Further Questions: Would You Hire a Person Who Has an Autistic Spectrum Disorder For a Reference Librarian Position?

A reader contacted me this week with two requests.  He is trying to get in contact with other librarians who have autistic spectrum disorders.  If you would like to contact him or (or if you’ve passed this request on to anyone you know who fits this description), please email me at hiringlibrarians_AT_gmail.com and I will connect you.

He also had some questions for people who hire librarians.  He asked:

The first question is: Would you hire a person who has an autistic spectrum disorder for a reference librarian position?

The second question is: Would you prefer if someone with an autistic spectrum disorder discloses that they have one during an interview? I ask this question as the librarians who interview me may not notice that I have an autistic spectrum disorder. I feel that if I am to able to disclose that I have one during an interview, the librarians will understand my strange behavior.

The final question is: Would you as a reference department manager allow a librarian with an autistic spectrum disorder to have a trial period in which they could demonstrate their skills before fully hiring them?  I ask this question as I feel when I am at interviews I am not judged on what skills I have but on my personality. I don’t have a normal personality and it is hard for me to pretend to have one.

From my own experience as an administrator, and from a library school class on information resources and services for people with disabilities (one of my very favorite classes, taught by Ellen Greenblatt – if you’re at SJSU I recommend it), I think the reader is actually covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  So if the reader needs reasonable accommodations when applying for or performing a job,employers are legally required to provide them.  However, what is legally required is not always what happens and there is definitely some room for interpretation when talking about what is a reasonable accommodation.  

I passed the reader’s question on and added:

Have you ever had someone self-identify as an individual with a disability during the hiring process?  How did it change things?

Terry Ann LawlerFirst, yes, I would hire someone with an autistic spectrum disorder .  I would always hire the person I thought could best do the job, had the best qualifications AND would be a good fit for our staff (see previous post on fit), regardless of other issues like spectrum disorders or disabilities.

 There are very strict laws regarding ADA and what one is allowed and not allowed when hiring.  Of course, I would follow any law to the letter  and I can’t recommend that someone disclose any disability.  That being said, if it were me, and I thought it would help me in an interview, I’d do it in a second, regardless of what it was.  ALWAYS use an edge if you have it.  ALWAYS explain or supplement if you think it will help you!   Your reader is correct in the assesment that some librarians might not notice some one has a spectrum disorder.   If your reader has trouble coming across and would like to be sure that s/he is still considered fairly, then yes, by all means, mention it.  As a hiring supervisor, I would not feel that mentioning an issue or disability is strange or inappropriate or manipulative behavior.
Lastly, were it up to me, yes, I would do a trial period.  In fact, if it were up to me, I’d probably do LOTS of trial periods.  That is a great idea.   Unfortunately, I work for a large city organization that doesn’t do trial periods.  In this case, it would behoove your reader to do some volunteer work or finagle an internship at the library in which s/he wishes to work.  This is ALWAYS a good idea as it gives hiring managers a chance to get to know you and gives you a meaningful chance to prove your worth.  It will also beef up your resume and may add relevant references to your list.
– Terry Lawler, Assistant Manager and Children’s Librarian, Palo Verde Branch, Phoenix Public Library

I don’t hire anyone directly. Unless a partner’s child appears on the scene and I have no choice, I go through an agency. I go through an agency, because a couple of interviews are not enough time to assess a person’s library related skills, their learning style, their interaction with attorneys and other staff, their speed and how they respond under pressure.

The questions proposed are difficult. I cannot reject a candidate because of a disability, but a candidate can be rejected for other reasons and claim it was because of a disability if the disability was disclosed. I think that I would want to know, but not at the first meeting, perhaps at the time the job was offered or the temp-perm position was offered. I would expect this issue to be discussed with my agency.

