or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk



Tests for Hiring and Training

   July 30th, 2009

Cones in the stacksOne of my coworkers and her husband run Gibson's Bookstore, in Concord, NH. When hiring new employees, each applicant is given a knowledge of literature test to see how well they'll do at reader's advisory.

Their opinion is that bookstore staff are first and foremost reading advisers, and cashiers and stockers second. The test questions cover a broad scope of literature, just like the questions of customers (and library patrons):

2) Name five characters invented by William Shakespeare.
13) What is Ender Wiggin famous for?
14) James and the Giant ________ by Roald _______.
23) Why do some Sneetches feel superior to others?

To get hired, applicants must get at least half of the questions right. Perhaps libraries could implement something similar? Perhaps they already do.

I also have a list of reference questions and tasks I give to reference staff after they've been hired, to help with training. It is based on something my director found (can't remember what or where), but I tailored it to get new staff familiar with the type of questions we get, our collection, our policies, basic tech support, and reference in general. They get it as a Word document, and work on it for their first few months.

Some people like tests and some don't. But each in their own way, I think these tests are valuable to make sure that the people interacting with the public are really able to help the public.




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16 Responses to “Tests for Hiring and Training”

  1. Sarah Says:

    These were interesting, even though I certainly would have failed both. I used a similar written test when hiring an assistant here in the performance library, which included a loose page to identify, questions about common reference books, copyright issues, and such. For the “you are at the reference desk” portion, I kept track of nearly every question I’d been asked over the past week, and just had them answer those; it was interesting to see where their approaches differed from mine.

  2. Laura K Says:

    This reminds me of one of the most frustrating aspects of my library school education: My reference class involved multiple assignments like your test for new librarians, but we never got any training in how to find the answers. It was just assumed that completing the assignment alone would make us better reference librarians, but I still don’t feel very good at it because I never learned how to do it. I’m wondering if other people had similar lib school experiences…

  3. Laura Says:

    I would have barely passed the knowledge of literature test. I’m opposed to using tests like this for the basis of hiring because, being a good librarian is more than just the ability to memorize a bunch of assorted facts. More importantly, its knowing how to go about finding the information to meet the patron’s needs even when you nothing about the subject.

  4. ccr in MA Says:

    I think I’d pass the knowledge of literature test, though I’m not sure if I’d get points added or deducted for questioning how many of Shakespeare’s characters he actually “invented”. Still, fun!

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Laura K: everyone we’ve hired has had some library experience, so it’s not exactly the same as learning from scratch in library school. Also, since it’s a months-long project, I (and other ref staff) are there to help, offer suggestions, and provide ongoing training and guidance. I don’t expect people to know all the answers, but I think this sort of hands-on learning is easier to retain than just reading the policy manual. Plus, it something to keep people busy during slow times.

    @Laura: I agree with you – I think I would have at least gotten a 50% on the bookstore test, but most of those questions weren’t the kind of books I read. I think it makes more sense in a bookstore than in a library – in a bookstore, it seems a higher percentage of people do sales, whereas library positions seem a bit more specialized (there’s no reason for a tech services person to be required to do readers advisory, for example).

  6. Charlie Says:

    Brian, I LOVE both the lit test and your ref test. Could I link to them and share with friends and colleagues?

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Charlie: sure.

  8. Tim Says:

    Great post Brian! The literature test is really interesting, even for someone from Belgium.
    I will also be using your reference test in adapted form in order to teach my pupils some reference skills. It will make a great test with some minor adaptations.
    (Oh, by the way,all your posts are really interesting. Thanks.)

  9. Cari Says:

    I’m not in a position to hire anyone, but I think the test would be useful in training someday! Thanks Brian!

  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Cari: unfortunately, we haven’t been hiring either – you’ll notice the date on my quiz is 8/06, which is the last time I hired someone (in 2/09 we had to start laying people off).

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  12. Mary Ellen Petrich Says:

    My husband and I together couldn’t be hired by that bookstore. I have the sort of memory which does not remember “details”, like authors’ names, plot details, and what I had for breakfast. On the other hand this makes me much more charming because you can tell me the same stories over and over and I always laugh just as hard. My husband, fortunately, remembers many details, but, unfortunately, has not been exposed to such worthy works as Madame Bovary.

  13. Jeff Scott Says:

    Hey, I can answer two of the four questions here. They are kid books though. :)

  14. Sarah Says:

    The job I had in library school was set up as sort of a librarian trainee program, and we used quizzes like your new reference librarian quiz all the time to learn all manner of databases, or even just our reference collection.

    Like you pointed out, it wasn’t about getting the questions right, it was about the process of finding answers to common questions by doing just that. I think sometimes when you’re starting a new job, just knowing what types of questions are likely to come up is a huge help in getting yourself oriented.

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