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

Tips for New Library Employees

   September 16th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Advice DeskJust recently, someone who follows my blog sent me this email:

I have just started a job as a library reference assistant in a public library system in a city of over 500,000 people. I will be in one of the busier neighborhood libraries (there are around a dozen neighborhood libraries and a central library).

Any tips/advice for a new library reference assistant with only patron experience (and that, only checking out books, no reference usage) in a library?

First, I was happy to hear someone managed to get a library job, despite the "librarian shortage" the ALA is talking about (discussed at Closed Stacks and by Jessamyn, and contradicted by my library's recent experience filling an opening).

Anyway, I thought I'd put together a Top 5 list for advice for new library employees. It's tricky, as library jobs can be so different, but here's the advice (mostly reference-related) I came up with - please submit more advice in the comments:

  1. Don't be afraid to tell the patron you're new, and might not know something
  2. Don't be afraid to ask coworkers for help (this will also save the patron's time)
  3. When working on a difficult or complex question with a patron, I will get the patron started in one area (say, browsing the right Dewey section) while I go back and continue searching on my own. I find it much easier to think when a patron isn't standing there staring at me, and I think they get more out of it by being involved in the search
  4. During downtime, learn your library's policies and about what resources & tools available to you - the catalog, vertical files, information at the reference desk, etc. (this is especially true for local information, which always seems like the hardest thing to find)
  5. Practice - a little while ago I posted a couple tests used for hiring and training new staff - the more experience you have and the more familiar you are with the quirks of your tools, the more comfortable and helpful you'll be

The Librarian by Day has more good advice for library staff, new and old, in the bottom portion of her post about library skills.

And on the lighter side of interviewing for a library position, here's a classic Monty Python sketch - humorous, yes, but most of what the interviewers say is still spot on:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Notes on Reading Resumes

   July 20th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Resume scrutinyFirst of all, let me apologize right up front, because I know I'm going to come off sounding like a jackass in this post. I really don't intend to, and I honestly am sensitive to what I'm saying.

Remember last week when I posted about our opening for a Head of Circulation? We've received close to 50 resumes so far, and I (and my coworkers) have spent a lot of time reading resumes in the past few days. I am certainly not a human resources professional, but I do have input on who will get interviewed and ultimately hired, so I thought I'd share some observations and trends I've been noticing.

But applicants, take what I say with a grain of salt. I realize I am probably not a typical resume-reader, and that every application process and situation is different. These are just my feelings concerning filling this position.

  1. Applying for a job isn't about you - it's about the interviewers visualizing you filling the open position and how that will help the library. Do everything you can to make that easy for them.
  2. No one writes a good objective, but resumes without them seem lacking**.
  3. It seems weird to start off a cover letter thanking us for giving you the opportunity to apply, yet I saw this at least five times. Just say what you're applying for, where you saw the ad, and then move on.
  4. There is a definite difference between applicants who want this job and applicants who want a job. I truly sympathize with the large number of people who are out of work. That just sucks. But this job does have requirements, and I was surprised at how many resumes just didn't meet them. Please, if you are not qualified, do not apply. This position is important to us, and we don't view it as someone's stepping stone or life preserver.
  5. Read the job posting very closely, and address those points in your cover letter. Don't just lay out what you have done - tell us why that matters and what you will/can do for our patrons. Look for themes or points in the job ad, and blatantly address them - for the Head of Circulation, we're looking for someone who can supervise a variety of staff and personalities, who can work at a fast pace in a very busy library, who can meet our high standard of customer service, and who has both a technology background and the initiative to use technology to do things better. All of these things are in the job ad, but 90% of the resumes address only one or two of these points.
  6. Your resume is not your biography. Not everything you've done in life relates to the position you're applying for, and all that extra noise (working at a pet store fifteen years ago) drowns out the important information. Understand the position you're applying for, and only include - and highlight - anything that draws a clear picture of why you would do well in this position. We know what we're looking for, so tell us why you're it.
  7. Do not tell me why this position would benefit your career or build your skill set. We're not hiring someone for their benefit, or to give them a challenge, we're hiring someone for the benefit of the library and our patrons.
  8. The word "proven" rings hollow with me, especially when no "proof" is supplied in the resume. "Proven emphasis on customer service," "proven ability to multitask," or "proven web coding skills," etc. If you want to prove what you're saying, explain it or provide examples.
  9. This might just be me, but I like show-and-tell. If you've created cool fliers or brilliant reader's advisory handouts, include copies or link to them online. It's much more meaningful to see examples of your work than just read a description of it (or worse, just a passing reference to it). Bring samples to the interview, too.
  10. Don't be wordy. We're reading dozens of resumes, and the dense ones get skimmed or skipped. Be clear and concise.
  11. Grammar, spelling and typos are all noticed, as well as formatting, and consistency. Brand yourself to stand out a bit - it shows you know your way around Word* and you cared enough to spend some time and thought making it look good (by the way, this is an excellent way to display your "proven computer aptitude").
  12. When emailing your resume, file format is important. If it's not specified in the job ad, send a pdf - not .doc or .docx or anything else. I also think the cover letter and resume should be in the same file, for two reasons:

