Further Questions: Can we talk about specific interview questions?  

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is:

Can we talk about specific interview questions? Do you have questions that are especially illuminating or are there well-known questions that you think are useless?

Katharine Clark, Deputy Director, Middleton Public Library: Here are three question I’ve recently started asking:

How do you handle it if your boss or supervisor asks you to do something you think is not useful or productive? How do you disagree with someone in charge?

What was the least favorite part of your last job experience? How did you try to change it?

When was the last time you offered a suggestion to improve a work environment? How was it received? Did the change occur?

Anonymous: My favorite interview question is “Tell me about a valid piece of criticism you’ve received.” The answers are incredibly telling. It avoids the fake weakness answers and also lets me know how well someone receives feedback. A red flag is if they respond that they’ve not ever received valid criticism.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College:

Can we talk about specific interview questions?

While we can and should, I have found that organizations expect or anticipate dramatically different responses to which questions to use, why they include them and what they expect to learn from responses. I think this is due to many factors, but I see many nuances underpinning examples. And some of these responses have to do with the geographic location of the position as well as the level of position. Examples include:
Many questions end up being trick questions such as “Where do you want to be in five years?” is a loaded question and new, middle level or more experienced level people NEVER know what to say …. does an answer such as “right here in this job” mean the person is stagnating? with no ambition?” …does “retired!” or “in my dream job on the beach” mean you shouldn’t hire them as you are investing time and money in someone already planning to leave? or the famous answer “in your job!” which many people see as cocky or even inappropriate. If pushed – I would have to say I don’t know what the right answer is and we stopped asking it 15 years ago.
“Do you value, x, y or z?” or what is the “mission of the x” – at the very least – should be answered with pat answers that reflect both the profession and the values or mission of the organization itself. So – at the very least – if they don’t answer it or can’t it is almost ludicrous and if they reflect the specific wording of the professions or the mission statement, it should be expected and tells us nothing.

The concepts can be included but the questions should assume the person possesses these to be successful and then the question becomes “how does the applicant articulate why?” or “how does the candidate provide context?” The question might be worded as “what is the mission of x within the context of x” or “the current values of the profession are stated as x, which do you think should be worded differently or are outdated or classic? How do organizational mission statements, vision and values integrate with community or umbrella organization mission, vision or values?
You should ask for specific actions so after stating that you value something such as “our librarians are committed to EDI …please give us two examples of how you have infused or conceptualized infusing EDI into your user reference or research interviews? your collection development? the design or choices of your ideas for community programs? And they should be wording to include first time applications such as “in studying contemporary reference or research support librarian/user interactions, how is EDI infused into the process?” or “in updating materials collections, what three things do librarians look for in assessing the presence or lack of presence of current materials (or materials reflecting EDI, etc.)?
Do you have questions that are especially illuminating or are there well-known questions that you think are useless?


So reversing the order with useless first – even if the question has context!
Why our library? our organization? (I prefer that it come up naturally, rather than me forcing something less-than-genuine out of someone.)
What are you reading now? (Inappropriate and I didn’t put it on the list but it did bring my favorite answer “the want ads.”)
Where do you want to be in five years?
Why do you want this job? (The majority of answers make me angry and why they make me angry is too much to include.)

Interesting (and note I feel strongly about the question being preceded with context.)
Although managers should have a plan in place for orienting, training and overall integrating employees into the work environment, what do you do to integrate yourself into a team? into a workplace?
Librarians and library employees are always learning something new – and while there are many different learning styles and choices for teaching or training employees on new systems or processes – what is your learning style? How do you choose to learn something new? Be specific as to format, process, approach, etc.
Especially now – given the online world of business communication and extensive remote discussions – what two things do you want from your supervisor regarding communication with you or the team online or in person? and you can also provide an example of a supervisor you have had and how he or she communicated particularly well.
Many librarians say they love the job because there is something new and different every day, but there are many aspects of our users that we appreciate and some more than others. What is your favorite user group to work with? Doctoral students? First – time visitors/community members to the library? 4th graders? Small business people? And why are they your favorites?
No matter how hard organizations try, we end up with last minute work, plans, approaches during our work day/work week. What skills set do you use to be flexible in a work setting?

Jaime Taylor, Discovery & Resource Management Systems Coordinator, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts: Useless question: “What is your greatest weakness?” The answers to this are rarely illuminating, and it feels like a gotcha question or like you are trying to get the candidate to say something bad about themself. Do not ask gotcha questions! If you really need to ask something like this, you could ask, “What kind of support would you need to be successful in this role?” That’s a much more useful question — it sets the candidate up for success, and gives the position’s supervisors actionable information.

