Removing Barriers to Entry

Lindsay Hansen Brown outlines what you can do to stand out when applying for an academic library job.

July 15, 2022
A laptop computer next to a stack of physical books.
(Nutthaseth Vanchaichana/istock/getty images plus)

If you have ever applied for an academic librarian position and gotten nowhere, you might have wondered why. I grew up in an academic family, had a strong mentor in library school and still did not understand fully what a hiring committee would be looking for when I applied for my first librarian position. Now that I have served on several hiring committees, I am giving you a peek behind the curtain.

What can you, the applicant, do to stand out? Do you need to have all the required qualifications plus all the preferred ones? Just as teaching faculty members may leave their doctoral programs feeling unprepared to enter a college classroom, many newly minted master’s in library science graduates may not have learned about the academic job search.

When I recently taught a class at a local graduate program, I created a module centered on that search. I taught my students how to create a matrix using the stated qualifications of the job advertisement, because that is what hiring committees use to create their screening tools. This article will walk you through that process and provide tips for success, using a job ad for a university library position at a top research university as a case study.

Meeting Requirements

Regardless of the job, you should carefully read the entire advertisement, including the boilerplate statement about the university, the library and their respective missions. You would be surprised how many candidates refer to the wrong university, and while that gaffe will not always exclude them, it shows a lack of attention to detail.

Even before you create your matrix, make sure that you meet all the required qualifications. The only potential for wiggle room might be that our positions generally require you to have your M.L.S. degree in hand before the start date but not necessarily upon application for the job. Otherwise, if you are lacking any required qualifications, it is a waste of your time—and the committee’s—for you to apply.

The job ad that I will use as a case study is for a research librarian for music and performing arts. One of the required qualifications is “commitment to ongoing professional development,” so if I were applying for the position, I would first consider what the library is looking for.

What I understand is the library wants a candidate who is going to remain active in professional organizations, such as the Music Library Association, by attending annual meetings and/or serving on committees. You can demonstrate that in your application by listing professional affiliations on your CV and elaborating in the cover letter. For example, you might say that you have been a member of the Music Library Association for five years, have attended national and regional conferences, and have served on various committees.

Another required qualification is “familiarity with the tools and methods of digital scholarship.” Familiarity is not the same as “demonstrated experience,” so you do not need to be an expert here. A way to address that requirement would be to say that you are familiar with finding aids using encoded archival description, or you know how to help patrons browse digital collections that are in contentDM, a digital asset management software package, or other repositories. You need to 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 that you employed there. For example, if you are best at keeping teammates on track and on schedule, you can mention that.

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Once you have gone through all the required qualifications and determined that you meet them, make certain every single one is on your CV and/or in your cover letter. Some candidates write their letters in the order that the qualifications are written, which is great for the hiring committee but not necessary. Just ensure that the committee does not have to hunt around for that information.

Covering Preferred Qualifications

Now you can review the preferred qualifications, which—as their name suggests—will give you an edge over candidates who merely meet the requirements. This position has a preferred qualification of “working knowledge of foreign languages (French or German preferred).” The hiring committee is not going to test you on a foreign language, so you can indicate the level on your CV (elementary, intermediate, advanced, native fluent), including any certificates or tests, if applicable.

Another preferred qualification is “familiarity with scholarly communication and intellectual property issues,” and again notice the word “familiarity.” You can describe any classes from graduate school or professional experience, such as any work with an institutional repository, open-access databases or journals, or cited reference searching.

It is fine to use nonlibrary experiences to address qualifications, as long as they are relevant. If you need to demonstrate that you can work well with patrons of all stripes, for instance, then you can cite retail work as long as you also have library-specific experience as a complement.

Whatever you are addressing in your letter, be as specific as possible. The idea is to put yourself in the position of the hiring committee. The faster they can check off the boxes in the matrix of requirements, the faster they can move you to the first round: the phone interview.

Once you have covered the requirements and preferred qualifications, see if you can naturally indicate your genuine interest in the university and the library. Do not make up a reason why you are interested, and keep it professional. Even if you are applying for a position at, say, the University of California, Los Angeles, because you want to learn how to surf, do not say that. The cover letter is a great place—and really the only place—where you can talk about your excitement about an aspect like the student body or faculty research at the institution.

For example, my university has a large population of deaf students, so if a candidate knows ASL, that is a great thing to mention. We also have many first-generation college students, and it is helpful for the hiring committee to know if a candidate has experience working with that student population or wants to self-disclose that they were the first in their family to go to college. You should consider the specifics of the university and the library so it is clear to the committee that you are not using a generic application.

Reference Letters

Back to the job ad: it asks for contact information for three references. Some libraries will require letters of reference, but you should not send them unsolicited. Also, your references should be librarians or professors, not library assistants or paraprofessionals—especially if you are 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 a peer. All references must be able to comment knowledgably, specifically and positively about your work. You should also make sure that they write their letters in ways that are tailored to the position you are applying for and not generic letters of support.

As a courtesy, ask someone before listing them as a reference, and give them the job ad and your CV to help them prepare. It is fine if references cannot comment on every single aspect of a particular job, but you want to set them up for success. In addition, let your references know when they might be contacted.

Phone Interviews

After you are contacted for a phone interview, pull up your matrix and brainstorm possible interview questions. Even though you have clearly met the required qualifications—otherwise, you would not have landed an interview—you will still be questioned about at least some of them. Based on the job ad, you might be asked about your commitment to professional development, for instance. The preferred qualifications are also fair game, so be ready to talk honestly about any of them. The interviewers may also ask you about the position in general (not just the qualifications), so make sure you are well acquainted with the entire job description.

Bring questions to ask; it you do not have any, it signals to the committee that you are interested neither in the position nor the university or library. If you do not know what to ask, here are some suggestions:

  • What kind of support does the library provide in terms of professional development?
  • For tenure-track positions, does the library have specific guidelines for tenure and promotion, and what are the expectations for scholarly publications?
  • What is your favorite aspect about working at the university or library?

Aside from questions directly connected to the stated qualifications, a hiring committee often asks questions such as:

  • Scenario: Give an example of a challenging patron interaction. What happened, how did you resolve the issue and what was the outcome?
  • Assessment: How do you determine if an information literacy session/library workshop/instruction session was successful?
  • Scholarly research: What are your research interests? Do you have targeted journals?
  • Values: What does diversity mean to you?

While there is no one right way to apply for an academic librarian position, you will be much more likely to be successful if you are 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 far better chance of landing the job.

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Lindsay Hansen Brown is the music and business librarian at California State University, Northridge.

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