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

Differences Between Librarian and Department Head

   November 14th, 2013

Tony Danza in Who's the BossI've written a few times here about different aspects of library employment, interviewing, and job goals. A little while ago I received the following email from another librarian, which really captured my interest:

I am a reference librarian [and] recently applied for a job as head of reference services at another library and just found out I've gotten an interview. I've done dozens of interviews for reference librarian positions and have done pretty well at them. However I've never had an interview for a department head position and was wondering if you had any sense of what I could expect, how they differ from reference librarian interviews, or any other advice? Anything you could tell me would be very appreciated.

This is a good question, and one that I've never specifically considered. Of course every interview is different, whether because of the job requirements or other hyper-local reasons.

After I thought about it a bit, I realized that the differences between librarian and department head is a laundry list of the least-fun things about my job: paperwork, staff management, more meetings. The prospect of conveying in an interview that you're aware of these differences, and how you'd handle them, is an interesting challenge. Here's a few of my thoughts:

  • Supervising a variety of people

    The biggest challenge when I started my job was that I was a young guy suddenly in charge of women who were older than me, and who had been doing their job for years. Supervising people has a host of challenges, and while gender and personality differences may not apply to every situation, it's good to consider them. Other supervising situations are: having both "good" and "bad" employees, or having one particular person who is a gossip or troublemaker, staff who don't get along, a person who is chronically late, someone doing too much personal stuff at work, etc.

    I don't think a new supervisor would be expected to know how to handle all of this right off the bat, but it is certainly fair game for an interview. The questions might be something like, "one of your staff people is terrible with technology and hates ebooks. How do you handle this?" Or, "one staff person refuses to help a particular patron. What do you do?"

  • Setting goals for the department

    As department head, you're not just doing the work anymore, but setting the course. I do lots of things that my non-professional staff don't understand or are annoyed with, but most of the time down the road it all makes sense. Or at least, it helps me down the road, so it's important to be transparent and get buy-in when doing things or making changes.

  • Staff management

    Doing the desk schedule to make sure shifts are covered (which is a constant pain), calling subs, covering vacations and sick days, doing payroll timesheets, etc. It doesn't seem difficult, and really it's not, but it can be very time consuming. Another part of my job is performing staff reviews - those are uncomfortable for everyone.

  • Dealing with problems

    Being the department head means everyone brings their problems to you, no matter what they are. You've got to be responsive and fair, and most of all effective, in addition to knowing when to ask your supervisor for help. This applies both to staff/department problems, as well as patron issues/questions that escalate beyond the usual.

  • Working as a management team

    Staff librarians probably work as a team within the department, but being a department head means you're working with other department heads to run the library. There's not always a lot of overlap, but it is good to all be on the same page and know what everyone else is doing - especially so for Reference, because we get asked questions about everything. Unfortunately, knowing what's going on requires meetings.

    An additional source of meetings are regional meetings with staff from other libraries, to find out what works for other people, compare notes on products and services, etc. "Professional development" and "keeping up with the profession" might also come up in an interview - staff librarians need to do this too, but I suppose it's expected more from a professional position.

  • Desk management

    This kind of goes along with some of the others above, but it's worth pointing out that everything about the reference area is now your responsibility: how the desk looks, how staff functions while they're there, what kind of handouts do you have, do you have enough of them, does the printer have enough paper, why have those light bulbs been out for two days, is the copier working, and all the other little stuff that slips through the cracks - until something goes wrong of course, then it's a glaring error that everyone blames you for. Keeping on top of all the little stuff - or delegating it as projects - keeps things running smoothly.

I'm sure there are more differences - does anyone else have additional interview advice? Thanks.

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