Tuesday, August 14, 2012

New Year, New Library: Why We Hired Who We Hired

We have a part-time position open here at my place of work (MPOW), which means reading, and weeding, through applications; interviewing; and making decisions, some tough, some not so much. We advertised the following position on a few listservs, the university website, and a few other places.
Intern Job Opening 12
Within three days our human resources department received thirty resumes and cover letters, twenty-three of which we, the library staff, quickly dismissed, as it was obvious that these applicants were applying just for the sake of applying. Of the seven remaining, three called me to discuss the position. I do not like that. I don't like talking on the phone, sometimes much to the chagrin of friends and family, and I did not give a phone number on the position description for a reason, though I salute the enterprising googlers who found me.
Of these three callers, one submitted a cover letter that looked like it was written in under two minutes. That left us with six. Two we, library staff, were on the fence about. Because we're a small library, we decided to err on the side of caution and not invite these two applicants to campus. This left us with more time to do library things, like showing people how to print, where the bathrooms are, cataloging, and sending out links of squee animals. The other four were invited to campus, and accepted.
Our interview process is iterative. First there's a formal interview, almost always with not only library staff, but also someone from a dean or provost's office. I cannot stress enough how important it is to bring in someone from outside the library and library services when interviewing, at least for an academic library. It keeps the conversation focused on what a candidate can do for not only a library, but also the larger academic community, and it keeps the library jargon to a minimum. It also keeps me in check, lest I say something less than stellar about MPOW's administration, not that that would ever happen.

The second step is a tour of the library, culminating in a viewing of our broken microfilm reader. I have been at MPOW for almost five and a half years and not once has it worked. On the other hand, not once has anyone asked for microfilm except for interlibrary loan requests, which we happily grant. The third step is filling out a formal MPOW job application.

Both library and non-library interviewers were pleased with the four applicants, but to the library staff, two immediately stood out. Both had grade school teaching experience, as well as retail experience, important since librarianship is, in large part, about customer service. One of these candidates name-dropped The Wire, which is always a plus. The other commanded the room in such a way that it was clear five minutes into the interview that we were going to offer her the position. Fortune shined upon us when we found out that we could extend job offers to both of them.

The other two candidates were not bad, both are people with whom we could do business, but were simply less good than the two to whom we made offers. It happens. One of these not-bad-but-less-good candidates has a wealth of library experience, but that experience takes place at a very posh library in a posh area of a posh state. Given that MPOW functions something like a historic black college/university (HBCU) and educates more graduates of the District of Columbia public school system than any other private institution in the country, it didn't seem like the best fit. The other of these interviewees had less library experience, but talked cogently about the digital divide and making information accessible. This candidate would require more training, but an ability to examine oneself vis-a-vis unfamiliar surroundings is something that's hard to teach. All the interviewers, myself included, remain stumped on how to rank these two candidates.

It is also worth mentioning that all four people we brought in for interviews had at least one typo on either their resume or cover letter, and only one wrote us a thank you note, following up after the interview. One interviewee arrived twenty-five minutes early and asked to have the interview upon arrival. Don't do that.

I hope the offers we've extended are accepted, and I can post an update during training.

UPDATE: a related post is now up (2pm, 8/22/12).


  1. Hi Jacob
    Great post, it's illuminating for me as a recruiter (as well as, I'm sure, for applicants) to see some of the 'behind the scenes' thought processes that goes on in the hiring process.

    I think it's especially important for those applying for jobs to note the ease with which their resume/cover letter can be dismissed and not reach the interview stage. Are you able to give any indication of what factor(s) made it "obvious that these applicants were applying just for the sake of applying."?

    Some of the things I see a a recruiter are - generic resumes not targeted for the job, no cover letter at all, & resumes full of typos, grammar & spelling errors.

    1. Nicola, I see those things as well. I know many people, and perhaps recruiters in particular, preach targeted resumes, but I'm not concerned as to whether a resume is targeted or not. To me it's far more important that the cover letter be targeted, and after one catches my interest I'll move on to the resume or CV. That's to say that I read the cover letters first, then the resumes, and if you don't have the former, or it's not targeted, or poorly written, I won't read the resume. For this job posting there were at least fifteen applications that did not mention libraries anywhere. Not in the cover letter, not in the resume. I don't understand why these people applied, but they did, and eliminating them was easy.

      From a previous posting on the subject: "We don’t score the applications, mostly because we don’t have to. It’s obvious to library staff and I who we’d like to interview and who we wouldn’t, often within about 15 seconds of opening the application package. We showed one of our interns this process, going through about 10 resumes in under 4 minutes, and she was mortified, but then again, she passed the eye test, and the interview (more on that below). I told her to tell her MLIS friends: know that this is what’s happening with employers. You’ve got about 15 seconds of my time, and if I’m not interested after that, you won’t be considered."

  2. Hi Jacob

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment, and give load more useful information on your selection process :)

    I think recruiters advocate a targeted resume because they are often dealing with HR, and have too often come across cases where HR either does the initial screening themselves (giving the line managers few or none of the CVs we put forward initially), or else removes all attachments (including cover letters and the candidate reports that recruiters send) before passing on just the resumes to line managers.

    On the basis that the resume might be the only thing the line manager gets to see, it's a good idea to make sure it's tailored (to library work in general, first of all, and to the particular type of work as well.

  3. Thank you for very informative post [and also for the hedgehog video!]. I've been to a few non-academic library interviews and often think about how I come off to the interviewer before I go in. I noted that you mentioned the positive of leaving a thank you note post interview. I am a supporter of writing post-interview thank you notes but I’ve had a lively debate with a family member, who used to be a head-hunter for a Fortune 500 company 25 years ago, whether it is more proper to mail a hand-written thank you or opt for the less formal but more expedient emailed thank you. I'd love to hear what you and your colleagues' preference is.

    1. You're most welcome. I'm going to reply in a separate post, but the gist of it is yes, please do write thank you notes. The medium doesn't matter, just do it.

  4. I, too, would like to know what makes the author think he knows when an applicant wrote his/her cover letter in a few minutes? If typos weren't an issue then what was? Personally, I have applied to over 200 positions in the information field and there has been absolutely ZERO correlation between amount of time I spend on the application and whether I get an offer or not. I, personally, find that cover letters are the single most overrated aspect of the process. I've actually gotten personal emails from people on the hiring committee saying how much they loved my cover letter...but couldn't offer me an interview. Not an even an interview. After I got that email I stopped submitting cover letters when they were optional and every single place that has interviewed me was one in which I didn't write a cover letter. I think that speaks volumes about the importance of one piece of paper which most people don't even bother reading.

    1. I'm going to address this in a separate post that will include the full text of the letter in question, at which point you can judge for yourself. As for reading cover letters... I read them, and I think it's awful that people don't elsewhere, that they're not required, and that not writing one is rewarded behavior. But that's just me.

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