A Man Made Process

I run that blog Hiring Librarians, so I read a lot of job hunting advice.  Not just on the site, but other places too – I tend to scan for it on my library social media haunts (Reddit, ALATT, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.).

One reason I started the blog is because I kept seeing a lot of people dispense really bad job advice in a very authoritative manner.

It is easy to say “I have hired people and here is the one thing you should never do.”  It is easy to believe a person who talks like this.  Getting hired is a social process, and it is a common thing to suspect that there are hidden rules we know nothing about.  Especially if we have never done hiring, or never hired in the LIS field.  Especially if we are desperate for a job.

The person dispensing the advice often believes that they are doing a favor by explaining the rules.  For example, there’s this ALATT post where the poster provides a list of seven no-no’s for job applicants.  It’s not necessarily bad advice, but it’s just one person’s list.  Her rules are HER rules, not THE rules, no matter how authoritatively she states that they are true. For example, the 4th point, no monograms or images on a resume, comes up for some interesting debate in the comments.

Here is the thing.  The whole process of hiring, all the conventions, the idea that a resume should be a certain number of pages, the idea that a resume shouldn’t have photos, the necessity of a cover letter -we just made all of that process up.  Hiring is not something that occurs in nature, it’s a man-made process.

And, frankly, it’s often a badly designed process.  For both the hirer and the hiree.  Being able to conform to unwritten social conventions, ones that vary widely from region to region and institution to institution, is not really a good measure of whether someone is going to be a fantastic librarian.  It sometimes indicates whether someone will fit into a workplace’s culture, but the hiring process is often very divorced from the day to day – it is it’s own particular set of rules and expectations.

And if we made it, we can change it.  Right?



Librarian is never an entry level position

Sometimes I hear people getting annoyed about “entry-level” librarian job postings that ask for experience.

And I get it. Entry-level jobs are by definition jobs that don’t require experience.   

But here’s the thing, librarian positions just aren’t entry-level.  The niche of the librarian in the library shouldn’t be filled by a greenie who’s done nothing but go to school.  School can teach some of the skills you need to be a librarian, but not all of them.

I am a non-supervising librarian in a public library.  Nevertheless, I get asked for direction all the time.  When other staff have questions, they often ask me.  Sometimes these are fairly simple librarian problems, for example a spine label that is a little strange.  But frequently they bring me customer service judgement calls, such as “I think I saw a patron with a big bag of weed, what should we do?” or “Can I make an exception and let this guy into the library with his bike?”  These kinds of questions require not just library schooling, but experience.  

Experience builds common sense, street smarts, and the confidence that’s required to authoritatively answer these kinds of things.  Library school provides a theoretical foundation, an underlying direction behind decisions.  But it doesn’t help you look a patron in the eye and say, “You do know we don’t allow snacking in the library, right?”   

The traditional structure of libraries, rightly or wrongly, gives rank and authority to librarians.  It has put me in a position where I have more authority than a library assistant who’s got over a decade of experience.  It means that if there’s an incident when I close, I stay behind to talk to the police.  It means when the men’s toilet overflows on a Sunday, I get to decide if we lock up the whole bathroom.  

You need to have experience to make these decisions.  Without it, you can’t properly assess the potential fallout, or the far ranging effects. Without experience, you won’t know when to say “I’m right about this” and when to ask for advice from that library assistant who’s been here for over a decade, or the page, or the security guard.  Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

This particular combination of self-confidence and on-the-ground understanding is only built through hands-on practice.

It’s not a bad thing that there are no entry-level librarian positions.  It’s good.  It means that we’re getting librarians with the skills needed to do their jobs properly.  It means we’re getting librarians who can make better libraries, for customers and for staff.

Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

*This is all from my public librarian perspective of course.  For all I know, there are tons of entry-level academic jobs. All academic librarians do is put their feet up and read journal articles, right?

Getting Hired is Your Choice

One of the more awful things about job hunting is the lack of control we feel in the process. We send out application packets, then we wait, then maybe we interview, and we wait again, our references are contacted, and then we wait some more.

In a tight market, which will continue to be the state of the library job market for the foreseeable future, our choices seem even more limited. We seem to be competing against an endless sea of librarians for a few choice positions. In this atmosphere, people start saying things like, “in a tight market, you need to do this” or “you can’t afford to do that.”

