Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How to apply for a library job, part 1: submitting your application

After being laid off in 2009, I spent a full 2 years searching for a new job during the recession. I learned a lot about applying for jobs and interviewing. Now I'm a department head in my library and I've been on the other side of the process and getting just as much experience at hiring as I did at applying. I've been on hiring committees pretty constantly for the last 6 months for everything from library pages to the Assistant Director.

In seeing so many resumes and cover letters and conducting so many interviews, I realize that many things that seemed obvious to me apparently are not. I've also learned a lot that I wish I knew when I was applying for jobs. So I'd like to share what I've learned here. I hope you find this advice helpful.

One caveat: Hiring managers are all different people looking for different things, so a lot depends on the particular hiring committee. But I'm sure I'm not alone on most of this.

Cover letter

  • Write one. This shouldn't need to be said, but apparently it does. Your cover letter should not just be two sentences saying that you are applying for a job and your resume is attached. We can figure that out. That's not what a cover letter is for: it's to convince us that you are worth interviewing. See more about cover letter content below.
  • Know what the title of the job is that you are applying for, and the name of the library. Spell these things correctly. If you are directing your letter to a particular person, also spell their name correctly. I can't emphasize that enough. Details count: if the name has an accent mark over one of the letters, don't think you can leave that out. They will notice.
  • Proofread your letter. Make sure you're using complete sentences that make sense and that you've used a consistent font throughout. Also, use spellcheck.

If you do these things, you are halfway there. Congratulations! However, if this job is competitive you really need to put some thought and work into the content of your letter. Here is what I look for in a cover letter:
  • Tell me why you're interested in this job, especially if it's different from the path you are on. If you're applying for a job in a public library and you currently work in academic, or you're applying for a reference job and currently work in technical services, tell me why you're making a change. If you don't, I'll assume you're just applying for everything and don't especially care about this particular job.
  • Tell me about things you've done that you are proud of. Did you plan a successful event? Spearhead an innovative change at your library? Did your collection management increase circulation in your areas? Were you recognized for an achievement?
  • Tell me about any special skills or abilities you have. I don't need a list of what you do in your job. If you're a reference librarian you don't need to tell me in your cover letter that you answer reference questions; I'll assume it, because that's what reference librarians do. But do tell me if you are especially good at handling difficult patron interactions, or enjoy public speaking, or are the go-to person at your library for readers advisory questions about science fiction.
  • If you aren't very experienced, you may not have a catalog of accomplishments and skills to write about. That's ok. But tell me what about this position and the library especially excites you, and be specific. I like when applicants mention seeing the article in Library Journal about our Doctor Who Day, or tell us they've been coming to this library since they were a kid, or enthuse about all of our LGBT programming. You get extra points for being especially interested in the things that make our library unique.
  • Use the cover letter to explain anything strange that may jump out at me when I look at your resume. If you have a large gap in employment, or left libraries for a very different job fairly recently before coming back, or if you're a library director and you're applying for a lower level position I may have questions. This is tricky because it may be hard to address it concisely in a cover letter and best left to an interview, but you want to make sure you get that interview. None of the things above will alone make me put you in the reject pile, so if the rest of your letter and resume look good you'll probably be fine. But just consider it.
  • Keep it to a page or less. A few paragraphs is fine. Be concise.
  • Work on your opening. I used to start every cover letter with "I'm writing to apply for x position which I heard about on the x website. My ..... skills and experience with.... make me an excellent candidate for the position. My resume is attached for your review." Because that's what I was told. But do you know how incredibly tedious it is to read 20 cover letters that all start that way? Be better than that. Start right off with the good stuff so I'll keep reading!


After reading your cover letter, I'll skim your resume. That's right: I don't read every word of it. Sorry! I know you put a lot of work into it, but at the end of the day it's just a list of facts, which is boring reading. Again, this is me and other hiring managers may work differently but when I have 62 applications to get through (like for our most recent opening) I am not going to read every single word. However, if your cover letter catches my eye I'll pay closer attention to your resume. I'm usually just looking for particular things, but of course you don't know what those things are, so make sure everything is there and readable.
  • Skip the objective. It only reiterates that you want this job and I already know that. It's just a waste of space.
  • Formatting is important. As I said, I'm looking for particular things and it's much easier to find if your resume is easy on the eye. The first thing I will look for is your MLS, so make sure it's obvious in your easy-to-find education section. 
  • Put your job experience into some sort of recognizable order. Chronological is most helpful, because I look at your resume as a story of your career and it's easier to follow that story if it's in order. Unless you have a ton of library jobs under your belt and it would make your resume too long, I do want to see non-library experience. If you worked as a waiter for a long time that tells me something really positive about your customer service skills. If you have a background in photography, I will be scheming about how we can exploit this on this job. Almost everything is somehow relevant to a job in a public library.
  • Just like with your cover letter, proofread. Make sure your bullet-points line up, that your fonts are consistent, and that there's enough white space that your resume isn't just an assault of words. 

After applying

  • Please do not contact me to ask if I've received your application. They go to HR so I don't even see them until after the posting is closed. I've heard advice floating around recently to call and follow-up after applying, but please for the love of god ignore this advice. It is pestering. I cannot imagine how annoying it would be if even a fraction of the 62 applicants to this latest job called to "follow-up." Which, what does that even mean? The only way we can respond is to say that we will contact you if we want to interview you, and you should already know this.
  • Don't be discouraged. If you've done everything you can do, feel good about that. What you can't control are the other candidates and there will always be candidates out there who are better than you in some way, or in a way that is more appealing to that particular hiring committee at that particular time. You can't do anything about this, so don't sweat it. If you are really interested at working at that library and something else opens up later, please by all means, apply again! 

I hope this is helpful to someone out there. I welcome questions, advice, or arguments in the comments. If you do hiring and you feel differently about any of these things, please say so because I'm sure the job seekers out there would like to know.

Stay tuned for Part 2: interviewing


Sara Slymon said...

Love it! So good! Can't wait for part II. -Sara

Anonymous said...

I would love to see your cover letter! :)

Ryan Livergood said...

Me too! Great advice!

Megan said...

This is great advice! Serving on a hiring committee really does make for being a better applicant.

I especially appreciate libraries that, knowing this, making a conscious effort to involve early-career staff in the hiring process.