Further Questions: What Questions Should Candidates Ask You?

This week’s question is inspired by Jenica Rogers’ excellent post on the topic, from her blog Attempting Elegance.

We’ve already talked about what questions they like to ask, so this week I asked people who hire librarians:

What questions should candidates ask you in an interview?  
Marleah AugustineI love hearing something like, “I saw on your website that you offer X” followed by a question like “How long have you been doing that?” or “What do patrons think?” First, it shows that the person cared enough to look us up online. Second, it shows an interest in the connection between the library and the patrons. This is huge in a public library like ours, where 75% of the positions involve working directly with the patrons.I also like to hear applicants ask what their duties will involve or what a typical shift would look like for them. Sometimes the person has no idea what the job will entail, and in some cases they aren’t interested once they know. It’s much better to find this out during the application process than two weeks into the job!
– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Marge Loch-WoutersJenica’s questions are excellent in her Attempting Elegance blog.   And she is spot on – candidates must interview as well as be interviewed to make sure the job is the right fit for both sides.

As a youth area, we love the questions that show the candidate is really thinking about the youth area and the public they potentially might be serving:

What kind of partnerships are currently in place with the community’s youth-serving organizations? Do you see room for growth here?

Do you support outreach into the community?

How do you serve daycare providers?

How would you characterize the energy among the youth department team members?

By thinking beyond “What is your budget for books?” kinds of questions and probing a little more deeply, you can get a realistic picture of the library you are interviewing with.

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

Laurie Phillips

I got some help from my colleagues on this one –

1.       What will you do to support my growth and development in this position (not just conferences/travel, but training, mentoring, etc.)?

2.       How has this job description changed? Is it new? Revised?

3.       How does the library’s rank and tenure process work? What would my responsibilities be as a faculty member in a tenure-track position?

4.       What are the most pressing issues for this position? What would you want me to work on immediately?

5.       Clarifying questions showing that you have carefully read the job description.

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

Nicola FranklinFirstly I’d like to emphasise that it is important to have questions to ask – it always surprises me how many candidates say ‘no you’ve covered everything thank you’!  Brimming with curiosity about the post / organisation, as evidenced by having loads of questions, is one of the best ways to show your enthusiasm for the role (as well as being your main chance to figure out whether you’d like the job if it’s offered), so applicants should always make sure to take full advantage.

I would advise preparing quite a long list of questions to ask before you go for an interview – the interviewer is bound to cover some of them during the meeting and you don’t want to run out.  Comb through the job posting, job description, organisation website, twitter feed, etc and jot down any questions that come to mind.  How do they do…. , why is ….. done that way, who does….., etc.  Also during the interview(s) themselves, other questions may come to mind as you want to find out more detail of something the interviewer has said.  If all the interviews have been conducted in an anonymous meeting room, you could ask if it’s possible to have a tour of the library.

Other questions to ask are things like

  • ‘what’s the culture like here?’,
  • ‘why did you come to work here/ why have you stayed working here so long?’,
  • ‘how did this role come about (replacement or new)? – if new, why was it created?’,
  • ‘how does the library fit into the organisation structure?’
  • ‘what projects do you expect the postholder to work on?’,
  • ‘how will you measure success in this role?’,
  • ‘what is the scope for training & development?’

Questions to avoid (in the initial interview stages) are ones like ‘what’s the salary’, ‘how many vacation days are there’, ‘is healthcare included’, ‘what are the pension arrangements’, etc.  Those sort of brass tacks questions should be saved right to the end of the process, preferably after they’ve made an offer.  Asking them any sooner risks you looking as though you’re just ‘out for what you can get’ rather than being interested in the job itself.

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

J. McRee Elrod

We expect to be asked about our standards and practices, including plans for RDA.  Of course questions concerning work volume and renumeration are in order.

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

One thing that I agree with 100% is the need for candidates to definitely ask questions. If a candidate doesn’t have any questions before or after being asked if they have any, it tells me that they have not done any research into the position, or the college, and they aren’t that interested in knowing more. Questions would abound if candidates looked at a college or university website, and specifically, the library page. I

n my opinion, candidates should ask questions such as (not in any particular order):

  • “I noticed on your website that you do X, Y or Z. Can you tell me why you do that? “ Or “Can you tell me how successful that has been? What do students think about this?
  • “How does the library director/department head/supervisor feel about new ideas and suggestions about library operations? Is he/she open to them from librarians and staff?”
  • “How long has each of your worked for this college and can you tell me something you like, or and something you don’t like, about working here?”
  • “How heavily used is the library? Do you have any mechanisms for student input into library policies, procedures or services? If so, do you ever implement student suggestions?”
  • “What qualities are you looking for in the successful candidate for this position?”
  • “Do you consider this library to be user, service-oriented, and if so, please describe in what ways it is?”

