Library job quirks: bits and pieces

This final section of my library job hunting quirks posts wraps up a few shorter bits and pieces, namely:

  • Timelines (and why library searches often take forever.)
  • Interview trips and who pays.
  • Asking questions.
  • (And you can always go back to the index)


One thing that can be really frustrating is talking to people who don’t understand how library job timelines work. After all, a lot of fields, you send in your application, and you might be hired – or at least have gotten a phone interview – within 2-3 weeks.

This is not common in libraries.

Sometimes there’s a mandated posting period.
This could be relatively brief (2-3 weeks), or it could be quite a bit longer (I saw several postings with a 2-3 month delay between the posting and when they would begin to review applications.)

These are handy for people balancing their workload in a given week/month, but otherwise a little frustrating, since by the time anyone moves on the process, you’ve probably forgotten all of the details. This is why saving the job ad and the materials you sent is so important.

Some postings do make it clear they’re reviewing immediately. In that case, get something in as soon as you can.

Sometimes you’re working with the school hiring cycle:
For example, a lot of school-year contract jobs don’t start getting posted until December (possible, but unlikely) to February. Many places try to make a decision by spring break (sometime in March), but often things carry over into April or even May. So, again, it can be months between your application and any movement toward a final interview. (During which time, you probably need to continue to apply other places, and for other kinds of positions.)

During the February-April time, you may also need to balance your life so that you can respond to interview requests quickly, apply for recently posted jobs, or prioritise visits or time to work on presentations or other materials for each job.

Sometimes funding gets iffy:
I saw several cases where people posted a job, and then had to follow up (usually within a month) saying “We thought we had funding, and now we’re not sure…. we’ll let you know if it reopens.” While it’s good to figure that out before you actually hire someone, it’s also sort of frustrating if you’ve spent time and energy on the application.

(This is why I worked on a basic principle of only applying to places where I learn something from the application itself. It helped me avoid frustration when this happened.)

And sometimes – often – things just move slowly:
This is especially true in universities and in larger public library systems: just getting everyone on a search committee (usually 5-6 people) together at the same time can be incredibly complicated, once you factor in vacations and professional travel and other candidates. I’ve seen these kinds of positions hire quickly, but it’s a lot more common for them to take 4-5 months from posting to hiring decision.

I’ve heard enough stories to know that 6-9 months isn’t all that uncommon, either. (I had one of those in my previous round of job hunting in 2007, too: applied at a public library, heard back about 8 months later to ask if I was still interested. And no, they hadn’t hired someone who hadn’t worked out in the middle.)

An exception:
The one place I saw a really consistent exception was for the for-profit colleges. These tend to post very narrowly (often, postings were not made even to local library job lists: you had to know they were there), and the positions were filled very quickly.

There were sometimes a number of steps in the process: they just went fast. The one I made it to an in-person interview for had…

  • a phone screening interview (mostly about whether I was legally eligible to work)
  • a series of four “What would you do” questions and answers (essays, basically) for me to submit.
  • an hour long interview with their director of libraries
  • an additional conversation with the HR manager
  • a 3 hour in person interview on site.

If I’d made it past that stage, there would have been two more steps, with upper-level administrators. All of those would have taken place in under a month, and the steps I did complete took place in just over 2 weeks from submitting the application.

The for-profit schools are a very different thing from other academic institutions: if you’re interested in working at one, do what you can to network with someone working at one (who can guide you into what they’re looking for, and how the interview process goes.) And do some diligent research on the realities of the for-profit model, so you understand where their focus is, what the implications for library services are, and so on. (For example, there’s increasing legislation in process that particularly affects funding for for-profits.)

End result?
Apply a bunch of places, ideally starting sometime before you actually really need a job.  (If you’re finishing your degree, start when you begin your last semester, or a bit before if you’re looking for academic year jobs.)

If possible, vary the types of places you’re applying to (especially if you need something soon!) And then send more stuff out again. Repeat until hired.

Interview trips (and who pays)

Colleges and universities (and many independent schools) generally expect to pay your way if you make it to the on-site interview. Public libraries (and public school districts), it’s less likely, unless you’re applying for a very high-level position.

In general, I made the offer to pay my own way anywhere that was only posting the job ad on local or regional lists . If they posted nationally, I generally figured they were up for a national search and the related costs.

(And I put it pretty much like that: in my final wrap-up paragraph, I’d say something like “I’d love the chance to return to New England, where I have family and friends. I know that library budgets are tight these days, so I’m glad to pay for my own interview travel expenses as long as I’m a strong candidate for the position.”)

The places I interviewed paid for more of my trips than I did, but I don’t regret the money spent: in a couple of cases, it got me time to see friends and family in the Boston area (never bad).

And I did two interviews for different positions in western and central Maine. The first was for a job I wasn’t selected for (they had an internal candidate, and it’s hard to beat that), but that weekend made me absolutely certain I liked the basic area. That, in turn, made it easy to be truly enthusiastic about the area (and to ask some useful questions) at the interview for my new job.

One of the big things people are trying to figure out, if you’re coming from a distance, is whether you’ll like the area, or whether you’ll flee from it as soon as you can. My own take was to try it out, and see what I thought.

For example, I had an interview at a school in Tucson, which is a totally different climate from what I’m used to. I wasn’t sure what I’d think, but when I got there, really did like it a lot. (Though, on the whole, I’d rather deal with moose as a wildlife hazard than rattlesnakes. So, while I think it’d have been an awesome job, I’m okay that they went with their local candidate.)

Asking questions:

First, if you’re returning a call, go ahead and call.

But I think email is almost always better, if you’re not sure. It’s less disruptive to the person you’re speaking to, and allows them to focus on other parts of their job beyond hiring. Calls are of course fine if it’s an urgent need (clarifying details for an interview the next day, for example).

There’s a lot of job search advice that encourages people to call and follow up, or even push for an interview. Don’t do this, as a general rule. It doesn’t look good.

I think it’s particularly problematic for library jobs, though, because it means that you’re directly distracting that librarian from doing her or his job. Libraries get a lot of calls from numbers they might not recognise, so even with caller ID it’s often hard to tell without answering if it’s a vendor returning an important call, a patron, or what.

Alison Green at Ask a Manager has had a range of posts on this: my favorite summary is over here.

When I was doing hiring, I was particularly attentive (and well inclined) to job seekers (and library vendors) who thought through the timing of their calls, and realised that calling a school as the school day was starting was probably not the best time (I was generally juggling 5 different things, including needing to handle my own homeroom and related commitments.) Over lunch is also complicated, since people need to stagger staffing so everyone in the library area gets a chance to eat.

If you’re going to call, try to pick a more relaxed time of the day:  I suggest avoiding the first 90 minutes and last hour the library is open (or of the school day, if it’s a school), and between 11am and 1pm. At other times, they might be busy, but it’s less likely to be as chaotic as the beginning of the day. Or call at some point when they’re really unlikely to be in the office and leave a message.

Following up:
My general rule of thumb was that if I got a specific time they expected to next make contact, to give it a week beyond that, and then touch base. (I have a feeling that this did not work everywhere, but it seemed like a reasonable compromise, given complicated schedules and lack of other information to work with.)

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1 comment to Library job quirks: bits and pieces

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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