Further Questions: How important is knowledge of specific tools?

Here’s penultimate question in a series of six from the reader who asked when candidates shouldn’t applyif current employment status matters, how the initial selection of candidate works, and for some cover letter hooks that worked. This week I asked people who hire librarians:

As archivists and librarians, the tools we learn are a bit of a crapshoot. How important is that an applicant have previous knowledge in the specific tools or system that your library uses? Is it very important, we will not consider an applicant without that experience/ideal, but we will consider someone with training as a substitute (example: took EAD course but did not use EAD in a job), it’s more important that someone is willing to learn new technology and tools (perhaps demonstrated by the other tools they already know), or something else entirely?
Petra MauerhoffGenerally, we are more interested in how you can move forward with us. How adaptable are you in learning new tools? How flexible are you in helping us find more efficient and effective work flows?
Having experience with the same ILS or other tools we use helps, because we know it will cut down some of the required training and we like having someone with experience who might bring a different perspective. However, it is not a must and we have hired people whose experience was with completely different tools and have found their background and experience brought valuable contributions to our work environment.
– Petra Mauerhoff, CEO, Shortgrass Library System

Christine Hage - Dark backgroundWhen I’m hiring a librarian I assume they are coming with a basic knowledge of library research tools. I often ask them to list 10 tools they would include in their reference collection if they could only work from those 10 tools. Personally I don’t have 10 favorite tools, but I’d like to see if they can go through Dewey and give me an encyclopedia, dictionary, atlas, almanac, or even the Internet and some favorite websites or search engines as a basic tools. I’m amazed at how often a candidate cannot name 3 tools. This certainly is not a deal breaker question for me because I know people are nervous at interviews, but it can provide an interesting peek into their thought process.

I am interested in know if they are familiar with any library automation systems. It doesn’t have to be our system (Polaris), but learning an automation system from scratch is a bit of a training hurdle. If they can use one system, they can easily learn another. If they aren’t even aware of library automation software that would be a problem. In terms of software, I want people to be familiar with the basic Microsoft programs and a web management tool, like Joomla. In our library the website is managed by a team so it wouldn’t be the responsibility of one person, but if they have the concept of how a website is built and managed that is a good sign to me.

I’m assuming that most Librarian I candidates are coming with a common core of knowledge. I’m much more concerned about their customer service, team work, leadership, problem solving and creative skills. We can teach someone to go to a specific resource that they aren’t familiar with, but it is very tough to teach someone to smile and be welcoming to each and every customer when that is not his or her natural outlook on library service.

– Christine Hage, Director, Rochester Hills Public Library

Melanie LightbodyIt depends on the the tool. If you’re applying for a cataloging job you need to be familiar with cataloging rules (AACR, RDA etc). If you are applying for a reference position, it is more important that you understand a systematic approach to reference work than it is to know the intricacies of any one tool. The question would be how much of the position you are applying for includes usage of a specific tool. As a rule of thumb, I favor a broader knowledge of systems over specific tool knowledge. My experience is those who understand the bigger picture do better day to day at their job. And yes, demonstrated willingness to learn would give weight to your app.

– Melanie Lightbody, Director of Libraries, Butte County

Marleah AugustineI think that a willingness to learn is the most important thing. Experience with the exact same tech and tools is great, but experience with similar tools can be just as good. Knowing that someone took a course about a particular tool but doesn’t actively use it at least lets us know that they have been exposed to it and are aware of it. I will not discount someone just because they don’t know our specific systems and software, but it is helpful to know what the applicant has used and what they know.

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Emilie SmartIt is unrealistic to expect every candidate to have experience on specific tools.  Not every library uses the same things to do the same work — ILS’s are different, databases, books…  Tool availability is often more budget-based than need-based.
I expect reference candidates to have experience doing some reference work.  They should know how to search a database, conduct a reference interview, create a spreadsheet, manipulate HTML code.  I don’t care if they are familiar with Sirsi or Innovative or if they’ve never used a Gale database because their previous library subscribed to EBSCO.  Using our available tools is part of our training process, so what tools they have experience with is less important than what kind of tools they have experience with.
– Emilie Smart, Division Coordinator of Reference Services & Computer Services at East Baton Rouge Parish Library
J. McRee Elrod
Very important is knowledge is standards: ISBD, AACR2/RDA, MARC, LCC (and/or DDC), LCSH, probably OCLC, and in some situations NLM/MeSH and RVM.  It helps to have used a cataloguing software and an ILS, but considering their variety, experience with particular ones is less important.
– J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging

