect the time limits, and don’t turn it into a death by PowerPoint either.
  • Be personable.
  • Be a listener and respond appropriately to questions.
    • Don’t B.S. your answers.
  • Be sincere.
  • Curiosity and a willingness to say “I don’t know.”

Other advice:

  • Listen carefully for what is not said during the interview process.
  • Remember librarianship and academia is a relatively small community and bad news travels faster than good. Meaning, if you’ve consistently exhibited temper tantrums, an attitude of entitlement, or other negative behaviors, word gets out quickly, and your interview performance may be outweighed by past behavior. Search committee proceedings are confidential, but once you make it to the interview stage, people start talking. It’s human nature.

- Anonymous

Nicola FranklinFor any senior level ‘head of’ role, whatever the actual job title, there are some requirements that are a bit different to other management level jobs.  For all management positions there will be expectations of skills and experience of managing staff, allocating resources, input to or creating a departmental budget, and project management.  For a ‘head of’ service role, all these are expected but are joined by some other aspects.A person occupying a role at this level is expected to lead, rather than manage.  This means creating a vision of where the service could and should be in a few years time, winning buy-in from various stakeholders to those goals, and inspiring a management team and staff to want to strive to achieve them.  It also means representing the department or library to the outside world.  This could be to a Board of Trustees or to Councillors, or to community or business groups, or to other libary professional groups.Because of these aspects, the types of questions that could get asked in a recruitment interview include things like ‘tell us about your vision for a public library service’, ‘describe a time where you’ve successfully inspired a group to a course of action’ or ‘what is your experience of presenting a business case at senior level?’.I would say the most important qualities an aspiring library director could display are drive, energy, creativity, vision, integrity and influencing and presentational communication skills.  It’s also important to project the right image for the job – think ambassador for the library service.
- Nicola Franklin, Director, The Library Career Centre Ltd.
Laurie PhillipsWe did two searches before successfully hiring a new library Dean. For the first search, we did our own advertising and went through a traditional academic search. Unfortunately, with a more open search, we had candidates who were coming from much larger institutions and wanted more in salary than we could afford. That search failed. We undertook a second search last fall, using a search firm. This is normally the way our university undertakes searches for a new Dean, but in the first round, our Provost thought that the library field was different. It turns out we’re not. We sent the representative from the search first a large spreadsheet of every library dean or director or associate dean or director from libraries at the schools that have any affiliation with us – our peer institutions, our affinity group, the universities in our state, and the other universities in the Association of Jesuit College and Universities (AJCU). The search firm then undertook the task of contacting each of those people to either ask them to apply or to ask them for nominations. I’m not sure how our current Dean was nominated, but clearly, he was nominated by someone within that group. We met weekly via Skype with the search firm representative and narrowed down the pool to three candidates who were invited to campus. We then made a recommendation of our choice to the Provost.
- Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Technical Services, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans
We have hired two directors since I began at this institution, a private liberal arts college. Both positions were filled by a selection committee, which is the usual process here. I served on the selection committee for the most recent hiring. The committee was headed by the director’s supervisor and included representatives from faculty, library staff, information technology, and other staff on the same line as the director. The application process began with an announcement including a full job description and requesting a cover letter, resume/CV, and references. We saw the cover letter as the first opportunity for the candidate to show they had considered our unique job description. We looked for letters that could briefly describe how the candidate’s experience meshed with the director’s role described for our college. We appreciated if the resume was a reasonably brief overview of relevant experience, but length wasn’t a deal breaker. I would suggest that if references are requested and you don’t want to provide them at the application stage, you should explain why.
The next step for the committee was to narrow down applications to a handful for phone interviews. At the phone interview, we looked to find out a person’s priorities. We wanted to hear more detailed evidence of the candidate’s experience, get a sense of his/her personality and interests. We were thinking about how those qualities meshed with our organization. Specifically, we listened for success in a position of leadership, experience with managing people, ability to develop a vision,  experience with strategic planning, budgeting, and evidence of work with different constituencies. We were most satisfied with a candidate that could directly relate experiences that demonstrated these qualifications. In our candidate pool, few candidates had experience with all these things. So, we also looked at a candidate’s level of initiative and how well the candidate understood what was involved with taking on director-level responsibilities.
After phone interviews, we further narrowed the pool and brought remaining candidates in for on-campus interviews and meetings. We also had the candidate do a presentation which was open to faculty, staff, and students.
Naturally, different members of our selection committee and others involved in the process had different priorities depending on their role in our college. Communication skills impacted all aspects of the interview process. A candidate who can communicate succinctly and authoritatively and can adjust the message to the audience will have a distinct advantage.
I think it is important to accept that you may make a great director but not necessarily at every library to which you apply. Two big picture questions we tried to answer were: “What makes you want to be a director (if you are moving up)? or Why do you want to make this switch (if you already are a director)? AND Why is/isn’t your leadership style and experience right for this library?”
- Penny Lochner, Head of Collection Resource Management, Trexler Library, Muhlenberg College
Randall SchroederIn the past year, I have sat on both sides of the table for the hiring of a library director. I was the administrative representative during the successful search for our current Dean and I have been a candidate.
The first thing that a candidate needs to know about a search for an academic library dean or director is that it takes a long time. Until you hear that you have been eliminated for the pool, assume that you are still in the mix. Be patient. Universities are quite cautious about this process and treat it as if hiring an academic vice president. Depending on the organizational chart, this may even be the case.
The decision will probably involve a cross-campus committee for which scheduling meetings will be problematical. My experience is with mid-sized and small universities and colleges. In those environments, the first round is a selection of candidates for a phone, or more common of late, a Skype interview. After that, two, three, or no more than four will be selected for an on-campus interview. My interviews on both sides of the table have always been at least two days with a minimum of one presentation. Save your energy, it will be a grind.
In the search we just concluded, the question that seemed to be the most telling was asking the candidate to name a personnel triumph and a personnel disappointment. The goal for the best interviews is to get the candidates to tell stories of events in their professional lives which seems to give better insight than hypothetical situations. The question above was one I borrowed from an interview that stumped me at the time, but seemed a really good way to probe a critical area of management. I have better answers now, and it did created a separation between candidates in the committee’s mind.
Finally, know that the job notice is your friend and a great source of critical information. The elements and desired qualifications are there because they are important to someone in the decision making process. Even if you have no budgeting experience, come up with an answer somewhat better than “I let other people take care of it.” Review the literature so you have some talking points.
- Randall Schroeder, Department Head of Public Services, Ferris Library for Information, Technology & Education
When I attending library school at San Jose State Univ. (SJSU), I was selected to be the library school student representative on a search committee to select a new library director for the SJSU Library. At that time, the SJSU Library was about to embark on a joint library project with the city of San Jose Public Library, so the successful candidate for this position had to be able to work with several different constituents and stakeholders to bring the joint library concept to completion. I had worked in academic libraries for several years but had never served on a search committee, so the whole process was very eye-opening for me. The search committee, as I recall, had representatives from most if not all of the major academic units/colleges on campus, along with the director of the San Jose Public Library and I think some other members of the community at large. I don’t recall the exact questions that were asked of candidates we interviewed but I do remember that in both the telephone and on-campus interviews, the committee felt it very important that the successful candidate show evidence of strong leadership abilities along with the ability to work with different constituent groups. Also, we felt it important for that person to be able to see the bigger picture, to be a strong advocate for the library to both the internal community and to the larger external community, and to delegate where and when necessary and allow staff to lead within their own respective areas. I know that sounds like a tall order, but we were successful in being able to select a candidate who met those objectives and she was a great director. In the years since receiving my degree, I have greatly respected directors that I have worked for and worked with on ALA committees who have demonstrated those attributes.
- Samantha Thompson-Franklin, Associate Professor/Collections & Acquisitions Librarian, Lewis-Clark State College Library

