Further Questions: What are Your Favorite Questions to Ask in an Interview?

This week I asked people who hire librarians:

What are your favorite questions to ask in interview, and why? If you can talk a little about the difference between what you ask over the phone versus in-person, that would be very helpful.

Marge Loch-WoutersMy favorite in-person question: Tell us about a mistake or bad decision you’ve made – and what did you learn from it?”

Although this is similar to the old chestnut “What is an area of weakness?”, we find that this elicits a whole different response and is a real thought-provoker in interviews.  It also lets our candidates know that we expect mistakes as we go along in our work but hope each one has a better solution that becomes a building block  to better service.

We do pre-screening Skype phone interview questions and essay questions to help us narrow down our field of candidates to invite for in-person interviews.  These essay questions explore writing and communication skills. The Skype phone interview helps us explore a general facility with the field of practice as well as suss out a little more of the candidate’s personality and how they handle themselves with technology.  When a candidate comes in for the in-person interview, we are looking much harder at how they obtain information and knowledge professionally and their philosophy of service (do they appreciate/use partnerships and networking/will they be responsive to the internal as well as external customer/their knowledge base of the literature/their ideas for actually working with the client group, etc).

– Marge Loch-Wouters, Youth Services Coordinator, La Crosse (WI) Public Library

Colleen HarrisI have a few:

1.       I’m actually genuine when I ask you “Why are you interested in this position?” I know in applicants’ heads they’re all saying “Because I need a JOB”, but I really want to know how you think the position will fulfill you in some way. You’re going to be spending 40 hours a week on the job, and more if it’s a professional librarian position. We hope to keep you for awhile. Part of retention (in addition to developing a good culture and treating your employees well) is having folks in positions they find fulfilling in some way. Knowing what parts of a job applicants are particularly attracted to definitely helps. (Also, to applicants: please be sure what attracts you about the job is actually something somewhat related to the job!) This should be routinely prepped for all interviews; it also gives you the opportunity to show that you ‘did your homework’ about my institution – applicants who can cite our current or recently completed projects as examples of things they’d like to contribute tend to fall leagues ahead of folks who talk about us as a generic library in terms of attractiveness as a prospective hire.

I can’t repeat enough: this is not a question to blow off. It’s used as our first question because it’s a good icebreaker, but it’s also a Real Interview Question ™

2.       “Can you give me an example of something you accomplished as part of a team?” Interviews tend to be a lot of “I, I, I.” In my library, very little gets done without the concerted effort of multiple people. I want to know how you’ve worked with others to accomplish something. This is probably already part of your basic interview prep, but it’s an important one.

3.       “Can you tell me about something you failed at, and how that failure has informed your practice?” This says a lot about folks in terms of who is willing to take risks, what applicants consider ‘failures,’ and whether there was any critical reflection over those failures so that future enterprises still benefit from the attempt. It also happens to be (although that wasn’t my original intent) a question that prompts folks to reveal their true selves in terms of talking about their current/former employers and colleagues.

– Colleen  S. Harris, Head of Access Services & Assistant Professor, Lupton Library,University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

John StachaczI like to ask open ended questions that reveal something about the personality and character of applicants.

1.        Can you do the job?

Simple question that separates true knowledge and experience from BS.

2.       So far in your career, tell me about your most successful project or accomplishment – something you look on with pride.

3.       The reverse –      Tell me about a project or work related task that wasn’t successful.  What did you learn from it?

These two questions tell me a lot about the character of a person.

I’ll ask these questions either in person or on the phone and sometimes both.

– John C. Stachacz, Dean, Farley Library, Wilkes University

What is your experience as a cataloguer?  (Most library schools no longer adequately teach cataloguing.)

In what languages can you catlogue?  (For one major client, both English and French are essential, and an esoteric language item shows up as part of several clients’ batches.)

What classifications and subject heading lists have you used?  (Some clients wish LCC, DDC, NLM, FC, PS8000, KF common law, LCSH, MeSH, and/or RVM.)

Are you confident coding AARC2 in MARC21?  (All clients at present want AACR2/MARC21 records.)

With what cataloguing software are you familiar?  (Our cataloguers may use Bibliofile, MARCEdit, MARCReport.)

Are you familiar with Z39.50, Library of Congress (LC) and Library and Archives Canada (LAC) catalogue searching?  (These are the sources of derived records.)

Are you familiar with LC and LAC authority searching?  (The files we check for entry form.)

Have you ever created macros using KeyExpress?  (Macros can be great time savers.)

Notice we do not ask about RDA; we have cheat sheets for when/if we create RDA records.

– J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging

Terry Ann Lawlermy favorite questions are always the situational ones.  they are very enlightening about the candidates.
examples include:  “you have a customer at the desk for help with their card, the phone is ringing, the copy machine guy is waiting for your cash drop, there is a broken computer and the customer wants to be moved to a new computer. NO ONE ELSE CAN HELP YOU.  in which order do you proceed.”  or “a customer is very angry about his library account.  he asks to speak to a manager, but there isn’t one, you’re it.  he insists that he should not have to pay the fees, even as he admits that he returned the items over 15 days late.  what do you say to him?”
questions like this have NO correct answer.  there is no way for a person to know what all of our procedures or policies are (unless they already work here).  i am not looking for that.  what i am looking for is a) how you handle stress, b) how you prioritize, c) that you have a solid customer service base.
regardless of what order you put the items in question one, i am looking for the reasons you used that order.  if it is logical, it is a good answer.  example:  someone from a banking background may deal with the cash drop first.  someone from a call center background would put the phone first.
likewise with the 2nd question.  i don’t care if you come up with a totally different answer than what i would do.  i care that you showed compassion, that you had a possible solution and that you weren’t afraid to try to deal with the situation.

for phone interviews: our city has a strict policy that ALL candidates get the same questions.  this levels the playing field, but may make it a little bit more difficult for people on the phone to convey things like empathy, which we often do with facial expressions and body language.  i would recommend that anyone with a phone interview spell out EXACTLY what they are trying to say and why.  it may sound like you are ‘dumbing it down’ but it will keep you from accidentally not conveying what you really mean.