Manya ShorrAt this point in my management career, I almost always put customer service skills above experience when it comes to hiring front line staff. We have too many people in our profession that don’t seem to want to work with the public and I feel like it is my duty to help turn that around. If someone is dedicated, curious, and willing to try I figure I can teach them anything. It is, however, difficult to teach anyone to be nice and welcoming. In other words, when you interview with me, please demonstrate that you are excited to work with the public. You can do this by smiling, maintaining eye contact, and answering the questions in an enthusiastic way. This doesn’t mean be maniacal, just act like you want the job. I’m willing to train and teach you!

– Manya Shorr, Senior Manager, Branch Services, Omaha Public Library

If a person is willing to learn new technology, doesn’t have a fear of it, or of constantly changing technology and other things in libraries, i.e can go with the flow—I would still consider or hire them if they didn’t have the exact type of technology or online systems my library uses. It is very helpful, and may make someone stand out, if they have worked in a library with the same online systems, and knows other technologies in the job description. But I believe that most people who are adept at using technology, enjoy it, and have no problem learning new technologies, can do so on the job. I guess the trick is convincing me as an employer, that the aforementioned “adeptness and willingness to learn” is indeed a trait of the applicant.

– Sharon Britton, Library Director, BGSU – Firelands

Marge Loch-WoutersThis is less important to us in Youth Services at our library – no doubt because we are on the slightly low-tech side. We feel that learning any specific tools and technology (beyond a basic familiarity with windows office suite; some digital toys like ipads or ereaders or social media) are part of training. We commit ourselves to our new hires to train them in this so knowing our ILS or specific hardware or software rarely plays a part in our decision.

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

Samantha Thompson-Franklin

I think it’s more important to show evidence of being willing to learn new tools and technologies, with specific examples of what you learned and how you used or applied it. Tools and technologies can come and go, and while it can be important to know certain tools, I think that one’s willingness and ability to learn new applications says a lot to a search committee.

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

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! Comment, Eileen, taloo rah



Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Public, Special

8 responses to “Further Questions: How important is knowledge of specific tools?

  1. Kiersten Bryant

    These are some really interesting, helpful, and encouraging responses to this question!


  2. “Tool availability is often more budget-based than need-based.”

    Thank you, thank you for not penalizing applicants because they have the misfortune of working someplace that chose different tools than your library chooses. I’m always a bit nervous that it will count against me that the only e-reader and smart phone knowledge I have comes from helping library users – neither I nor the library owns either, due to economic considerations. Whenever job ads ask for the cover letter to address technological skills I have experience with, I always want to answer, “I’m good at the tools I’ve had occasion to use,” but that sounds like a smart-alec answer and thus far I have refrained. The question just seems so odd; I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read a list of every technological tool I have used, at least not in a cover letter. It seems a description of how I used one or two tools would be less tedious reading and give a better insight into how I think.


    • Jill — I’m glad that my comment resonated with you! Being in a poor state, I am well aware that folks aren’t always able to get access to the things I might have available. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with describing your experience, even if it is limited. You can always add that you are excited with possibility of acquiring new skills.


  3. “[P]lease demonstrate that you are excited to work with the public. You can do this by smiling, maintaining eye contact, and answering the questions in an enthusiastic way.”

    Thank you for the specific advice! I don’t think I would have made the connection between “show you are excited to work with the public” and making eye contact, etc. during the interview. I would have taken it to mean “act like one of those people who have never met a stranger,” which may be a significantly more stressful task. Learning to honestly smile and make eye contact with everyone who walks in the building are concrete skills a person can learn and that removes some of the stress.


  4. I am wondering how important it is to know cataloging standards ahead of time. Mac’s answer makes me think they are hugely important, but having learned MARC and LCSH, I feel like a) you can learn any standard in two days and b) you’ll probably have to look stuff up anyway. What are the things we should highlight in our application if we don’t have experience with a particular standard or tool?


  5. Pingback: Further Questions: Any Tips for Out-of-Area Applicants? | Hiring Librarians

  6. Pingback: Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

  7. Pingback: Return to Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.