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: I think by now most people recognize the futility of asking the “strengths/weaknesses” question. I like to try to ask questions that can give a candidate the opportunity to tell us more about who they are. It could be “Tell us about a successful project you worked on or class you taught. Why was it successful? What about the success could or did you apply to other tasks? Or we might ask about a project or class that did not work out as planned and how the candidate used that experience in future planning.

I sometimes like to ask candidates (often for more administrative positions) what aspects of work they enjoy most and least. For public facing work scenarios can also be useful. Even when someone has not done library work before thinking through a situation that might include a response like “doing what I can for a library visitor but also letting them know I’ll have to check with my supervisor” can add helpful information about a candidate’s experience.

Overall I think this question really points to the importance of a search committee/hiring manager thinking meaningfully about what they want to learn about candidates through the interview process. Then we need to craft questions that are most likely to give a candidate the opportunity to share ideas and information that will help us assess what they could bring to the position available.

Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: Great question! I’ve been interviewing lately myself, so I have to say that, while I like asking situational questions (tell me about a time when…), I don’t love answering them. So many times, they are asking me to focus on negative situations and that’s difficult, but it’s about how you handle adversity. One of my favorite questions is “Why is this position a great fit for you and how are you a great fit for this position?” This is your chance to talk about why the job appeals to you, or why you feel like the position is a great fit for you and your skills. You may have covered some of this ground in your cover letter, but not everyone does. We sometimes ask about balancing collaborative and independent work, and we often ask how you approach learning something new (usually technology). Those are very telling answers! In our second round interviews, we will ask specific questions about the position and approach to the work, and we want to be sure that the person understands the position and what it entails. Terminology like one year extraordinary faculty can be confusing to someone who has never worked in an academic setting.

Anonymous: I like to use this question to gauge emotional intelligence:

Quoting RJ Palacio, author of the title Wonder, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” What is your reaction to the quote? Based on your experiences, are there times when you must choose right over kind?

It will typically flush out the “black and white” thinker types, the “rules are the rules” kind of people. For me, the correct answer is choosing right when possible but leading with kindness. Libraries shouldn’t be using their policies as a bludgeoning tool to punish people. Enforce policies, yes, but understand that there are times when you need to bend the rules.

Also, the “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question is outdated and useless. We live in a society where loyalty to a company no longer exists. We can’t expect people to stay forever!

Hilary Kraus, Research Services Librarian, UConn Library: Since I work in academic libraries, there are typically two sets of questions: one for the initial screening phone or video interviews, and then another for the second round campus interviews. So many screening interviews focus on expanding upon the information in a candidate’s CV/resume or cover letter, when what I really want to know is the stuff that often isn’t well-represented in those documents. It’s the combination of what they’ve submitted and the additional content of the phone interview that helps a search committee make decisions about who to move on to the next round.

Following are some questions I’ve found to be especially informative during the screening interview process:

  • What appeals to you about this position specifically and more generally about working at [insert institution here]? (I know the cover letter should include this, but I find it helpful when the candidate can elaborate on it.)
  • Describe a project or initiative you’ve worked on of which you’re especially proud.
  • Can you give us an example of a situation in which you collaborated with a colleague?
  • What aspects of this job do you think would most challenge you and how would you approach them?
  • What areas of your professional practice are you most interested in developing?

When it comes to on-campus interviews, I certainly want to hear about a candidate’s experience, but also how they might apply that in the position for which they’re interviewing. For new or early career librarians, I think it’s particularly helpful to phrase questions as hypotheticals or ask them to describe what approach they think would be successful. That means, for example, asking “What approaches have you taken or might you take to make informed collection development decisions in x disciplines?” instead of “Tell us about your experience doing collection development in x disciplines?”

Alison M. Armstrong, Collection Management Librarian, Radford University: There are some questions that end up being throw-away questions that serve more as ice-breakers than content generators. Then there are questions that are more informative.

One of them is, “What surprised you when researching our library or university?” This gives us an idea of not just what they learned but also some of the preconceived notions they started with, or may still have. Sometimes these are particularly enlightening and can give you sense of what outsiders focus on when looking at your website, and how things might be misinterpreted. It can be useful for your edification as well as an opportunity to address anything that may have been misunderstood or may need information gaps to be filled. It also tells us how they are approaching the position, the library, university, and area. Backhanded compliments do not play well.

Another good one is, “You overhear your colleague giving incorrect information to a patron. How do you handle this?” This one can be very informative. It seems pretty simple but it speaks to multiple areas at once: How do you treat your colleagues/peers? Do you feel comfortable speaking up and, if so, how do you do it? How do view information sharing with patrons? How do you see your role/authority in this capacity? How do you approach what could be a tense situation? I have heard a wide variety of responses. We want you to answer as honestly as possible.

