The Art of the Job Description

I’m not sure when I began to “study” job descriptions but I distinctly remember pouring over the job descriptions attached to job ads posted in our placement center in library school. My approach was to try to assess what they were “telling me” – the job applicant – about the job, the library and the community. I was captivated by a small public library ad and job description from west Texas that included in the description the fact that an apartment over the public library was provided as housing for the successful applicant! Although I didn’t apply for that job, I must admit I still remember the experience and I think I decided then and there to periodically review the field to get a sense of what was interesting and “out there.”

My next experience with job descriptions was in my doctoral program where one assignment in a services course was to choose from among a selection of job descriptions and then take my resume and rebuild it to match the job described. Post doctoral studies, I volunteered (for an ALA committee) to conduct a small research project where I collected public library job descriptions and assessed them for the presence of teaching responsibilities. When I taught library school (management and public library services) I routinely asked students to assess sample job descriptions for their chosen type of library to decide which job they felt matched their expertise or desired expertise. Students then prepared for the job interview – based on the description and their match to the position. While in my current job, I updated the earlier research study by – again – assessing public library job descriptions for teaching responsibilities for a ALA Library Instruction Round Table (LIRT) committee.

Although I’ve found job descriptions interesting over the years, I realize others may not, so in reviewing them as a management necessity, I like to view them also as a management tool. But let’s start from square one.

Why use job descriptions?

Job descriptions:

  • Should be designed to specifically, clearly and consistently articulate and define performance results, management expectations of the position and – often – specific tasks that might be performed in the position. Obviously, the more independent (also seen as professional) a position is, the less specific the tasks that are outlined and the more general, conceptual or functional the description.
  • Should communicate to employees how expected results can be achieved, and sometimes with timelines or frequency indicated.
  • Must be considered a tool to be used throughout a work year by the employee and management and more specifically as
    • A guide for the employee for performance expectation and outcomes/results
    • A guide for the manager to coordinate with the institution’s evaluation mechanism and assist in documentation of successes and need for improvement, disciplinary issues and termination
  • Provide guidance for employees and managers for secondary duties.
  • Communicate any federal or state compliance such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and assists in distinguishing between primary, secondary, essential and marginal duties.
  • Communicate any specific “benefits” that relate to the job by virtue of its responsibilities (travel, professional development, etc.)

In summary, job descriptions should be used by managers for revision – if needed – and as a tool for recruitment and hiring (including writing the job ad), for determining compensation in the Human Resource process of the umbrella organization and/or the library, and for performance reviews/evaluation. Job descriptions may also be an asset for employees vacating a position, for refreshing their resumes and deciding what they want in their next job.

What are the major elements of job descriptions?

Descriptions can vary dramatically from institution to institution and – depending on a number of factors including compensation plans, organizational structures and management styles – descriptions can be individualized for one employee, individualized to a specific group of employees, generalized to a specific group of employees or even made specific or general based on patrons served, department or physical location. In addition, job descriptions can be seen as primarily duties-oriented (objectives or task list) or as results-oriented. Results-oriented descriptions combine what is to be achieved, completed or done along with why it is to be achieved, completed or done.

Examples include:



Staffs the information desk

Provides greeting, directional information and basic referral by staffing the information desk 10 hours per week

Staffs the reference desk

Assists in-person, virtual and digital patrons in basic, advanced and in-depth reference in print and online resources by staffing the public service reference desk a minimum of 15 hours per week

What are the sections or categories found in job descriptions?

Although job descriptions – as stated above – vary greatly from work place to work place, there are general categories that should be included in every description.

Title/Position Number

Titles can be tricky. Often there is a group or standard titles within an organization but there also may be a subtitle based on a level or designation. This designation might be tied to, for example, a location or patron served. In general, standardized titles should be the primary title with any distinguishing but critical information as a subtitle included. Job descriptions can often have position numbers or those unique numbers that link a specific employee to a specific job. A general rule is that job titles should be standardized and even subtitles should be based on a rationale applied consistently.

Major Function

The most important section of job descriptions should be – obviously – the major function area. It should outline the primary role and responsibility (preferably in results-oriented language) and can include location information that might relate to the major function and/or patron group. This section – although typically a shorter statement – should be written with language that corresponds to the employee evaluation form in general terms if not specific ones.

Organizational Chart

All job descriptions should include – somewhere in the description – how the specific job fits with the rest of the organization. This could include a “this person reports to” and/or “this person supervises” statement, but the terminology used should match the titles used on the institution’s organization chart. The description can also include – if relevant – where the position is in relation to any aspect of the umbrella organization.