On the process of hiring a library director:

The process of hiring a Library Director is much the same as hiring any manager. Decisions are made by the hiring authority on qualifications, scope of duties, experience, and salary range.  Ads are written and posted.  Applications are reviewed and interviews are conducted.  An offer is extended.

On questions that candidates are asked:

Interview questions are pretty standard.  How many years of Library experience do you have? What are your strengths and weaknesses?  Where do you see yourself in 5 years?  Tell us about a difficult situation you had (with a manager/subordinate/patron) and how you handled it?  What is your management style?  How many grant applications have you written?  What is the most important role of the Library in the community? Why do you want to be the director of THIS Library?

Most answers to these questions are pretty standard, too.  I have often been more impressed by the questions asked by the candidate.

 On the most important qualities candidates can demonstrate:

Professionalism. Be dressed for success, arrive early, don’t chew gum, have your own pen and paper, be polite.  Thank everyone for their time.

Honesty. 9 times out of 10 your references will be checked.

These are qualities the interviewers can measure.  Responsibility, enthusiasm, integrity, and dependability are important, but can only be evaluated over time, or mentioned by your references.

Other advice:

Do your homework and be prepared!  Libraries come in all shapes, sizes and organizational structures – Independent, City Managed, County Managed, State Managed.  You should know, before applying, how the Library is organized and who you will report to; the circulation stats; area demographics; number of staff members, etc.

Visit the library (or at least their web site) and get a feel for the patrons, and programs that are offered.  Match your experience to that.

Suggesting an idea for a new program or improvement can show thought and initiative, but remember, the people who are interviewing you think their Library is already pretty good.

After the interview, send a thank you.  An email is better than nothing, but a letter reinforcing your continued interest in the position carries a lot of weight for me.

- Sharon Levadnuk, Delmar Public Library Board of Commissioners

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight. 

If you’re interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

And thanks to YOU for reading! I’d like to know, Where in the world is Comment Miranda?

1 Comment

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One response to “Further Questions: How are Library Directors Hired?

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