I have never had anyone, that I can remember, self-identify as having a disability. There are a lot of librarians who have some sort of personality quirk. It seems to be a quirky profession, though, so I am used to dealing with different personalities. I would expect anyone, whether they have an Autism Spectrum issue or are extremely shy or have Tourette’s,  to do everything in their power to train themselves for the interview and working in a professional environment. I don’t mean changing their personality, because that doesn’t work long term. I mean go to a career counselor and work with someone trained to prepare people for interviews.

A part of every job in my Library includes dealing with, sometimes, busy, difficult and demanding attorney personalities. We work in a fast paced, demanding and high stakes environment. Peaceful is not a word I would associate with this environment and having knowledge to do reference isn’t enough. I can train a person to check in the mail or do reference. I cannot train a person has to handle the pressure with grace and professionalism. If any candidate feels they cannot handle the pressure and cannot conduct themselves with professionalism, humor and grace in this sort of environment, they should let me know during the interview process.

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

Since our 28 cataloguers mainly work at a distance, I see only one on a regular basis, and two others occasionally, their mental states are unknown to me.  I only know the quality of their records.  It was a great shock when one of our best producers of MARC records committed suicide.  There are both advantages and disadvantages to our lack of connectivity beyond work related electronic communications.  Personal appearance and personality are not being judged.  On the other hand, warning signals of emotional problems go unseen.
– J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging

On hiring a person who has an autistic spectrum disorder for a reference librarian position: I have to say that I am not an expert on autism and its different manifestations. That said, I look at the qualifications of the individual and try to judge mostly based on those. But in all honesty, as a search committee member, you look at the person during the interview, at meals, in conversation and make the decision from there. I guess it would depend on the personality traits about which you speak.

On disclosing an autistic spectrum disorder during an interview: I believe in personal privacy and choice. It is up to the applicant whether or not s/he feels comfortable providing that information. I have mixed feelings about interviewees who divulge personal or health-related information. One the one hand, it’s a show of honesty, directness and a desire to put everything on the table. On the other hand, I wonder whether it is necessary in light of their performance. And once that information has been divulged, can the applicant, if not chosen, claim discrimination? I don’t know. But again, I don’t know exactly your situation and as a search committee member, do we ever really know a person until we’ve hired and worked with them for a while? Anybody can be a surprise!

On allowing a trial period: Well, I work for a state agency and the hiring rules are inflexible. I would not be allowed to do that, but in a different institution, they might be able to. Even if I could, I don’t think I would because it would require so much time, energy and money to train someone in a “potential” position. A better idea, I think, is to volunteer for a library or get an internship where you can gain skills, add to your resume and get feedback from professionals, without the risk of losing a job. Does that make sense?

On the effect of having someone identify as having a disability: Yes, I have. It was a physical disability that was clear when the person was interviewed, though we also already knew about it because he told us about it during the telephone interview. How did it change things? I honestly don’t think it changed much. We were looking more closely at the person’s qualifications and how the person communicated, etc. But I can only speak for me. I think other members of the committee were swayed by the candidate’s story (in retrospect).

In a nutshell, I will say that personality is part of the candidate’s make-up and it is something that I consider, especially for a public service position like reference librarian (you will deal with many people). In your case, without knowing specifically what you mean, it may be helpful to mention your autism since you said “I feel when I am at interviews I am not judged on what skills I have but on my personality“. That may also make you feel better.

– Anonymous

Of course, everything really hinges on ADA regs…but, yes, I did hire someone with a disability and they disclosed at interview…we discussed the accommodations that would be necessary, the library accepted those accommodations, and we hired. It was a physical disability, not an ASD.

I would feel that if someone did not disclose – and then the ASD caused issues with patrons — it would be more difficult for me and the library to come to terms with whatever accommodations were necessary, even during a trial period.

Also – and there is always an also – we discovered that once we had made the accommodation, then it became the base level.  So as the physical disability of our employee got worse, and the employee was unable to meet job requirements, we had to re-do the accommodations. The ADA attorney felt that once we had re-written the job description we could not refuse to do so again, for “minor” changes – and those minor changes added up over a period of time to a major problem. We ended up with an employee who could not do any of the tasks originally agreed-upon and had to “make-up” a job.