The responsibilities section should outline overall roles and responsibilities (preferably in results-oriented language) as well as any secondary roles and responsibilities. This section should also include – matching the “major function section” location – information that might relate to function and/or patron group. This section should also be written with language that corresponds to the employee evaluation form in general terms if not specific ones. If an institution’s evaluation form is general, the job description responsibilities section should still use general headings to group specific functions to give employees and HR a relationship between what is expected of them and how their performance is measured.

Another interesting angle on responsibilities is weighting responsibilities. This weighting can be illustrated by percents of time spent on the responsibility either by week or month; prioritized responsibilities; indications as to which are self-directed and which are done in teams or groups, etc.

Minimum Qualifications

This section should be carefully reviewed to ensure that – although “minimum” in nature – the person who possesses only these qualifications should be more than adequately educated or prepared or trained to perform the key elements of the job. Often these levels are carefully driven by the umbrella institution and often vary. That is, they can include – based on the requirements of the organization and how compensation is determined:

  • a specific degree or a combination of education and experience or a choice
  • general training or specific training
  • a specific credential or a credential that is general and can be substituted

This section can also list or describe competencies (knowledge, skills/abilities, and attitudes) or skills sets/levels specific and necessary to do the job. The indicators might include “advanced knowledge of” or “over three years of hands on experience with” statements.

Additional Desirable Qualifications

Often also called “preferred” qualifications, this section outlines a best-case scenario or additional areas of expertise or competencies needed. Terminology for this section should be specific as in the other sections and can also included education, experience and/or competencies or skills sets.

Signature Lines

Signature lines indicate who is primarily responsible for this position.


“Other” description elements can include areas unique to the position, benefits unique to the position, related issues such as travel expected or training/continuous learning required, etc. Other elements might include unique aspects of the job as driven by the organizational structure or style of management if they did not easily fit in to another section. An example of this would be if the organization used a matrix management approach and a position, therefore, had a primary and a secondary manager or a primary manager but also a coordinator of specific activities. While this section is used for a “catch all” it could also be used to highlight or spotlight a job area or to reemphasize some unique aspect of the position or to illustrate any union information needed. Some ads include information about the institution, unique qualities about the geography or history of the area or assistance provided.

Additional areas might include salary bands or grades, salary ranges.

Who should write job descriptions?

Descriptions should be written by a team of people or – at the very least – pass through a team of people’s hands in the design or update process. This team should include an employee in the position or who manages the position, another upper level manager, HR department representation and, as appropriate, any additional representatives such as employee groups or union groups.

Who should “get” a job description?

All members of an organization should have an updated job description. A newer approach to identifying responsibilities of all of the business of the organization is the inclusion of job descriptions for “partners” such as sub-contractors; outsource contracts, vendors, true “partners” in initiatives on contracts or formal and informal agreements.

What are typical problems relating to job descriptions?

  • Out-of-date
  • Antiquated terminology
  • No process for reviewing and revising
  • Too general for use but have to use because required by umbrella organization
  • Not a complete match to the actual work being done
  • Too general in nature/not specific enough to make compensation decisions
  • Designed or revised too narrowly
  • Lack of a professional approach, that is, all tasks and no outcomes or results matched to professional positions
  • No relationship to evaluation form

What are basic recommendations for managers and job descriptions?

Managers must establish a process – with appropriate staff and administration – for reviewing and revising descriptions as needed. Managers need to ensure that the position description matches the position evaluation in recency, terminology, job function areas or categories and any basic or advanced skill levels needed.

Managers need to use – first and foremost – the evaluation document but also the job description throughout the work year in assigning individual tasks and group work, in evaluation, in preparing documentation for improvement, in disciplinary activities and in termination.

What are basic recommendations for employees and job descriptions?

Employees must be proactive in requesting current descriptions, establishing periodic reviews of their description, being diligent in the terminology used, and in ensuring that their evaluation makes sense and relates back to the actual work they do.

Employees must be proactive in performing a job analysis or audit of the work they do and matching their work product to their job description.

Employees must prepare – if managers don’t – a match of a general evaluation to a specific job done by linking activities to evaluation categories.

Sample job descriptions can often be found in state libraries, system or network offices, associations (local, state and federal) and on the web. Excellent samples can be found at:

Julie Todaro is Dean of Library Services, Austin ( Tex.) Community College.