By Lindley Homol
In today's job market, it helps to keep an open mind. You might desire a position in one type of library, but the local job offerings necessitate a different path. Although many skills are transferable between different types of libraries, there are certain unique aspects of interviewing for a job in a public library versus an academic one that can be helpful to know beforehand.
As someone who has interviewed for, and worked in, both public and academic libraries, I have advice to share with current job seekers and library students so that they can successfully prepare for an interview in either type of library. Current library employees looking to make the leap from academic to public, or public to academic, might also find the following tips useful.
Do Your Homework
No matter the type of job or library, it pays to do your research. Learn all you can about the library itself, its mission, and its patrons. It is also crucial to know and understand the larger issues and trends affecting public and academic libraries. If you are well-versed in the issues affecting public libraries, but find yourself competing for an academic position, you will need to do extra work to ensure that you can converse intelligently in an interview about the biggest changes and factors affecting libraries in higher education. The same principle applies for a candidate from the world of academic librarianship who applies for a public library position. Luckily, there are a few simple (and free) ways to improve your understanding of the public and academic library worlds.
- Read the Literature: Although some top academic journals may be inaccessible for public librarians without an institutional subscription, there are a number of open access library journals that you can access free of charge, including College and Research Libraries. For academic librarians who do not have memberships in any public library associations, you may face similar problems in accessing the literature. Try visiting the websites for the different member associations' publications, like Public Libraries Online or the Young Adult Library Services Association--oftentimes there are articles or entire publications that are made freely available. Blogs serve as another free source of information for news in both the academic and public library fields. You can find blogs on a wide range of topics that will help you grow to understand the issues unique to either public or academic libraries. Every year, Salem Press puts together a list of the best library blogs in the field. Check out current and past winners to find some of the top blogs about academic or public libraries.
- Join Email Lists: Joining an electronic mailing list is a free and quick way to improve your awareness of a different aspect of library services. There are lists targeted at many different aspects of librarianship, from academic instruction to young adult services, to management. Join mailing lists in areas that you want to know more about, and you can read about the joys, challenges, and questions that librarians in that aspect of library services face on a daily basis. Some lists are more frequently posted to than others--if you start receiving an overwhelming amount of email, you can try changing to a digest format.
- Attend Webinars: For auditory learners, webinars may prove to be a useful way of improving your knowledge. For those interested in public library positions, Booklist frequently offers free webinars focusing on debut authors, new releases, and different genres of books. American Libraries Live and Infopeople are also good resources for free webinars on a wide variety of academic and public library topics. Once you have done your homework, you should feel ready to talk about trends and issues affecting either public or academic libraries.
Prepare to Interview
The length and number of interviews required to make a hiring decision often differ between academic and public libraries. If you are invited to interview for an academic position, know that there will usually be at least two interviews. A phone interview is usually conducted first, followed by an on-campus interview for two to three top candidates. In general, academic interviews take longer than public library interviews. You may face an all-day interview and campus visit, sometimes preceded by a dinner the night before. Depending on the position for which you apply, the library may cover the costs of your travel and lodging. Public libraries will probably not pay for your interview expenses, so make sure you can afford any costs of travel before you accept an interview. The interview process for public libraries is often much quicker--hiring decisions can sometimes be made after a single round of interviews. The interviews themselves are often shorter, too. While academic interviews can span a few days, public library interviews often last closer to an hour.
- Interview with an Academic Library: For academic interviews, be prepared to present. Many academic library positions require that interviewees present some type of instruction session, either on a pre-selected topic, or on a topic of the interviewee's choosing. Although many applicants find this portion of the interview nerve wracking, it is the one portion of the interview that you can completely prepare for and control. Rehearse your presentation, check and double check your presentation materials for clarity and accuracy, and bring back up versions of your presentation in case of technical failure. Be prepared to explain and defend the choices you make in your presentation. Also be ready to demonstrate and explain how the skills you honed in a public library are transferable to the work you would be doing in an academic one. Although you may not have much experience with formalized academic instruction, for example, you could explain how you have assisted patrons with individual information literacy help or have taught computer classes.
- Interview with a Public Library: For interviews with a public library, be prepared to deliver a book talk. You may be able to pick any book, or you may be asked to pick from within a certain genre or publication window. Therefore, it is helpful if you go into the interview able to speak about several recently published books. You will also want to have ideas about programs you would like to see the library run. You may be asked to give a more formalized proposal, or just to describe a potential program. Work with your strengths - if you are strong in instruction, propose a program that takes advantage of your teaching skills. Do not forget to consider the library's audience and the particular position for which you are applying when thinking about programs. For example, if you are applying for a children's librarian position, you probably would not want to propose a computer class for senior citizens. Also be prepared to explain how your academic library skills can be successfully adapted or transferred to the public library environment. It may help if you think about your current interactions with patrons and envision how they could be adapted to the younger (or older) audience you might be working with in a public library environment. Whether you started out in a public library or an academic one, your unique skill set can be an asset to another type of library. Once you have thought through how your particular strengths will be an asset in a new position, you will be ready to convince the interview committee as well.
Lindley Homol is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at the University of Maryland University College and a member of the NMRT Membership, Promotion, Diversity and Recruitment Committee.