Fitting the Part

Advice from a Successful Job Seeker

In September, Juanita Nicholson very happily celebrated her first anniversary as a reference librarian at the Deerfield Public Library. A week later she was a panelist on the ILA conference program “Gaining the Competitive Edge: Advice from Employers and Successful Job Seekers.” The following comments are based on her remarks as a panelist.

What were you doing before you applied to library school?

For the thirteen years before library school, I worked at the Office of Undergraduate Admission at Northwestern University, beginning as a secretary and ending as the office’s director of publications. Before that, I had been a stay-at-home mother while also teaching ballet and appearing in some television commercials. And before that, I’d worked as an order clerk at the Evanston Public Library, a proofreader at Encyclopedia Britannica, a fourth-grade teacher, co-manager of a small theater company, and a dancer in a small dance company.

Most of my previous work was not library-related. All of my experience, however, has helped me in my current position, whether it’s selecting education, dance, and theater books for the Deerfield Public Library collection; proofreading the library newsletter; or teaching patrons to use the library catalog and online databases.

How long did it take you to find a job?

I graduated from Dominican University’s School of Library Science in August 2002. I started looking for a job in April 2003, after my mother had recovered from surgery and could return to her own home. I applied for three jobs, was interviewed for one, and accepted Deerfield Public Library’s offer of a position to begin work in September 2003.

What factors do you think made you successful in your job search?

Self-Preparation. I did a lot of work preparing myself, my resume, and my cover letter. First, I had to analyze the skills I had developed in my previous work. Then I had to devise a way to explain the skills succinctly in a resume and be prepared to give concrete examples of each one during an interview. This process was much more time-consuming than I had anticipated.

Assistance from Others. I got lots of help. At Dominican, the career services office gave me advice about resume writing in general (for instance, as an experienced worker with a long job history, it was ok for me to have a two-page resume, instead of the usually recommended one page). Elisa Topper, the assistant dean at the time, gave me helpful suggestions about applying to libraries in particular.

I’m sure the recommendations of two professors, an administrator at the library where I did a practicum, and my long-time supervisor and mentor at Northwestern were also factors in my success.

Interview Preparation. To compensate for my lack of job interview experience and to help overcome the nervousness I was experiencing just thinking about it, I looked up lists of typical library interview questions on the web and practiced responding to them. I practiced talking about my strengths, with examples, and my weaknesses (for example, my lack of library experience).

To prepare questions to ask in an interview, I researched each library to which I applied, including an “incognito” visit, a close scrutiny of its Web site, and a Web search of the library director and other staff. The library visits were fun: stress-free and informative.

I prepared a book (portfolio) with work samples from my previous job and some of my library school assignments (a pathfinder, for example) to bring to my job interview. Although some of the samples were not library related, I thought they would illustrate my level of job responsibility and the skills that were transferable. We flipped through the book very quickly and I thought it was probably a waste of time. (Keep reading!)

Flexibility. When I was asked how I’d feel about being at the reference desk all day, I said it would be fine. And at my library, it is! When asked if I had any constraints on the days or times I could work, I could honestly answer, “No.” I gave up singing in a chorale until it became clear that I was not being asked to work on Tuesday nights, at which point I asked my supervisor if I could make a regular commitment away from the library for that evening.

When I was asked to speak on the panel about a successful job search, I asked Judy Hortin, head of reference at Deerfield Public Library and my job interviewer, for the factors she considers when hiring. Here are some of the items on her list:

  1. Interest in and enthusiasm for the job. (Doesn’t everyone look interested? Judy says, “You’d be surprised.”)
  2. Formal dress for the job interview.
  3. Addressing what the applicant can offer the library and not what the library offers the applicant (not “These hours are good for my schedule”).
  4. Demonstration of skills. An error-free and well-organized resume and cover letter demonstrate your writing abilities. The book of sample projects I brought to my interview inadvertently demonstrated a skill on which I wasn’t focused. I believe it’s what Judy was referring to when she said I “looked organized,” and she was looking for that trait. This is an example of a skill that might not be listed in the job announcement or discussed in an interview but will help determine the selected applicant.
  5. Personal rapport. Interviewers are trying to get a sense of who you are. When Judy asked why I wanted to work in a library, I could speak in a heartfelt way about the importance of reading and libraries in my own life. She later mentioned my answer as one of the responses that influenced her decision.

Do you have any advice to offer job seekers?

I’ve been a successful library job applicant only once, so I’m not much of an expert! Based on my limited experience, and in addition to some of the things I listed above, here’s my advice:

  1. Acquire as much library experience as possible before you apply for a job. My library experience as a work-study student and order clerk in a library was long in the past, so I made sure to have an internship while in library school, and I volunteered at the Newberry Library after I graduated.
  2. Start while you’re still in school to prepare for your job search. Get to know the professors you like and admire. Attend workshops with advice on resume writing and interviewing. Start work on your resume; it’s a time-consuming project.
  3. Ask for help with your job search from professionals who know what they’re talking about. I was touched by the kindness and generosity of those who helped me to be successful in my job search.
  4. Be yourself.
  5. Try not to take things personally.

I’m lucky to have applied to one library where I “fit the bill.” But I’ve also been sent to commercial auditions only to be rejected without knowing the reason. (Well, I know I didn’t look right for the auditions at which I was told, “Stand over there. We just want to look at you.” At least at a library interview, you get to speak!) I’ve also observed enough of the theater auditions run by my director-husband to know that the most talented actor is not always cast. He or she may just not be the right type to play the part.

When we apply for a library job, we don’t know the “cast of characters” already at the library and the skills they have-and lack. We don’t always know what role the library is trying to fill. (We could ask, “What would the perfect candidate for this job be like?” and then let the interviewer know if he or she has just described us!) If we’re not hired, we can’t assume it’s because we’re not good candidates, only that we didn’t fit the part.

So, it helps to have a support network of people who know us and love us, even if we don’t get called for the interview. They can help us keep our perspective until the day when we’re the lucky ones who get the telephone call with a job offer.

Good luck!