Don’t ever let someone tell you what you “must” do to find a job.

Because whatever that person is saying simply isn’t true. Or rather, it will never always be true. There are enough different kinds of jobs, and different kinds of people hiring, that one person’s “must” is another’s “never should you ever.”

Even if there are fewer positions, there is still diversity in what libraries are looking for. What one hiring manager wants may be diametrically opposed to what another wants. And there are ways to create your own opportunities and positions, especially if you’re interested in LIS work outside of libraries.

Using someone else’s formula to grasp desperately at every possibility you see, no matter how ill-fitting, is not necessary. And it can’t be particularly nice for you either.

Applying to every job, regardless of how well it fits you, isn’t worth your time.

Stifling bits of yourself in order to squeeze into a position that doesn’t fit isn’t a positive job search strategy.

Being comfortable with yourself will go much further than wearing a beautiful suit that turns you into a squirmy robot. Finding a position that you could be passionate about, and describing clearly and positively to the committee what you would contribute there, will go much further than sending out 50 generic cover letters.

Getting hired is not a numbers game. It’s not a series of hoops you must jump through. It’s not a column of boxes to check off. There’s no formula. There’s no secret manual.

Don’t ever let someone tell you what you “must” do to find a job. Getting hired is your choice, as much as it’s anyone else’s. Job hunting is soul-suckingly difficult enough on its own, so don’t ever let someone take away the autonomy you have within the process.

By photo self-taken by Rainer Theuer (de:Benutzer:Calzinide) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been trying to write this post for a little while now. After nearly two years of collecting perspectives of both people who hire librarians, and librarians who want to be hired, I’m convinced that the above is true. That part was no problem.

It’s this next part that I don’t know how to talk about.

The truth of the matter is, even though there is diversity in our profession, and there are a range of acceptable ways to be “professional,” (get ready for the shocker) discrimination exists. And because it’s now, and not the 50s, it exists within ourselves, in ways that are sometimes hard to recognize.

I had a discussion with Cecily Walker on Twitter about three questions on the Hiring Librarians “What Should Candidates Wear” survey, questions that asked about bare arms, make-up and skirts. Her Tweet that resonated most for me was:

I asked those questions expecting that some hiring managers would say yes, and some would say no, and then we could all go away feeling better about our choice to wear or not wear make-up. I didn’t even think about the fact that the question itself does assume that female librarians are at least considering make-up and/or a skirt.

But of course there are those for whom make-up and a skirt would be totally wrong, instead of merely uncomfortable.

Getting hired is your choice though, right?

It’s easy for me to say that because I am the very model of a modern librarian. But what if you’re not a white, cis-, straight female?

Cecily Walker also wrote, in On Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Librarian Image:

Regardless of what I wear or how I act around some members of the community I serve, my race will always place me outside of the norm. When we place the burden of of being the exception on those who fall outside of the norm, we are furthering an agenda that supports the idea that whiteness is the highest standard, indeed, the only standard that should be used to measure suitability.

We can have conversations about purple hair and tattoos and whether they don’t represent a professional image, but we shouldn’t have them without drawing parallels between these superficial differences and the (in some cases) immutable differences that we are born with, or that are central to our identity.

My takeaway from nearly two years of writing this blog has been that there are all kinds of libraries out there, and that job hunters who are comfortable with who they are and “true” to themselves are much more likely to find work. This is my takeaway as a white, cis-gender woman. If you are going to be “true” to yourself within the same demographic parameters, this is the only job hunting advice you will ever need.

I’m not sure that this is always the case for non-white, non-cis, non-women librarians. I want it to be equally true. I want non-white, non-cis, non-women librarians to be able to always find that when they are comfortable with who they are and “true” to themselves that they are more likely to find work. But when I read through the Hiring Librarians surveys, I can’t stop seeing how they are peppered with phrases like “if you live in a vanilla world, neapolitan won’t fit.

That’s a fucked up attitude.

It’s fucked up because not only does that apply to more superficial differences, like purple hair and tattoos, it applies to gender expression, and race, and sexuality, and all that other stuff that is intrinsic to our beings.

I guess it’s not that hard to write that bit. It’s just, I don’t know how to fix it. That’s the bit I can’t write. Cause I don’t know. Duh.