Sunday, November 20, 2011

Open Letter re: Library Hiring

tl;dr – applying for library jobs straight out of LIS school is bleak & libraries/librarians could do a better job of supporting applicants as opposed to crushing their spirits.

I'm among the lucky few that landed their dream job straight out of library school. But a number of my peers–every bit as competent as I am–have struggled mightily. This post is for them, because they obviously cannot express these concerns in a public forum.

You're Being Rude

I meticulously tracked my own job applications & while the sample size is small (I was a math major in college...can you tell?) the results are discouraging: precisely half responded in any manner. That percentage is higher than I thought it would be, but there is little reason why it couldn't be 100%. Furthermore, for several applications I am certain I was notified after the position had been filled & not after I was removed from consideration. One friend of mine took a day off work for an hour-long phone interview only to be informed at the end that the library had already filled the position. Here is why that is unacceptable practice: we are human beings. We are about to graduate, we are trying to figure out where in the country we will be moving, we are making plans. It would be immensely useful to know ASAP after we are out of consideration, so we can move on.

Another friend of mine said it best: “Part of the disconnect in job searching is applying and never hearing back, when as a librarian I was taught to not be dismissive to people.”

Your Requirements are Inane

Here's a tip: try filling out your own job application. Does it make sense? Or is it horrendously vague? Does your web form work or does it crash in every browser except Internet Explorer 6? Better yet, does the web form require repeating every single item listed on my resume? Does the position truly require "2-3 years of experience in a [insert your specific type of] library"? That last one is the killer. There are apparently no entry level jobs in librarianship, who would have guessed? As a new librarian, I beg you to consider what is more important to your institution: do you want someone with a nominal amount of experience? Or someone new to the profession, eager to learn, & devoid of assumptions? Many positions demand experience: it is impossible to be prepared for systems librarianship in LIS school, or for major management roles. But the vast majority could use a bright recent graduate as much as a bright greenhorn with two years of experience. Give us a chance to prove that to you.

Your Advice is Condescending

I read a lot of application advice on library blogs when I was a free agent. And the most common tips were always along the lines of: use spellcheck, address the position requirements, read the job ad, don't just cut & paste, make sure you're qualified. This is not advice, it's whining from people who read poorly written applications. I don't doubt that libraries get lots of crummy cover letters; I do doubt that the people who submit these flawed applications are scouring the Internet for advice that they're clearly not following. So my point is: as a competent young job searcher wracked by fear of homelessness, repeatedly seeing appeals to use spellcheck while simultaneously being silently rejected is awful.

Here's the paragraph, over at Attempting Elegance, that inspired me to write this post:
"Fourth, seriously, just stop with the cut-and-paste jobs, already.  We can tell. We’re more experienced at this than you are, we’ve just read 75 cover letters, and you’re not fooling us.  We know that you’re tired of applying for jobs and eating ramen and suffering under your terrible current boss, but the fact that your cover letter is a cut-and-paste job from the fourteen jobs you applied for last month shows. And we hate you. If you can’t be bothered to match your fonts, get the name of our institution right, list our job position title correctly, and write something that indicates you read the ad… Just no. You just wasted our time, and you’re out of the running."

Do you have any idea how insulting & discouraging that is to me as an applicant? I am eating ramen, applying to dozens of jobs, & suffering. It's not some funny, rhetorical flourish, it's my reality. I'm doing the right things & have nothing to show for it.

OK, this may be the first post I regret writing. It's a bitter reaction to bitterness. I'm sure search committees are frustrated with the quality of applications, but I struggle to see how that frustration could even come close to the anxiety of someone job searching. Please think of that while you write your job ad, reply to applicants, & write contemptuous blog posts.


  1. Eric, in general I agree with everything you have written. However, I will say that once you have been on an institutional hiring committee you'll at least see the context for some of these things that seem so frustrating. It won't necessarily excuse them, but it'll explain them.