– Terry Lawler, Assistant Manager and Children’s Librarian, Palo Verde Branch, Phoenix Public Library

My favorite question is “tell me about yourself”. In my environment there is a lot of thinking quickly on our feet and not sounding like a moron. I like to ask this question to see what people will say. I am often interested in hearing about hobbies, travel. I am usually not interested in a boring recitation of their resume.

– Jaye Lapachet, Manager of Library Services, Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP

Barbara Stripling

What have you done in the past year that makes you most proud?

  • I like this question because it gives the candidate a chance to brag on him or herself, but in terms of accomplishments, not just being a good person.  It gives me a chance to gauge the priorities of the candidate and whether or not the candidate actually gets something done, rather than just filling a slot.  I also like the question because it doesn’t require that the candidate has already been working as a librarian.  The pride could be for academic or personal goals met.

What’s the biggest change coming to libraries in the next five years and how can we be ready to take advantage of that change?

  • I want to know how up-to-date and flexible the candidate’s thinking is.  If the idea of change is seen as a threat rather than an opportunity, then we probably don’t have a good match and the candidate would be happier working for someone else.

What strategies do you use to “work with difficult people?”

  • Human relations is a big part of any library job.  Librarians will always encounter difficult people.  I want to know if the candidate has empathy for others and tries to understand the cause of the difficulty so that the issues can be addressed, or if the candidate just labels the person difficult and tries to get out of the situation quickly.  I also want to know if the candidate is reflective enough to have thought about strategies for situations like this.

– Barbara Stripling, Asst. Professor of Practice at Syracuse University iSchool, Former Hirer of School Librarians

Marleah AugustineI just did 4 interviews on Monday, so this is fresh for me. In addition to the general questions about customer service and the individual’s professional strengths, I love to ask “situation” questions. Specific things like, “What would you do if a patron came up and told you that another patron on the computers was looking at pornography?” Bonus points to the interviewee if they ask about the policy before giving their answer. It puts the interviewee in that situation, and you can tell if they will be comfortable under fire while at the desk (since that’s where most of the staff I hire end up).
I have only ever interviewed people face to face rather than on the phone. For the part-time positions that I hire for, I feel that it’s important for them to be present in order to interview.
– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

One of our favorite questions is “what are you reading?”

We usually ask it right before we wrap- up but can also use it as an icebreaker.

I also like “what did you do to prepare for this interview?”

The best candidates have made themselves thoroughly familiar with the library, our strategic plan, and our digital branch; they have made an effort to understand  how the position fits into the work we do (or have relevant, specific questions about that topic)  It’s also good to hear about a candidate’s network, which is something new hires bring that adds value to the entire organization.

– Stephen Lusk, Human Resources Director, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

I am so excited by these answers; I think they are really illuminating. Thank you to my interviewees!
What about you, dear readers?  Would you care to share some of the questions you have been asked in interviews?  Or some of the questions you ask interviewees? (By the way, if you are someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at HiringlibrariansATgmail.  I don’t require a commitment on your part).


Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Public, School, Special

10 responses to “Further Questions: What are Your Favorite Questions to Ask in an Interview?

  1. “I really want to know how you think the position will fulfill you in some way”

    Most often we are told to explain how we would benefit the job, not why the job would be good for us. Or is the distinction that in a cover letter, you should tell how you will benefit the job, but in an interview it is acceptable to say why the job is good for you?

    “I am often interested in hearing about hobbies, travel. I am usually not interested in a boring recitation of their resume.”

    Again, all I’ve heard is to stay away from personal things and to give a short description of what lead you to apply for that job. How is one to know what the interview is asking? Could one ask, “Are you looking for a personal or a job-related answer?” It would be almost like the start of a reference interview.

    Client: I need information on Canada.

    Librarian: Anything in particular about Canada?


    • Anonymous

      Jil, I didn’t post that question, but I think it is totally reasonable to ask for clarification about whether a question is personal or not. Honestly, if someone waxed poetic about their passion for fly fishing after I said ‘tell me about yourself’ I’d be a little leery;)


  2. Carrie

    What Jill said. I love the idea of turning a job interview into a reference interview.


  3. Anonymous

    I also like the questions that call for the applicant to cite a past failure or bad decision. It’s always interesting to see whether they focus on the “failure” or on what they did to correct it. Also, I agree it is a good way to see if someone is a risk-taker, which may be a plus or minus depending on the nature of the job. The situational questions are good, too, and you can usually spot the robots (“follow the policy”) or the people who will stand there like a deer in the headlights.


  4. “Tell me about yourself” really means, tell me what about your interests and proclivities, as might relate to this job. I am not going to tell an interviewer (or anyone else in a decision making capacity) what I am reading, if the subject matter is likely to be controversial to them, or totally unrelated to the job and/or environment. OTOH, if I am reading a work of history (which is often), or a biography (depends on the subject of course), then I’ll say. If I am interviewing for a public library position, I would let them know I’m up on the top sellers. It depends on the library. Perhaps the, “tell me about yourself” question should be framed in a more nuanced way. Maybe–“tell me about personal interests/experiences that relate to this job.” You really don’t need to know more than that unless you are planning a very special job position for the interviewee.


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