These are just a few, but definitely the candidate must show interest in the position, and show an eagerness to participate in making it a service oriented and comfortable place for students, faculty and other users. In other words, having the ability to be part of a team. The very fact of asking questions, as opposed to having none, shows this eagerness to me as an interviewer and supervisor.
You didn’t ask this question, but alternatively there are questions that I feel should not be asked, or at least not the only ones asked. Questions that seem to indicate only self-interest, such as, salary questions too early in the process. Is there room for advancement in this position?” is one that I believe should not be asked. The candidate is applying for the position at hand, and in my opinion, should be concentrating on doing the best job possible in that position for the good of the library, not thinking about moving up the ladder. That may indeed happen as he/she grows in the position. Questions that make it very clear that they are criticizing their last employer, should also not be asked. We probably all have issues with something in our positions, but if the candidate is opening criticizing their present or immediately previous employer, they may do the same at your library.
Obviously, interviewing is not just what’s on one’s resume, although that is obviously of the utmost importance. Attitude of a candidate at the interview, and a feeling that this person will “fit” into the organization is crucial. Asking good, interesting and interested in the position and institution questions are the ones that will make a candidate stand out and hopefully for them, IF they are truly interested, get the job.
– Sharon Britton, Library Director, BGSU – Firelands

Samantha Thompson-FranklinI think an important question for candidates to ask library search committee members is what does the library director (or the person’s immediate supervisor) expect of the person who is hired to be successful in the position (beyond what is listed in the job ad). Also, what is the corporate culture of the library? Do the staff socialize together? Are they clock-watchers and leave the minute their day/shift is over or do people regularly putting in extra hours? It can be helpful to know these things before accepting a job so that you know what to expect coming into the position.

– Samantha Thompson-Franklin, Associate Professor/Collections & Acquisitions Librarian, Lewis-Clark State College Library

Paula HammetI think Jenica’s list on the Attempting Elegance blog is a great one!

Rather than adding more specific questions, I’ll focus on what I’m listening for in the candidate’s questions (from an academic librarian’s perspective).

First, the interview process is clearly a two-way street, so it would be silly to not take advantage of the opportunity to find out more about the place you’re hoping to join. I am always truly disappointed when a candidate, who has been strong up to that point, has no questions for the committee. Really?

I want to see that the candidate has done some homework, spent some time perusing the library and campus websites, and thought about the kinds of programs the library has and how the candidate might contribute to those programs.

Phrase your questions in a way that shows interest and possible expertise, e.g., “I see you have an Art Gallery in the library. How do you choose what displays there? Are there any ties to the curriculum? Are students involved in creating or curating the art? What kind of responses do you get to the exhibits? Is there a role for this Outreach Librarian to play in these efforts?” Or, “I see you have a number of digital collections as well as an institutional repository. How might this Web Services position work together with the creators of these collections to make them more discoverable?” Or “I see from the campus website that that over half of your students live on-campus. What kinds of outreach do you do with Residential Life? Do you do any co-programming?”

Avoid questions that are easily answered on the website, e.g., “Do you have any graduate programs?”

We always schedule a separate meeting with our campus Faculty Personnel Director, so save your questions about salary and benefits for that discussion.

Understanding the work climate is really important! If you are a 9-5 kind of person, and this is more of a 50 hour a week position, both parties need to know that up front. We all understand the need for a work-life balance, and we all make decisions based on our priorities. You need to know going in what the expectations of the position are. If we say we need someone who can work occasional evenings and weekends, and you say you don’t answer the phone on weekends because that’s family time, then this is not the right match.

The other aspect of work climate is how people work with each other. It’s important to ask about the management structure. Who would you report to? Is it a strict hierarchy or more collaborative? How is evaluation done? Do people enjoy working here or are they feeling crushed by difficult workplace relationships? Obviously you can’t ask the latter question straight out, but you can get to it through questions like, “What do you enjoy most about working here?” Pay close attention to what is and is not mentioned!

I really like the question, “What are you most recent innovative projects and how were they implemented?” It gives you a chance to see what they think is innovative. If getting rid of the card catalog is top on their list, you may wonder how open they are to new ideas. It may also give you an idea of whether the innovation was driven by the line librarians or something the director just thought was a good idea.

Mostly I want to see that the candidate has thought about the position, done some homework about the library and its environs, and is genuinely excited about how their skills and interests match our needs.

Read Jenica’s list carefully and you will have great ideas for questions!

– Paula Hammett, Librarian at Sonoma State University

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! You were comment for me, and I was comment for you.


Filed under Further Questions

5 responses to “Further Questions: What Questions Should Candidates Ask You?

  1. Robin Young

    Great post, thanks!


  2. Chelsea

    One thing I would add after reading through this fabulous site: I think Australia might be a little different to America when it comes to interviewee questions. Over here in Australia it would be seen as arrogant if an interviewee asked more than 2 or 3 questions. It would be seen as the equivalent of saying something along the lines of “now let me see if you guys are good enough to have me work for you”! Asking a list of questions would probably be seen as impertinent and lacking in respect for the panel’s time constraints. I would ask a question or two to show I am interested and care about what the panel has to say, but I would keep it short and sweet. My experience is that those other lengthy or interrogative questions would be asked informally as you are escorted to the door – after the interview has ‘officially’ concluded. I wonder what people from other countries would have to add about the cultural norms that apply to interviewee/interviewer interactions. Could be an interesting research paper 😀



    • How interesting. Here in America, asking questions of the interviewers is in a way us saying: “now let me see if you guys are good enough.” Part of the point of asking questions is to show you have research the company and are interested, but they really are supposed to help the interviewee make a decision about if the library is a place where they’d like to work.
      That part is something job hunters forget sometimes – the interview is really two sided.


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