Further Questions: Can We Talk About References?

This week, inspired by tweets about this post, I asked people who hire librarians to talk to me about references.  My questions were:

Do you make any judgments based on who is on the list before even talking to the references? Do you expect to see the current supervisor on the reference list? If you call references, what are some of the questions you ask and how do the answers effect your decision to hire?

Marge Loch-WoutersWe usually have a fairly firm idea of who is our top candidate.  We then check references.  We like to see the current supervisor but are not married to seeing that person. Conflict can be a two-way street and I applaud candidates who seek out new employment when they are unsatisfied with conditions at their current job. I like to see a recent supervisor there though.  It helps me to determine more closely if this is a difficult employee or one who has a difficult manager.

We ask them to talk about the candidate’s strong points; any hesitations or concerns; would you hire this candidate; what sets this candidate apart from other librarians they know and work with; what kind of big picture thinking do you think this candidate has shown you; what is your relationship to the candidate.

A weak reference sends up massive red flags (“Just a second, let me think about who you are asking about.” “This candidate is very nice and prompt.”  “She’s my sister.”- yes, all truly spoken into my ear!). If the commendations aren’t stellar or are lukewarm, we know that the reference is signaling some important information and we need to proceed with caution.  At that point, we may go to the next candidate or even consider a call-back Skype interview with our top three to approach questions that may reveal more for us.

Finally, I have got to stress, pick references that KNOW your work and know YOU and, for the love of all the gods and goddesses, inform them if you get to the interview stage. Tell your reference about the job and how you think you’ll fit in. By humming a few bars, your reference will be able to rise to the top and focus on your professional skills that match the job you are trying for if they get a call about you.

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

Marleah AugustineOur application has a section for previous/current employment that asks for supervisor, so I prefer to not see a repeat of the same person in both the employment and reference sections. I also prefer to not see several people from the same organization listed as references – try to diversify a bit! If you’ve only had one job previously (which is often the case for our support staff), then list a teacher or coach as a reference in addition to the previous supervisor.

I tend to avoid applications that list current support staff as references. It’s great for people to get along with their co-workers, but I try to not hire a bunch of people who are already friends. I think this can affect productivity and people’s ability to learn a new job.

When I call references, I ask how the applicant worked in a group and what their tasks and responsibilities were (sometimes this differs from what was written on the application). I mainly want to know whether the person can fit in with a group and whether they did customer service type tasks. If they did different tasks, I can still determine whether those skills would be useful in our setting.
– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Laurie PhillipsI would not pass judgment on someone who does not include his or her current supervisor on the reference list. It’s possible that the candidate is not telling his or her current employer that they are looking for a new job and that’s okay. That said, we’ve had some issues where someone handpicked references who were friends who would speak about them in glowing terms. I had a supervisee who waited until I went on sabbatical to search for a new position because he knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t give him a good reference. His interim supervisor spoke highly of him in a way that I could not have.

We ask references a very specific set of questions about the experience and abilities of the candidate. We ask about job performance in general, then about the candidate’s performance in areas where we are particularly interested (like project planning and implementation, work in teams, interpersonal and communication skills). We also ask about notable accomplishments, what we would need to do to further the candidate’s development, and finally, after seeing the job description, if the reference thinks the candidate is a good fit for the position. We have gotten great references from people who were not in the library field, but who were able to generalize about the candidate’s work enough to be able to speak to what we needed to know. Other times, we’ve gotten nothing of value from a current supervisor who couldn’t generalize enough to talk about the person in the position we were hiring for. I hate to say it, but in our experience, library school professors are the worst offenders!

– Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Technical Services, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans

Generally speaking, we are only influenced by references if it is one of our present or past cataloguers.  WE understand is an applicant does not want their present employer to know they are job hunting.

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

Colleen HarrisI don’t expect to see a current supervisor on there – I find it often depends on the relationship a person has with their supervisor (and their workplace) whether or not they’re willing to inform their current supervisor that they’re on the job hunt. However, it is noticed and appreciated when the current supervisor is on the list. (And if you don’t have your current super on there, you should definitely make certain you have your immediately former supervisor there.) It is also common for candidates to ask that we not contact their current supervisor, if listed as a reference, unless they make it to the final stages of candidacy.

In terms of references, I always recommend that folks use professional references. I have seen applicants use only church friends, godparents, and family friends (or even relatives) – at the point that you are applying for a staff or faculty position, this is usually inappropriate. We want to hear from people who have worked with you in a professional capacity and can speak to your skills and talents without personal bias.

Finally, we ask the usual questions – in what capacity the person knows the applicant, their experience working with the applicant, their judgment of the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses. No real surprises, and all things you should speak to your references about so they have them fresh in their minds. (Remember to make up packets for your references with the job description, your current CV, and either your cover letter or how you connect to the job – the reference will appreciate the time you take to prepare them, and the committee member (or team, we do it by speakerphone) speaking to the reference will appreciate that they have so much information.

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


We are not allowed to give references. If someone calls me for a reference, I can only refer them to HR and HR will verify the work status of the person and the dates they worked here.

I do not call references. I generally go through an agency when I hire people. The agency screens the person thoroughly. The agency also calls references. I will talk with other managers who I know are aware of the person.

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

Thank you as always to the above for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and you would like to share your opinion in this segment (or otherwise), please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com.

And thank you for reading!  Comments are appreciated, especially if you are not a spammer.


Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Public

9 responses to “Further Questions: Can We Talk About References?

  1. Meredith

    I am very glad you expanded on this topic! Although I told my boss that I was looking, reminding her of this every time I send out a resume will just make my position here very uncomfortable. I understand the desire to check with a current supervisor when things get to the interview stage, though. For my references, I prefer to use people who will be happy for me if I move to a new position, rather than someone who will be personally inconvenienced.


  2. Anonymous

    I don’t have any references, especially professional references I can use. Should I just kill myself?


  3. Aimee

    My current dilemma is a recent supervisor who will not respond to reference requests despite saying she would be happy to give them. For example, some employers, especially school districts, require a supervisor be listed and immediately send a reference request by email. Although I can’t see the content, I can see which references respond. I suppose I could list HER supervisor, but she was over 300 miles away and usually had a very inaccurate view of what my responsibilities were.


  4. Penny

    Sorry, but I am not interested in a reference from someone for whom you dog sat. If you don’t have any current professional references, please try to do some volunteer work. I tell all the supervisors and department heads in my library to provide volunteers with a written description of duties that volunteer is expected to perform. At the end of the volunteer project, they should be prepared to give the person an informal evaluation. This way, when the volunteer requests a reference (since I know the person is probably volunteering to get experience and boost their resume), the supervisor will actually have something of substance to say about the work the volunteer did.

    I prefer an applicant not have all their references be LIS professors. Yes, I know recent grads may not have any paid work experience, but graduate work is not the same as working at a job 40+hours per week-where you have to show up and produce day after day, week after week.


  5. I have a serious problem with references at the moment. I’m currently looking for a full time position while having been at my current half-time position for a year and a half. It’s at a very small library, and I have no supervisor. Our last director was hired and left within 6 months. So I essentially have no one but the library board supervising me. The same is true for my coworkers. I believe the board is very happy with my work, but they’re not at the library on a daily basis. Should I ask the board president to be a reference? She wouldn’t have a problem with that, but it might seem very strange. What would be the best way to explain that? Should I explain in the cover letter? On the reference information?


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