    • 8-1/2" x 11" pages are a pain to look at on a screen. They all get printed out so I can read, compare and make notes on the paper - and going back to point #10, the less paper the better.
    • About eight people in my library are involved in the reviewing and hiring process, which means there is a lot of email attachment forwarding going on. Putting the cover letter and resume in the same file means they will always stay together. Putting your cover letter only in the body of your email means I have many resumes with no cover letters (and oddly, also a few cover letters with no resumes). Please make it easy for me to keep all your information in the same place.
  13. When you email your resume, give it a meaningful name - like BHerzogResume.pdf. Things like EMW.rtf, chelmsford_job.doc, libraryresume01-4b.docx, April 2010.wpd, resumemaster.txt, or coverletter.wpd might mean something to you, but means nothing to me - especially when a coworker forwards twenty resumes attached to the same message. I want to know your name and connect it to your resume, and if I need to go back and look up your resume again, I'll be able to find it. This is much less likely if I have to decode cryptic file names. Your resume does not exist in a vacuum - it is piled up with 50 others. Make yours easily-identifiable.
  14. If you submit both an electronic and print resume (which is not a bad idea), be sure to mention this in your cover letter. Avoid associating your name with confusion, duplication or spam.
  15. Don't send references unless they are requested, and you can leave the "references available upon request" off the resume, too. We'll ask if we want them - otherwise, it's just more stuff to sift through.

Coincidentally, the day I started making notes for this post, Yahoo ran a story on their homepage entitled What NOT to do: 7 ways to ruin your resume - that is worth reading too.

Again, I'm not posting this to criticize or to gloat about being lucky enough to have a job right now. I know my own current resume violates many things I said above, and will get a major revamp the next time I send it out. I wish the best of luck to everyone who is looking for a position, and I hope some of this insight helps.


*This is a personal pet peeve of mine: there is absolutely no reason for a pdf resume to be 2MB. That tells me you don't understand technology, and almost every professional library position now is a technology position. If you don't already have them, applying for jobs is a good time to learn the skills of word processing, file formats, and email attachments. Don't be afraid to ask someone for help (including the reference desk at your local library), or read articles or watch instructional videos online. It's worth it, because believe me, this is definitely the time to get things right.

**Update 8/13/10: Lots of people are taking issue with this point, and I'm afraid it isn't very clear. I didn't mean to say I like Objectives, just that resumes that went from the person's name right into work history or something felt like they were missing something, or that the transition was jarring. I review resumes by reading the cover letter first, then the resume, and the Objective at the top of the page was always a nice transition between the paragraphs of a cover letter to the bulleted points of a resume. I called out Objectives because that's what I was used to, but things have apparently changed since the last time I wrote a resume. Now, the thing to do seems to be a "Summary of Qualifications," and I like this idea much more than an objective. Put this at the top of the resume, and pick three or things from your work history or skill set that directly applies to the job at hand, based on the description in the job ad, and use this space to highlight those. That is what interviewers (or me, at lest) want to see - why you are qualified for this job.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tests for Hiring and Training

   July 30th, 2009 Brian Herzog

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Guide to Hiring Women

   May 29th, 2008 Brian Herzog

1943 Guide to Hiring WomenSince I mentioned recently that it's staff review time in my library, I thought it'd also be appropriate (although I use that term loosely) to post this 1943 Guide to Hiring Women. Originally published in "Transportation Magazine," I found it over on the studio twentysix2 blog, and I agree with Tom's commentary.

As a male in a traditionally female-dominated field, of course I found this interesting. I work for and with women, and have women who report to me, and I'm happy to report that this is not at all applicable to 2008. All of my colleagues, professional and paraprofessional, have their jobs because they are good at their jobs - not just because they fit the uniforms we had on hand.

Times change. That's a good thing.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,