Now, there is nothing stranger than patron behavior :>)  so I am wondering specifically what she is talking about — but I think that I would be more inclined to hire if I knew, could (given the job description and requirements) make a reasonable accommodation and work with the employee.

– Dusty Gres, Director, Ohoopee Regional Library System

On hiring a person who has an autistic spectrum disorder for a reference librarian position: Yes, if the person could relate to our users well.

On disclosing an autistic spectrum disorder during an interview: This is a hard one, maybe more so for the interviewee.   If the interviewing is going so well that the interviewers “may not notice” that the person has a disorder, then presumably, the person can function with the public.  How well our students are being assisted would be my only concern.

On allowing a trial period: Most colleges have a probationary period, usually 3 months, so this person would have an opportunity to show what he/she could do.

I don’t know for sure what a “normal personality” is.  No two people are alike.   Again, by biggest concern would be how a not so “normal personality” would present itself to our public.  I have worked with all kinds of people in reference, some of whom, I would never befriend, but they assisted our students successfully without complaints from anyone.   I have also supervised a couple of reference librarians who have not disclosed any disabilities, but were horrendously bad with the public, alienating faculty and students alike.   They were both eventually asked to leave, one by me, and one by the Director of the Library (at two different institutions.)

On the effect of having someone identify as having a disability: Yes.  I once interviewed a reference librarian who was deaf.  She wore hearing aids.  We could obviously see them, but she did self-disclose at the very beginning of the interview.  There was also some indication from things on her resume, that she might at least have a hearing disorder.   She told us at the interview what accommodations she might need if she were hired.  They were all easy to provide.

It did not change things.  We hired her, and she worked with us for several years.  We did have to make some accommodations such as putting an amplifier on the reference desk phone and on her office desk phone.  At the desk, this would sometimes become a little funny, because she would often forget to turn the volume back down after her reference shift, and the next person would be blasted when they answered the phone.   We also started out by having people raise their hands before they were going to speak at reference and other meetings. Apparently, she used a combination of the hearing aid and reading lips in group settings.   It worked for a while, but there were a couple of people who just didn’t or wouldn’t do it, and the librarian got a big frustrated trying to figure out who was speaking, especially when the conversation got heated or very involved.  We eventually hired an interpreter to come to the meetings to do sign language for her.  We were fortunate to have a very good Disability Services Department who had people on staff who could do this.  Our librarian was a very gregarious, different type of person with an excellent sense of humor.   She related to people, especially one on one, very well which makes for a good reference Librarian.

– Sharon Britton, Library Director, BGSU – Firelands


Laurie PhillipsFirst let me say that we do have a librarian with a physical disability (she uses crutches to walk). We were initially a little concerned about accessibility issues on campus but she gets around so fast that she leaves me in the dust and she has ways of getting around any obstacles and carrying what she needs.

Now, as for the questions about autistic spectrum disorder and being a reference librarian. Here, we don’t have anyone who is a “reference librarian” so I will answer that question about hiring librarians generally. All of us, Tech Services and Public Services librarians, work at the desk, teach, and have jobs that are off the desk as well.  We need and require library faculty who have excellent verbal and interpersonal skills. We have to be able to stand up in front of a classroom, connect with students and faculty on a one-on-one level, and we must be able to speak up and interact on the library’s behalf on university-level committees. My feeling is that, if you can show in a two-day on campus interview situation that you are comfortable with meeting and talking with people at all levels, and giving a presentation, we would hire you regardless of the disability. If the applicant is uncomfortable with any of the parts of the job requirements that I mentioned, he or she may be better suited to a different type of organization, and it may come down to their own comfort level rather than ours.

