Further Questions: Are You Looking for Candidates That Speak More Than One Language?

This week I asked people who hire librarians:

Does your organization/library give any additional weight to candidates who can speak more than one language?  If so, what languages are you looking for and how do you determine proficiency?

At Duke, as at other large academic libraries I’ve worked at, knowledge of other languages is a skill we value highly.  We have a number of jobs that require specific knowledge of specific languages, e.g., Catalog Librarian for Spanish & Portuguese Languages, Korean Studies Librarian, etc.  For cataloging, acquisitions, and other technical services positions, reading knowledge of the language is usually sufficient.  (Although for acquisitions positions, which are typically support-staff positions, it helps if you speak the language so you can call up that vendor in Shanghai or wherever and ask why something hasn’t arrived.)  For subject librarian/bibliographer positions, the ability to converse in the language is much more important.

I always say that as an academic librarian, nothing you know or learn is ever wasted — it will come up and be helpful to you at some point.  Languages are a great example of that.  If you speak or read a language we’re not specifically asking for, at some point we will probably need somebody who knows that language for some project, reference inquiry, etc.  So even if we’re not asking for someone who speaks Vietnamese for this reference librarian position, we would be glad to have somebody who speaks Vietnamese on-staff because it will probably come up at some point.  (Our Moving Image Archivist got me to make a phone call to Brazil for her once because she was having trouble placing an order for a film because she didn’t speak Portuguese and nobody there spoke English.  My Portuguese was very useful that day!)  Also, whatever language you speak, a patron who speaks that language will probably end up at the reference desk someday, and then it will be useful.

As I said, we often look for specific languages for specific positions.  Off the top of my head, the languages I know we have specifically recruited for include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean.  I’m probably forgetting some.  In general, the ones that are most widely used for us are French, Spanish, German, and Chinese.  We don’t have a test or anything for proficiency.  For tech services positions that require only a reading knowledge, I usually say that if you can read a newspaper article in the language and then summarize what it’s about, you probably have the knowledge you need.  (I don’t mean if you can read a 2-page article and say “It’s about politics,” that is good enough — you need to be able to get the details, but not every word and you don’t need to be able to translate on a sentence-by-sentence basis.)

Keep in mind that most languages are related to other languages, so if you can read one language well, you might be able to read its related languages pretty well, too.  For example, if you can read Spanish, you can read Catalan without much trouble.  If you know French and Italian, you can probably make your way through Romanian.  If you can read German, you might be surprised how well you can read Dutch.  Don’t assume that you have to have had formal study in a language to have basic proficiency in it.

– Rich Murray, Metadata Librarian, Digital Collections, Duke University

Marleah AugustineWe don’t actively look for multilingual candidates, but in some cases it is handy. We have an English as a Second Language program at our library, but skills in English are more important for our purposes in that case.

And I should say – we are in a fairly rural area and do not have a highly diverse population, just to give it some context!

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Nicola FranklinWhen I am registering candidates to help with their job search, if they have listed language skills on their resume/CV, then I will ask them to rate their own skill level in reading/writing/speaking.  When I have a job calling for a certain level of proficiency in a language, and I pick out candidates who have said they have this during registration, at that point I will ask them more detailed questions to try and verify their proficiency.

For example, I’ll ask whether they’ve used the language in practice (for example, on holiday, while living abroad, or at work) or just while studying it (alone or in a group setting), whether they would be confident to handle a customer complaint (on the telephone or face to face) in the language, or whether they could write a report or article for publication in the language.  I find that asking someone about confidence with practical applications gets a more detailed and more honest self-appraisal than asking an abstract question (such as – are you beginner, intermediate, or expert/fluent level).

I will then put apparently suitable candidates forward to my client, in the knowledge that they are likely to be given a practical test of the language skill level they’ve claimed during the interview stages.  This could be a written or computer based test, or having some/all of the interview conducted in the language, or being asked to give a presentation in it.  I have come across all of these at some point, although I’ve also had clients who take the candidate’s word for their skill level without further testing.  I guess it then becomes something for review during the probation period.

– Nicola Franklin, Director, The Library Career Centre Ltd.

Laurie PhillipsWe only require reading knowledge of a language for people who work with music, mainly because so many of the reference tools in music are in German. I would say German would be the most desirable followed by French or Italian. Catalogers are often required to have reading knowledge of various languages but we do not require that here. I am also the music cataloger and I can read German and a little bit of other languages. Our liaisons to Modern Languages speaks both French and Spanish, which is very helpful, but was not required. I don’t know how one would determine proficiency. In graduate school, I had to pass a proficiency exam in German or French (I chose German). It was a timed translation exam.

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

J. McRee Elrod

For SLC speaking is irrelevant. But we do value the ability to read and catalogue other languages. The most needed are nonroman script ones.

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



Terry Ann LawlerWe only give weight to more languages when we have insufficient staff who are fluent in other languages.  For example, if I have only one person on my library’s reference team who speaks Spanish and I’m in an area where a lot of our customers are Spanish speakers, I would make that a priority.

It would not be the only reason I hired someone, however.  If all candidates are equal and one speaks Spanish, I’d go with that person.  If one candidate is clearly the best pick and they don’t speak Spanish, I’d still go with that candidate.
We determine proficiency during the interview by asking a couple of conversational style questions in the language we need.

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


Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

Thanks for reading! I want to live like comment people, I want to do whatever comment people do…


Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Other Organization or Library Type, Public, Rural area

2 responses to “Further Questions: Are You Looking for Candidates That Speak More Than One Language?

  1. Pingback: Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

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