    For example--communication. Often we can't contact applicants until the end of the search because you don't know that you're done until you've got a signed acceptance. We don't want to completely rule out anyone along the way in case we have to "go back to the pool" at any point in the search (an applicant pulls out or the first round of phone interviews tanks, etc.).

    As for any online forms, that's often completely out of the library's hands and can't be changed because it's controlled by big HR. They may not be able to do any customizing. (Just like we can't always customize our ILSes.)

    I know that the advice from those like Jenica (who I actually went to library school with) can seem insulting, but they are often writing to the widest audience. When you've seen the level of applications it's not surprising that that is the kind of advice that first comes to mind.

    For applicants like you it's obvious and insulting, but even the smart ones get it wrong sometimes. Job hunting is always about perspective--the candidate often thinks they are doing it right and can't improve on their cover letter or resume any further. But they are too close to it. Input from an outside reader can often point out areas that need improvement.

    So my one piece of advice--have someone else read your application materials before you send them in. The hiring committee should never be the first ones to read your materials.

    As I said, you've got good points, and you're right to be frustrated, but it's a multi-variable problem.

    Just my $.02.

  2. Great and thought-provoking post, and I can vouch for Kirstin's comments from the search committee perspective:

    While we do winnow through candidates and separate the top ones from the maybes and unqualifieds, we can't send out rejections and remove people from the pool until the search is officially closed and the position filled: It's not unusual for all of the top candidates to drop out, and months later (yes, months), we have to go back and re-look at the remaining applications.

    I'd strongly second her Kirstin's comments about having others look at your application and I'd also emphasize the point to *read* the job requirements: the job description is basically a map for your cover letter and a stellar cover letter will say how you meet every requirement or should still be considered despite your lack of experience.

    I'd also say this about the requirements: First, there are the requirements and the preferred: if it's *preferred* for applicants to have 2-3 years of experience, then candidates with those years will likely rise to the top of the search committee's list, but that preferred listing definitely doesn't disqualify a new LIS graduate from applying.

    Also, I've found "years of experience" is sometimes interpreted rather broadly: If you spent 2 years in a GAship, hourly job, and/or internship that gave you real-world, hands-on experience in cataloging, reference, digitization, etc., then that can count. The search committee ultimately want someone who is reasonably familiar with the skills and tasks demanded by the position. It varys by position, search committee, and available pool: sometimes the position will require a person who was an actual LIS professional for 2-3 years in the area. But other times, a LIS graduate who has cataloged 2000 books or spent 2 years helping to develop a digital repository for a university library certainly will be a top candidate. And your previous work experiences can count too: if a candidate spent 3 years as a systems programmer and then went to library school, then a search committee for a Data Services Librarian position will definitely take their other work into consideration.

    Overall, though, the points are indeed well taken and there is room for improvement on the library side!

  3. To clarify about the cover letter: A good one will address *each* requirement by saying either A) how you fulfill that requirement or B) why you should still be considered despite not quite meeting the requirement. Some requirements are more flexible than others, and if you pitch yourself right, you might persuade them to consider you anyway!

  4. Thanks for the comments Kirstin & Harriett. Adding in some positive advice was definitely needed :)
    I understand that librarians don't control everything, but I feel like we should pressure HR to make usable web forms. And I disagree with the practice of keeping all applicants on hold until the position is filled. I understand why it's done; I think it's wrong. It's about convenience for the institution & not its potential employees. Do libraries ever seriously go back to consider candidates who never even made it to the phone interview stage? I seem to see more searches re-opened than someone who was dismissed earlier suddenly making it back into the running. Besides, leverage is all with the institution & not the employee in this market, especially at the entry level.

  5. I had roughly the same experience with response percentages as you reported, Eric. What blew me away even more sometimes was the utter lack of organization from some institutions. I received one form letter that told me the position had been filled, but insinuated that I had actually been interviewed (I hadn't - not even a phone interview). I received a request for demographic/EEO information from one institution weeks AFTER I had been told the position had been filled. Lack of communication or coordination doesn't reflect well on an organization, period.