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


To answer your first question, I would not automatically exclude someone from hiring consideration because they have a disability.  One, it is illegal to do so, and two, I could be missing out on some good talent.
Job announcements should be written carefully to include what is required for the job.  For example, if I was hiring someone for technical processing, the job announcement may include in required skills that they have to be able to lift 50 lbs.  For reference librarian, the job announcement may include good communication skills under required skills.  Someone with an autism spectrum disorder can have good communication skills.  It can depend where they are on the spectrum.  My son has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and yes, he can seem a little odd to people who do not know him.  However, I have found that many librarians, ASD or not, are a ‘little odd’.  As we say in my family, “Why be normal?  That is soo last year.” What customers appreciate is a willingness to help, a friendly smile, and competency.  I do take personality into account when I hire.  I look for a personality that will work with my current personalities, and for someone who is friendly.  However, personality is not my first consideration.  Skills ranks much higher.
As for your second question, no, I would not want someone to disclose that they have a disability during the interview.  It would open up legal issues if that person is not chosen if they were not chosen for a reason other than their disability.
– Tracey Thompson, Assistant Manager of Library Operations, Midwest City Library

On hiring a person who has an autistic spectrum disorder for a reference librarian position: I would hire them but I think the public deserves an explanation of some behaviors which may be perceived as rudeness. And so, even though this would mean crossing a line that most people don’t cross (providing private medical information), the Reference Librarian should make this known to the public she/he deals with as a way of making interactions easier. People are often curious about others’ situations and very sympathetic and understanding – in my experience, anyway. But this is pretty controversial and could open up a whole can of worms!

On disclosing an autistic spectrum disorder during an interview: I think that it is important to disclose anything which may affect job performance. One of the skills required is being able to diplomatically deal with all kinds of behaviors and personalities. Being able to perceive nuances in behavior can be critical in helping reference interactions.

On allowing a trial period: Most work places already have a trial or probationary period, I believe.

On ever having someone self-identify as having a disability: No, I haven’t.

– Anonymous

Thank you as always to the above for their time and insight.  If you also have time, insight, and have participated in the hiring of librarians, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com to talk about contributing that powerful knowledge here.

And thank you for reading!   Remember, comments are a girl’s best friend, and I’m lonesome!

Further Resources:

Farrell, K. (2012, April). MLIS Librarians and Aspergers: Surviving the Job Interview [blog post]. Ideas from the School of Library and Information Science. Wayne State University. http://blog.slis.wayne.edu/blog/bid/123631/MLIS-Librarians-and-Aspergers-Surviving-the-Job-Interview


Filed under Further Questions, Public, Special

5 responses to “Further Questions: Would You Hire a Person Who Has an Autistic Spectrum Disorder For a Reference Librarian Position?

  1. Jen

    Great discussion! I once supervised an LIS grad student worker with an ASD. She was bright and gregarious but had a hard time relating to patrons. She ended up deciding to pursue a job after graduation that required less public contact simply because of her own comfort level. I think it really depends on the individual and his or her challenges, and I suspect most hiring committees would recognize that. But I agree with the person above who suggested a career coach if the applicant hasn’t already. The student I knew worked extensively with a coach to help her learn how to participate appropriately in our staff meetings, how to handle discussions with her boss, etc. She seemed to feel this was quite helpful.


  2. Meredith

    We interviewed a librarian who had ASD–she did not self-disclose, but we were pretty certain midway through the interview. Her previous library director later told us this this because she wanted us to understand why her manner was atypical. She lost her previous job, that included reference duties, due to budget cuts. We decided not to hire her because our position required dealing with whatever crisis occurred that evening and she did not seem to have the skills to deal with an ever-changing environment. In a strictly reference position, she would have been a great candidate and was very well-liked by her patrons in her previous job.


  3. Aimee

    “I don’t have a normal personality and it is hard for me to pretend to have one.”

    I find myself intensely identifying with this line, not due to disability, but in terms of cultural fit. While I certainly agree that an employee ideally needs to fit into a company’s culture, my problem extends to the culture of this part of the country as a whole, not just one or two companies. My family has lived here several years, and I still find I must pretend to be an entirely different person to gain employment in any field, not just in libraries. Fortunately, my spouse is a much more talented actor than I am, but that talent combined with lack of jobs means we won’t be moving to a different culture any time soon.


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