How to Stand Out When Applying for a College Library Job (Review)
If you’ve ever applied for a college librarian position and got nowhere, you might have wondered why. I grew up in a college family, had a great mentor in library school, and still didn’t quite understand what a hiring committee was looking for when I applied for my first librarian position. Now that I’ve served on several hiring committees, I’ll give you a peek behind the curtain.
What can you, the candidate, do to stand out? Do you need to have all the required qualifications as well as all the preferred ones? Just as faculty members may leave their doctoral programs feeling ill-prepared to walk into a university classroom, many recent MLI graduates may not have heard of the search for university job.
When I recently taught a class at a local graduate program, I created a module centered around this research. I taught my students how to create a matrix using the qualifications stated in the job posting because that’s what hiring committees use to create their screening tools. This article will walk you through this process and provide tips for success, using a job posting for an academic library position at a leading research university as a case study.
Follow the requirements
Whatever the job, you should read the entire job advertisement carefully, including the boilerplate statement about the university, the library and their respective missions. You’d be surprised how many applicants refer to the wrong university, and while this gaffe doesn’t always rule them out, it does show a lack of attention to detail.
Before you even create your matrix, make sure you meet all the required qualifications. The only potential wiggle room might be that our positions generally require you to have your MLS degree in hand prior to the start date, but not necessarily when applying for the position. Otherwise, if you don’t have the required qualifications, it’s a waste of the committee’s time — and that of the committee — to apply.
The job posting I’m going to use as a case study is for a music and performing arts research librarian. One of the required qualifications is “commitment to continuing professional development”, so if I was applying for the position, I would first consider what the library is looking for.
What I understand is that the library wants a candidate who will remain active in professional organizations, such as the Association of Music Libraries, by attending annual meetings and/or serving on committees. You can demonstrate this in your application by listing professional affiliations on your resume and expanding on them in the cover letter. For example, you might say that you have been a member of the Music Library Association for five years, attended national and regional conferences, and served on various committees.
Another required qualification is “knowledge of the tools and methods of digital scholarship”. Familiarity is not the same as “demonstrated experience”, so you don’t need to be an expert here. One way to meet this requirement would be to say that you are familiar with finding aids using coded archival description, or that you know how to help patrons navigate the digital collections found in contentDM, a document management software package. digital assets or other repositories. You must be specific and honest.
Another requirement is the “ability to thrive in a highly collaborative, team-based organization”. Even if your only experience was in graduate school, you can cite group projects and comment on successful strategies you employed there. For example, if you’re the best at keeping your teammates on track and on schedule, you can mention that.
Once you have reviewed all of the required qualifications and determined that you meet them, make sure each one is listed on your resume and/or in your cover letter. Some candidates write their letters in the order the qualifications are written, which is fine for the hiring committee but not necessary. Just make sure the committee doesn’t have to look for that information.
Covering preferred qualifications
You can now review preferred qualifications, which, as the name suggests, will give you an edge over candidates who simply meet the requirements. This position has a preferred qualification of “working knowledge of foreign languages (French or German preferred).” The hiring committee will not test you on a foreign language, so you can indicate the level on your CV (elementary, intermediate, advanced, native speaker), including any certificates or tests, if applicable.
Another favorite qualification is “familiarity with issues of scholarly communication and intellectual property,” and again, note the word “familiarity.” You may describe any classes of graduate study or work experience, such as any work with an institutional repository, open access databases or journals, or a search for cited references.
It’s fine to use non-library experiences to approach qualifications, as long as they’re relevant. If you need to demonstrate that you can work well with clients of all stripes, for example, you can cite retail work as long as you also have library-specific experience to complement.
Whatever you envision in your letter, be as specific as possible. The idea is to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring committee. The sooner they can check off the boxes in the requirements matrix, the sooner they can get you through to the first round: the phone interview.
Once you have covered the requirements and desired qualifications, see if you can naturally indicate your genuine interest in college and the library. Don’t make up a reason why you’re interested and stay professional. Even if you’re applying for a position at, say, the University of California, Los Angeles, because you want to learn to surf, don’t say that. The cover letter is a great place – and really the only place – where you can talk about your enthusiasm for something like the institution’s student body or faculty research.
For example, my university has a large population of Deaf students, so if an applicant knows ASL, that’s a good thing to mention. We also have many first-generation students, and it’s helpful for the hiring committee to know if a candidate has experience with this student population or if they want to disclose that they were the first in their family to go to the University. You must consider the specifics of the university and the library so that it is clear to the committee that you are not using a generic application.
Back to the job posting: she asks for the contact details of three references. Some libraries will require reference letters, but you should not send them unsolicited. Also, your references should be librarians or professors, not library assistants or paraprofessionals—especially if you’re applying for a tenure-track faculty position—because a library assistant or paraprofessional may not be familiar with some of the nuances. Ideally, your references will have supervised or mentored you, but if necessary, you can ask for a peer. All references must be able to comment knowledgeably, specifically and positively on your work. You also need to make sure that they write their letters in a manner appropriate to the position you are applying for and not generic support letters.
As a courtesy, ask someone before listing them as a reference, and give them the job posting and your resume to help them prepare. It’s fine if references can’t comment on every aspect of a particular job, but you want to put them in place to be successful. Also, let your references know when they might be contacted.
After being contacted for a phone interview, pull out your matrix and brainstorm possible interview questions. Even if you clearly met the required qualifications – otherwise you wouldn’t have landed an interview – you will still be asked about at least some of them. Based on the job posting, you might be asked about your commitment to professional development, for example. Preferred qualifications are also fair, so be prepared to speak honestly about one of them. Interviewers may also ask you questions about the job in general (not just about qualifications), so make sure you are familiar with the entire job description.
Bring questions to ask; if you don’t have one, it signals to the committee that you are not interested in the position or the university or library. If you don’t know what to ask, here are some suggestions:
- What kind of support does the library offer in terms of professional development?
- For tenure-track positions, does the library have specific tenure and promotion guidelines, and what are the expectations for scholarly publications?
- What is your favorite aspect of working at the university or the library?
In addition to questions directly related to stated qualifications, a hiring committee often asks questions such as:
- Scenario: Give an example of a difficult customer interaction. What happened, how did you solve the problem and what was the result?
- Evaluation: How do you determine if an information literacy session/library workshop/teaching session was a success?
- Scientific research: What are your research interests? Do you have targeted reviews?
- Values: what does diversity mean to you?
While there’s no one right way to apply for a college librarian position, you’ll be much more likely to succeed if you’re intentional and take the time to match your background and experience to a specific position. . By putting yourself in the shoes of the hiring committee, you have a much better chance of landing the job.