    To the application systems -- I understand for some institutions, it may be cost prohibitive to create a system for each level of job (civil service, staff, faculty, etc.). What I wish more than anything, though, is that academic institutions would adopt a "Common Job Application" just as they've adopted a Common Application for students to apply to their institutions. I cannot tell you how many times I filled out the same (or very similar looking) multi-page, online application -- and EVERY TIME I had to fill out all of the information from the beginning. If there was only a way to create a common profile that you could use to apply to jobs at institutions that used this system, wow, that would be a tremendous improvement.

    I've been on the other side of the application process now and I can tell you, reading all those resumes and application letters does get tiring. At one point, I had started compiling a list of what I called "Things I Don't Want to Know" and I mulled over in my head blogging about it -- but then I realized that the people who'd most need to read or hear that advice probably would never see it. As far as keeping applicants in a holding pattern until the search is complete -- I think it depends on the size of your candidate pool. If you have a HUGE number of applicants (sadly common these days), I think you can probably afford to toss some out on first review, and in all fairness, those folks should be notified as soon as the institution will allow.

    One other point -- and I say this as a point to employers where they need to be more considerate to their interviewees: we are graduate students. Many of us do not work full time, we have bills and loans to pay off, please, please, be more upfront about helping us when long distance travel is required for an interview. I had 5 interviews which required me to fly to the location, and of those 5, only ONE paid for my airfare up front. I was reimbursed for all of the others in due time, but at $300, $400 or more dollars a ticket, that's not something everyone can afford to just drop at a moment's notice. I hate to think that there are wonderful job candidates out there who have to decline interviews because they simply cannot scrape together the funds to travel to the interview location.

  6. While researching a particular job I found the (public) library's personnel manual online where the stated policy was to "select candidates for interview and send a letter to candidates not selected for interview." It struck me as admirable that they added that line, so long as they live up to it in practice (which they did in my case... eventually).

    I'm with Carrie in wishing for some sort of "common application" option that would let you highlight or re-word things before submitting to a particular employer. So many academic libraries, at least, use just a few software products that you'd think it wouldn't be too hard, technologically. The best substitute I've ever run across was Harvard's system, which had you upload a pdf/rtf/doc file and it would parse the information into the relevant online fields. Most importantly, it let you review everything for accuracy before submitting--and I didn't have to type everything over again. Magic! Pity it took Harvard's resources to make it happen...

    I don't know that I agree with everything that you wrote, Eric, but as an under-employed librarian, the general sentiments are ones I share. (Plus, it certainly felt good to read a nice vent. Thanks for that!)

  7. A common application is a really intriguing idea. Are there are precedents for this other than college admissions? I can't think of an industry that really relies on one set application. The closest thing that comes to mind is, which is a burden to fill out the first time but lets you apply to most government jobs. And Judith just showed me Symplicity which is a similar system for legal jobs like clerkships.
    I hadn't thought of travel reimbursement. I only had one interview but that definitely could be a burden if you go through several on-campus interviews all over the country.

  8. Eric -- one quick example re: the application form: public school districts in Pennsylvania are required to use what they call a "standard employment application." This application can be used to apply for a job in any public school in PA. Granted, it appears to be a paper-only form, but there is a precedent there.

  9. Bravo!

    I was taken in for one in-person interview and it was made explicitly clear (without straight out telling me) that I was just filler so they could say, "But we totally did interview x amount of people before we hired the person we wanted all along!"

    And you know what? It's closing in on a year since that interview and they STILL haven't contacted me to tell me that I didn't get the job.

  10. I would suggest, to anyone, looking in less-traditional library roles. At a friend's prompting, I started trolling the state government personnel website. I got lucky and I'm now a prison librarian running my own very small library. And I have a year left of school to go.