Mar 01 2003

Hiring Reference Librarians: Insights From Some Law Library Directors

Published by rachel at 8:17 pm under Job Hunting

by Rhonda Hankins

Twelve directors of academic law libraries around the United States recently participated in an informal survey about what they look for in hiring reference librarians. Though some admitted to occasionally hiring on a whim, directors generally use routine questions to evaluate job candidates. Learning the opinions of some of the leaders in the profession may be the key to success for recent graduates looking for their first job, or for established librarians hoping to climb the managerial ladder. The insights and analysis provided by these directors also shed light on the nature of the profession, so even those who are not job hunting may find their comments interesting and relevant.

The Resume

Not surprisingly, all of the directors who participated in this survey agreed that the resume and accompanying cover letter should be free of typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors. Many directors stated that even one mistake of this nature on a resume disqualified a candidate from further consideration.

In addition, the consensus is that resumes should be chronological and that any and all gaps should be explained. Roger Jacobs, dean of Kresge Library at Notre Dame Law School, advises prospective job candidates that “if you took off two years to meditate or sail around the world, tell me, don’t let me imagine you were in prison or drug rehab.”

Faye E. Jones, director of the Gordon D. Schaber Law Library at the University of Pacific said that a particularly impressive resume includes language from the job description in highlighting previous experience, skills, or interests. Tailoring the resume to the job in this way shows a high level of interest and makes the resume stand out. “I am looking for enthusiasm, commitment, maturity, and teamwork skills as well as strong teaching and communication skills,” Jones continued, “and successful resumes show me all of those things.”

A number of the directors said that they preferred candidates to give contact information for references either in the resume or on a separate page that accompanies the resume. “References are important,” emphasized Robert C. Berring, Jr., director of Boalt Hall Law Library at The University of California at Berkeley. “Why anyone ever puts ‘references available on request’ escapes me,” he said. James S. Heller, director of Marshall-Wythe Law Library at the College of William & Mary noted that he contacts references before inviting candidates to interview.

The Recommended Credentials

Most of the directors who participated in the survey indicated a preference for candidates who had degrees from good, accredited schools. “A high class ranking, law review or graduating from a library school and/or law school with an excellent reputation would be credentials that would get my attention,” noted Judith F. Anspach, Associate Dean of Information Resources, Deane Law Library at Hofstra University Law School Library.

Even candidates with the right degrees, however, would do themselves a favor to make sure that they also have the necessary skills and knowledge to excel. For example, Kent McKeever, director of The Arthur W. Diamond Law Library at Columbia University, strongly advises students to take cataloging - whether or not it is part of the core curriculum. “The concepts learned there are transportable into any information processing task,” he explained. He also recommends that all students who want to be reference librarians take a basic personnel management class, since professional library jobs beyond the opening level positions almost always involve supervising staff. For people who already have their MLS, continuing education courses in these areas would be appropriate. In fact, according to Jacobs, a typical weakness of reference librarian candidates is a lack of aggressiveness in further developing skills and a too narrow focus on only the reference functions of a library.

In addition to formal education, most directors also want to see relevant job experience on the resume. And, according to Kaufman, prospective reference librarians would strengthen their candidacy by learning every job in the library because “that experience gives you an understanding of the tasks, services, and politics associated with library endeavors.” Because instruction is becoming increasingly important for law librarians, the ability to communicate easily and clearly is a great asset. Therefore, prior teaching experience - either formal or informal - can also be a bonus for a candidate.

However, as Berring makes clear, degrees and experience aren’t enough to qualify for jobs as a reference librarian. “If you do not understand cyberspace, no degree on earth will help you,” he explained. The comments of other directors also indicate that technological adeptness is an essential skill in today’s library.

The Interview

Mersky emphasized that appearance and presentation are part of professionalism, which means that job candidates should look their best for the interview. “You dress nicely to show respect for the position for which you are interviewing,” he explained. “I once hired a reference librarian just because she carried a beautiful briefcase to the interview,” Mersky continued, “and though I was disappointed that I never saw that briefcase again after she was hired, I still find a good presentation impressive.”

The directors generally agreed that successful candidates exhibit interest in and knowledge of the library, enthusiasm for the position, and good communication skills during the job interview, and that they save questions about benefits and retirement packages for the folks in human resources. Though some library directors have tests that they administer to evaluate candidates, most ask probing questions to determine a candidate’s breadth of knowledge and probable level of reference skills. “I don’t administer a skills test, but I do present hypotheticals that give me an opportunity to assess the candidate’s reference skills and their ability to make common sense decisions,” explained Anspach. Jones said that she requires a 20-minute presentation followed by a short question/answer session at the on-campus interview. “The presentation gives us an opportunity to assess the candidate’s preparation, organization, communication, public presence, ability to respond to questions, and ability to think on his/her feet.”

“We always ask questions that get at teamwork and communication skills,” noted Studwell. “When we ask what the worst job they’ve had has been, I listen carefully to see how artfully they handle a discussion about someone they worked with that they didn’t like or respect.” Heller mentioned a number of general questions he usually asks candidates for reference positions, including: Why do you want to work here? Why do you want to be a law librarian? What are your strongest skills? What kind of work do you like to do best? What interesting or difficult problems have you encountered in a prior job, and how did you solve them? What do you look for in a supervisor? Kaufman said she also finds it important to clarify that candidates understand the job description; that they can give examples of successful teamwork; and that they demonstrate that they are “can-do” people.

In addition, the directors expect candidates to raise appropriate questions. “I would like to hear questions that indicate that the candidate has an awareness of the place of the law librarian in an academic environment; about developments in research methods; and about the nature of my organization,” explained Jacobs. “I love to hear questions about what do I want in a candidate, about the culture of the organization, and about what challenges we face,” added Jones. “I also like to hear about any innovations they have introduced in their previous positions,” noted Anspach.

Moving Up the Managerial Ladder

A lot of the advice these directors have for moving up the managerial ladder in a law library reflects conventional wisdom: work hard, find good mentors, take on additional responsibilities, get involved at the national level, and be patient. And probably few would disagree with Jacobs, who recommended that reference librarians who want to move up the managerial ladder might find it useful to “graduate from the University of Washington Law Librarianship Program” and “work for Roy Mersky.”

The author would like to thank the following law library directors for participating in the survey, which was sent out over lawlibdir on November 12, 2002: Judith F. Anspach, Deane Law Library, Hofstra University School of Law at Hofstra University Law School Library; Robert C. Berring, Jr., Boalt Hall Law Library at The University of California at Berkeley; John Hagemann, McKusick Law Library at The University of South Dakota; James S. Heller, Marshall-Wythe Law Library at the College of William & Mary; Roger F. Jacobs, Kresge Library at Notre Dame Law School; Faye E. Jones, The Gordon D. Schaber Law Library at the University of Pacific; Billie Joe Kaufman, Law Library & Technology Center at Nova Southeastern University; Margaret A. Leary, University of Michigan Law Library; Kent McKeever, The Arthur W. Diamond Law Library at Columbia University; Roy M. Mersky, Jamail Center for Legal Research at The University of Texas School of Law; M. Kathleen Price at New York University Law Library; and, Roberta Studwell, University of Nevada Las Vegas Law Library.

A lengthier version of this article was published in the February, 2003 issue of AALL Spectrum.

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