Library job hunt quirks: networking

I found, during my search, that there was some really good advice out there, but there were places where the common (really good) advice just doesn’t match the reality of a library job search very well.

Here’s my thoughts on the places it’s different. (And I welcome comments on my blog in general, but I’d really love them here, from other people in the field.) Index of posts is over here.


Many job hunting advice sources advise you to network in a particular way – ask people you know about openings at their company, or network with the assumption that if they don’t hire you for *this* job, there’ll be another similar one along in a few months. (For example, many businesses might have several people with the same basic job duties, so people do come and go somewhat regularly.)

Libraries don’t generally work that way. Neither do schools.

For one thing, both often have very specific hiring practices they’re expected to follow for various reasons (and for both public library systems and universities, some of those are driven by collective bargaining or mandated requirements so they’re really firm).

Knowing someone at a location can definitely help your resume get a second look, but you will still have to go through the appropriate process with everyone else, after the appropriate public posting period (as opposed to many businesses, where networking may help you find out about a job that hasn’t been posted yet.)

At my previous job, it also had to be a fairly direct connection. Simply knowing someone didn’t bump you into the “Let’s at least phone interview them.” pool, but someone saying “I’ve worked with X, and really liked their approach to Y” often did. And if they sounded good on the phone, they’d often make the interview list. However, it wasn’t enough to save someone who didn’t meet all the required skills, or even save someone if others had a better rounded application and set of experiences.

Plus, in many places, there’s only one person doing that particular job. Or at least not very many. And the turnover is – or should be! – relatively low. (If it isn’t, that’s a warning sign.)  Obviously, this is more flexible in larger libraries, but even there, someone who’s a good fit for one position might be a lousy one for another position in the same library with some shared job duties.

Don’t panic: networking is still good!

That doesn’t mean networking’s useless – far from it. It just means that you should be focusing on using it for other things than directly getting your resume in front of people with the power to hire (or hoping some other position will come open.)  Some ways to use networking to your advantage include:

Reviewing your basic approach to cover letters and your resume, if you know someone who’s in your field, and who has at least some hiring experience.

Ask why they suggest something specific, and weigh their advice based on that information – often you’ll get people with very strong opinions about your resume format, for example, when the reality is that in many cases, anything that’s clear, readable, and highlights what you could bring to the job is just fine.

Finding out more about the workplace culture at a particular school, library, town, or other location. Ask about particular projects, things people are proud of or frustrated by, that kind of thing. This is also a great resource for figuring out what to wear (how formal is too formal), what to highlight in your materials, etc.

Connecting with people who share professional interests – and who might be able to pass on less widely publicised postings or “Hey, X job is likely to open up in a month or so…” or give you advice on what to highlight for a particular kind of job.  A little advance warning can give you time to brush up on a specific skill so you can talk about it in your cover letter and interviews.

Building relationships with people who do awesome stuff in your field, so you can be smart, have great suggestions, and be aware of the larger context of your job in any interviews. (Online interactions are great for this one.)

On advice:

Take the advice of people outside your field, or who have never done any hiring (or not within the last 3-5 years or so) with a very large grain of salt. They may have good ideas, but they may also be suggesting things that really don’t work for the field, or that don’t work for the current job market.

And if five people give you directly competing advice, figure out how you want to present yourself and go with that. (Don’t drive yourself up a tree trying to make all of their advice work!) Do adjust if the advice is focused on a particular position, institution, or approach that you have a strong interest in.

And a word about recruiters:

Unlike the tech world (or the business management world, or the medical technology world, or …) it’s much less common to see recruiters or hiring agencies in the library or education world. They do exist, especially for high-end positions (presidents and upper administration positions at colleges), and in independent schools, but even there, you don’t usually actually need them.

I did have an account through one of the independent school search firms, and I consider it to have been useful, in a general sense. Positions posted through them were simpler to apply to (once I was referred somewhere, all I had to do was follow up with an email talking about my background and experience and interests relevant to the school, rather than revise an entire package, because everything else was already on file with the agency.)

On the other hand, the majority of interviews I got came from other sources: some of them from postings on the NAIS job board (NAIS is the main US independent school organization), some from other postings and contacts. If I’m counting correctly, only 4 of my phone interviews came from the hiring agency, and none turned into an on-site interview. On the other hand, a good friend had two in-person interviews come out of her search, one of whom she’s happily starting work for this month.

My basic advice is “Don’t put all your eggs in that basket” – even if you do find a fit with a search firm, be prepared to do a lot of looking yourself. Even among independent schools, not every school chooses to use a search firm, or they may use one for only some searches.

(For example, I was referred for a position that was way above my current experience – managing a large staff and a budget in seven figures – but noticed on the school’s website that they were hiring for an information services position that was much closer to my experience. So my email following up on the referral said as much, and I got as far as a phone interview for the second position.)

I’ll note that these stats also depend on field: I understand the market is very different for math and science teachers, for example, as opposed to librarians, English teachers, or history teachers.

I’m mostly not talking about the independent school library market here because it’s its own little culture of hiring (and working), but I’m glad to discuss it further in email if you’re curious. (In general, independent schools do not require a teaching license, though they’re often glad if you have one, but they do want clear evidence that you enjoy working with the relevant age group. Teaching college students is not enough by itself.)

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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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