Laura Kane has two books which might be useful for you library job hunters and career builders:
Working in the Virtual Stacks: The New Library & information Science (ALA, 2011),
Straight From the Stacks: A Firsthand Guide to Careers in Library and Information Science (ALA Editions, 2003).
So in today’s post, she offers general advice to applicants, what she calls ” What’s Funny, What’s Not, and a Series of No-Brainers.” I hope from this post you will gain not only a sense of her writing style and viewpoint, but some wisdom for your application process.
I don’t like to think of myself as a Veteran Librarian, but with nearly twenty years in the field, I guess that’s exactly what I am. Though the thought makes me feel old, I will admit that experience has made me wiser. Throughout my tenure as an academic medical librarian, I have been a member of numerous search committees charged with filling professional librarian positions. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are certain aspects of a candidate’s application and subsequent interview that can instantly “make or break” them. I will cover each of these topics here, and hope that this hodgepodge of tips will be helpful to those seeking employment in the workforce.
Did you happen to see the OREO cookie commercial during this year’s Super Bowl? Set in a library, it’s all about the friction that exists between those who love the cookie part, and those who love the cream part of the OREO. The commercial is called “Whisper Fight,” and though the fight between the cream lovers and cookie lovers turns into complete chaos, nobody speaks above a whisper. Stacks are toppling, books are raining down, a fire starts, firemen arrive with hoses, and all the while a bespectacled, cardigan-clad librarian looks on in horror and then finally “shouts” a stage whisper, “I’m calling the cops!” When the police arrive, they whisper through a bullhorn, “You guys have to stop fighting! We are the cops!”
I could not stop laughing. I was so tickled that I had to immediately find it on the Web and play it again. And again. My 13-year-old son looked on with concern. “Um, Mom,” he said hesitantly. “You’re a librarian. Shouldn’t you be insulted?” I sobered up immediately and cleared my through. “Oh! Um… of course. Yes, indeed. I am terribly insulted!” Then I doubled over in laughter again.
Should I have been insulted by the obvious stereotyping going on in that commercial? No way. It was so clearly over-the-top that you couldn’t help but laugh. Yes, there is a pervasive stereotype in our field, but isn’t that the case for most professions? Most of my fellow librarians have “gotten over” taking offense at the stereotypes. In fact, many of my colleagues think it’s just plain funny. My nine-year-old son (I have three sons!) likes to grab some fake glasses, slide them to the end of his nose, and peer down them, saying, “I’m a librarian.” He’s trying to rile me but he just looks so silly that I end up laughing.
And that’s the point I’m trying to make here. Librarians have a sense of humor. I work in an academic medical library. We handle some pretty serious stuff. But you can always hear laughter in our meetings, in our offices, and yes – God forbid! – even out in the main library itself. It’s wonderful to work with a group of people who can be lighthearted and fun when appropriate.
So what does this mean for someone applying for a professional librarian position? It means that you can lighten up a little. Don’t go overboard, of course, but let your sense of humor show. Just two months ago I was on a search committee for a position that had around forty applicants. I was given a stack of ten applications and had to pick the top candidates from that stack. Only one candidate made it to the top of my list – the one who stuck a purposely amusing sentence in the end of her cover letter. Guess what? She’s the person we hired. Her cover letter stood out for me because it made me laugh. I thought, “This person is well-qualified AND she has a sense of humor.” No matter how qualified a person is, nobody wants to work with a stick-in-the-mud. A balance of skill, knowledge, and humor goes a long way in my book.
That Is SO Not Funny!
Check out this actual sentence from one of the cover letters in that stack I told you about:
I saw your posting for a Research Lab Assistant and feel that I am well-qualified for the position.
Not bad, huh? It might have been OK if that had been remotely close to the position for which we were advertising! Clearly the applicant was copying and pasting and not checking his/her work. This seems like a no-brainer, but I have seen this happen many times: we receive applications with cover letters that were obviously written in the past for completely different positions. So here is a tip: double-check your cover letter! The cover letter, for me, is the top tool for weeding out candidates. You can only get so much from an application form; it’s the cover letter that either allows a person to stand out, or causes that fateful toss to the bottom of the pile.
Here’s another tip about cover letters: prove that you did some research about the position and show interest in some aspect of what you’ve learned. Study the library’s website and see what kinds of programs and services they offer. In your cover letter, mention one or two things that stood out or caught your interest. For example, you could say, “I see that librarians at your institution are involved with developing LibGuides for library patrons. I have a nursing background and would love to develop a Nursing LibGuide to direct students to authoritative resources.” Prove in your cover letter that you have invested some time in determining whether you would be a good fit in the organization. Don’t take the easy way out by using a generic cover letter for all your applications. That’s the quickest way for your file to be dismissed.
Not So Smart
I always end an interview with the question, “Do you have any questions for me?” I am flabbergasted and disappointed that many people simply answer, “No.” Seriously?! No questions at all?
You should always be prepared to ask some intelligent questions during the actual interview. I am impressed when a candidate has prepared a list of questions beforehand. Here is another chance to show that you have given the position some thought and have done some background work to learn about the institution. Questions like, “Can you explain the requirements for tenure?” or “How does your organization interact with the other campus libraries?” can open up an interesting conversation flow. So don’t be afraid to whip out that notebook and say, “I’ve written down some questions about the position.”
Make a connection
My 3-year-old son has autism and rarely looks people in the eye. On those occasions when he does look directly into my eyes, I feel it – ZAP! – an instant connection, no matter how brief. I never knew the importance of eye contact until it was missing in my interactions with my son. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t explain why direct eye contact is so crucial during an interview. I just know that when it’s completely missing, something is not right. It can be tough, but be sure to make frequent eye contact with your interviewers. I don’t mean you should stare continually into their eyes (that would be a little freaky), but just meet their eyes off and on as you answer questions. It’s a subtle yet very important connection.
A Final No-Brainer
There have been several occasions when the search committee has had trouble deciding between two candidates. Do you know what eventually tipped the scales in one direction? A simple thank-you note. Whether by email or snail mail, it’s always wise to send a letter of thanks to the members of a search committee. Not only does it show that you appreciate their time, it gives you an extra edge over those candidates who don’t take this simple step.
Just One More
If you only remember one point from this post, remember this one: don’t ever say, “I became a librarian because I love to read!” Nothing shows more ignorance about the profession of librarianship than that short phrase. Enough said.
Laura Townsend Kane, MLS, AHIP, is the author of “Working in the Virtual Stacks: The New Library & information Science” (ALA, 2011), “Straight From the Stacks: A Firsthand Guide to Careers in Library and Information Science,”(ALA Editions, 2003), and co- author of “Answers to the Health Questions People Ask in Libraries: A Medical Library Association Guide” (Neal-Schuman, 2008). She is the Assistant Director for Information Services at the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine Library in Columbia, South Carolina. She has also written several book chapters about librarianship career opportunities and several peer-reviewed journal articles on various issues in librarianship. She is an active member of the Medical Library Association (MLA) and its regional Southern Chapter, and is a Distinguished Member of MLA’s Academy of Health Information Professionals (AHIP).