Cover letters

Recently, we went through the hiring process to hire a new assistant (after our previous assistant became our Archivist.) This lead me to have some advice about job hunting and libraries, though a fair number of the general ideas here are also relevant outside of libraries.

Here’s what I want in a cover letter (mileage may vary for other people reading them, but many of the things here are also true for other people I know.) I should also note that every example here was done by more than one person in our hiring pool.

1) Apply for the job we’re hiring for.
2) Show me you understand what this job does.
3) Show me you’ve done a bit of research about the institution.
4) Tell me why you’re interested in this particular job.
5) Answer any obvious questions posed by your background.

Background about this job:

The job we were hiring for is officially labelled Assistant: Research Library and Archives.

It has three roles: 15 hours a week assisting in the Research Library (circulation, cataloging, basic office stuff like managing invoices and mail, other projects as they come up), 15 hours in the Archives (processing collections, creating finding aids, managing digital materials and their metadata) and 10 hours a week helping with online resources elsewhere in our larger department (editing links, getting permissions for images, editing images for use – nothing very technically complicated.) These were spelled out in detail in the long ad.

What did that mean for us?

This is, we admit, a complicated mass of skills, and we knew that we needed the most specific background on the Archives side, for them to be most helpful there. So we were most detailed about our requirements there, and asked for things our local MLIS program asks people to learn in their first internship, early in the program. (And were explicitly open to people still in school.)

The library side doesn’t require specific skills in the same way, but I did want to have someone who understood the customer service aspects, and who was interested in doing some reference work, though I do the majority of it. The online resources side wants someone who is familiar with online HTML and content management system editing, but we were mostly looking for ‘this person could pick this up fast if they haven’t used our specific systems’.

The assistant position involves providing backup for either the Research Librarian or Archivist if we’re not available (vacations, etc.) so we also wanted someone who felt comfortable interacting directly with people with questions if necessary.

So it’s a slightly weird position, and most of the people we got were – understandably – coming from the Archives side of the world.

1) Apply for the job we’re hiring for.

This round of hiring had two people who applied for jobs that were not the one we were hiring for.

When I’ve job hunted, I’ve always saved a copy of the ad when I first see it (I save it as a PDF), but I also double checked that there hadn’t been any significant changes before submitting it. I kept cover letters and related materials in different folders (one for each job), so it would be one step harder for me to attach the wrong one.

If you’re applying for a bunch of jobs, make life easier for yourself, and make it harder to make those kinds of mistakes. A couple of other people had failures in uploading their cover letters.

On cover letters: some people didn’t include one at all. When applying for jobs in the library and archives field, you really need one. We know they’re hard to write, but they’re your best chance to put the skills on your resume in context, explain what interests you about this particular job, and answer any obvious questions the people reading your application might have.

2) Show me you understand what this job does:

Most important: make sure you talk about all the significant roles of the job if there’s more than one. Out of 34 applications, only 9 people did that clearly.

For this kind of mixed job role, I don’t care if you don’t have equal experience in all three areas (most people won’t), but I want to see that you understand that all three are part of the job, and that if you do have any relevant experience, you tell me about it.

Ideally, you’d talk about the three roles proportionate to how much a part of the job they are. In this case, we’d spelled out that the library and archives parts are 15 hours a week each, and the online editing is 10, but there were a lot of people who focused heavily on one part (usually the archives) and not at all on the others.

More than one person talked about things that weren’t relevant to this job, like teaching experience (we are part of a school but basically only see students passing through), or management experience (this is an assistant position: you may be helping out interns, but not managing anyone.) That kind of thing indicates to the person reading that you may not understand the job very well.

3) Do some basic research on the institution.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Research Library is a non-standard kind of library: we’re really a special library that is attached to a school. There are other libraries on campus that serve students, and that serve the public with general reading materials.

We got letters talking (extensively) about academic libraries, but while we support academic research along with many other types of uses, we don’t work with students in the same way an academic library would. We do very little instruction, we have only one subscription database, and we don’t have the kind of circulation or day to day work (or volume of questions) that an academic library would.

I don’t expect an applicant to get all of that from the outside – but I do expect that someone who looked at our website would understand that we’re don’t fit into the more common library models, and not write a letter that assumes we do.

Our Archives role, in contrast, is a lot more straightforward.

However, if you do a little research about the institution, you can include a sentence or two about why you’d find it interesting to work there. (We have really fascinating archives collections that tie into a lot of history of education and Boston in the Gilded Age, besides the institution-specific and disability history aspects, for example.)

4) Why are you interested in this specific job?

I’m not expecting this to be someone’s lifetime job: it’s an assistant position, there isn’t a chance for upward mobility unless the current Research Librarian or Archivist leave (life might happen, but not a thing to assume.)

So we expect this is the kind of job someone would take for a couple of years or so, get some solid experience, and then look for something that’s a professional role. But we also don’t want this to be a job someone takes and is immediately looking to move on from, because training someone takes time and energy.

That means I really wanted applicants to tell me something in their cover letter that showed they understood that. That there are things about more than one of the roles that they’re interested in or at least mostly enjoy doing. That they understand there are challenges in dealing with three different people giving you tasks and varied schedule needs.

(And psst: we’ve told you it’s reporting to the Research Librarian, so ignoring the library part is probably not the way to go here.)

5) Answer any obvious questions.

We had multiple applications from people who had most recently held professional archives positions (and more than one of them) or professional library positions. For these people, I really wanted them to talk to me in the cover letter about why they were interested in the assistant position. None of them did. That makes it really hard for me to consider them.

(In contrast, if they’d given me a sentence or two – they’re moving to the area and want to get familiar with the local community, they’re looking for something with less management responsibility, etc. I’d have considered them more strongly.)

I totally get that “I want a job in my field” is a highly motivating factor, but in a field with other candidates, that’s not sufficient from the hiring end. Everyone who’s applying wants a job in the field!

Likewise, for people from out of the area. You don’t need to make a big deal about it, but this is an assistant position in a high cost of living area. Give me some indication you’ve thought about what it’d be like to move here, that you’ve thought a bit about time to move, and so on.

How’d it work out?

We had 34 applications after about 2 weeks into the posting, did initial phone interviews with about 10 of them, interviewed 4 in person (we were going to do 5, and one person did not get back to us about scheduling for over a week, and by that point we had a candidate we were very excited about and a very close runner-up and two other well-qualified people), and made our decision.

Our new person hasn’t actually started yet (previous commitments involved, and we were fine with working around that), but we’re looking forward to it. While hiring is a time-consuming process on our end, I also really appreciated getting the chance to talk to really well-qualified people who were interested in the job, and our final interview list all had great folks who I hope find other amazing things to do.

For the curious, our process was the institution’s online application process, a phone screen by our HR recruiter that focused on some basic questions and salary range discussion, and then an in-person or Skype interview with two of the three people involved in working with this position, so our process was not particularly onerous on the applicant.

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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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