Karen K. Reczek, Social Scientist, National Institute of Standards and Technology:

Favorite Questions
Tell me about a time you failed.
What is the most useful job related criticism you have ever received?
If three of your colleagues were here how would they describe you?
If you could change one aspect of your last/current job, what would that be?
Tell me about a time you turned something around that was stagnant or unsuccessful.
What area of your work do you think needs improvement or what skills do you still feel you need to develop?
When looking for a job what are the three most important things to you?
Can you tell me about a time when you felt like giving up on a certain job or task and why? and what happened?
Describe your best boss.
What do you know about our organization? (So many people come to an interview and CANNOT answer this. Very telling.)

Least favorite Questions
Where do you see yourself in five years (Hey most of us don’t know – how about what is your professional goal and has that changed over the years?)
What are your strength and weaknesses? (I think you can learn more by asking some of the above.)
Are you a team player? or would you be successful working with a team? (who is going to say no?!)
Are you able to handle multiple priorities at once? (again, not sure who will say, no…)

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System:

1) Do you have questions that are especially illuminating….

We have what we call the “snake question.” The question is “A parent (father or mother) and their child (son or daughter) come into the library 20 minutes before closing with a box in which there is a snake they want to identify. While helping them, three boys run through the library knocking the box off the table onto the floor. What do you do?”

There are so many experts and consultants offering candidate interview questions that we are told will help us discover something profound or significant about a candidate. Anyone wanting to do well on an interview can find these same questions online, in a book, or from a professional interview coach and learn how to answer them for success. There is a school of interviewing that focuses on asking “behavioral” interview questions. These questions are readily available and a candidate can prepare an answer for “Can you tell us of a time when you went above and beyond the line of duty?” or “Tell us about a time when you solved a problem at your job that wasn’t part of your job description.” How do I verify the candidate’s answer? The candidate’s answer can sound terrific, but has it been embellished or is it even true? I’m not sure a current or former employer will verify the candidate’s claim.

The snake question is specific. The goal of the question is to surprise the candidate, see how quickly the candidate recovers, and how the candidate prioritizes the actions necessary to respond to an unexpected situation. There are some answers that are better than others. The only wrong answer for us is to “run away.” One observation I will make is that on average only one out of one hundred will ask if the snake is alive. Almost all assume it is alive and respond accordingly.

Before thinking this is a ridiculous question and laughing, there are public librarians who will tell you they have encountered snakes in their libraries (“Bag of snakes brings new library policy in Madison County.” The Citizen-Times. October 20, 2019. https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/madison/2019/10/20/madison-county-library-policy-bans-bags-snakes/4002405002/). If a candidate is able to respond to the question in a cool, thoughtful, and reasonable way to a situation like the snake in the box, it may be indicative of how the candidate would respond to an incident as an employee.

A few observations about using this question. I can’t say it originated with me. A public library director in Eastern Kentucky found it, used it, and as a consultant for the Kentucky State Library, I promoted its use. The question has become one of my staff’s favorites to ask because of the range of reactions by the candidates. It very often serves to lighten the seriousness of the interview, making it more congenial. The candidates also like it, later remarking how it made them see our work in a different way and being totally unprepared for it.

2) Are there well-known questions that you think are useless….

Once again, this question depends on the position for which the candidate is interviewing. Possibly the most useless question is “Where do you see yourself in five years?” In light of what we passed through with the COVID-19 pandemic, can we really predict where we will be in five years?

Those seeking professional positions will tell you about career goals, often tailoring the answer to what the interview committee might like to hear. They are very unlikely to say “I’ll have quite your job by then because it is just a stepping stone in my career to a better job.” Non-professionals, such as those in circulation positions in public libraries, will often tell you “I hope to be still working for the library in five years.”

The restrictions and responses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many leaving the workplace and wanting to work from home. COVID-19 has demonstrated how change can rapidly make a response to the question “where do you see yourself in five years” today meaningless tomorrow.

Angelynn King, Head Librarian, Delaware Technical Community College: I like open-ended questions that are specific to the job and institution. For example, “What interests you about this job?” tells us how the applicant sees their skills matching up with our needs, while “What do you know about us?” lets us know if they’ve done their research.

I’m less fond of old corporate chestnuts like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Anyone who has a crisp answer to that one is nowhere near flexible enough to survive in any library I’ve ever worked in.

Thanks for reading! If you want to read even more, there’s been some great discussion over on Twitter

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or via creepy anonymous phone call. If you have a question to ask, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.


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