Library careers: routes in and what does this type of work actually involve?

This post is part of 23 Things for Professional Development.

I participated in the Library Routes project in 2009:

Library Routes – How I became a librarian

I have taken part in the Library “Day in the Life” project twice.  Many people blog, tweet or otherwise record their day in terms of how long they spent answering emails etc, but I wanted to take a difference approach in which I blogged about a specific aspect of my job each day.

Round 5, July 2010

Welcome to Laura’s Dark Archive! – in which I launched this blog, described my current role and explained my route into working in libraries

In print or on screen? Investigating the reading habits of undergraduates using photo-interviews – the summary of a presentation I had attended

Library Day in the Life round 5, day 1 – on the theme of  “what else do librarians do all day?”

Visit from another college librarian – explaining the context of the library I work in and the importance of professional networking with colleagues from other libraries

Collection management – outlining the balance between acquisitions coming into the library and the need to weed the collections

Project Management – describing the various projects I had on the go in the library that summer and how their timescales fitted together

“Chips and Mash” Mashed Libraries event, Huddersfield, 30th July 2010 – summarising an event I had attended

Round 6 – January 2011

Gather ye data while ye may – to highlight the importance of data gathering and monitoring

Library Committee – explaining the formal meetings I have each term in which library policies and procedures are ratified or changed

One-to-one meetings – to highlight the importance of my role as a manager within my job

Knowledge capture – explaining the importance of shared information in any team

Philip Pullman adds his voice to the campaign to defend public libraries – libraries in the news

Top tips for getting things done – some advice for how to work efficiently

Thoughts

I don’t think my path into librarianship was unusual: there is quite a lot of cross-pollination between careers in libraries and education – but I find that I am unusual in having a background in science.

If you’re considering a career in libraries, try to offer as wide a range of skills as you can.  Customer service is important, as are numeracy and skills in strategy, analysis and planning.  Being a manager of other people is a part of most jobs above a certain grade level, and it’s a great opportunity for your own development too.  I would like to see more people coming into the profession with a positive attitude to one day being a manager.

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Job titles – what’s in a name?

In the course of ordinary conversation, I am often asked about the job I do.  I used to reply that I am the Librarian at St Hugh’s College, and this answer was well understood among colleagues at the University of Oxford or in academic circles at Cambridge.

However, to those who aren’t familiar with these universities, or academic libraries in general; this answer doesn’t tell them much about what I do.

To many people, a “librarian” is someone who staffs the enquiry desk at a library.  They don’t recognise any difference between “librarian” and “Librarian-with-a-capital-L”.  The difference between “Librarian” and “Library Assistant” is lost on many people.

I have started describing my job in terms such as “I run the library at St Hugh’s” or “I manage an academic library” to help the listener more accurately imagine what my job involves and understand why an MA/MSc is required in order to do the job.

I am beginning to wonder if making a change to my official job title (e.g. Librarian-in-charge) might help other people to understand my role better.  And since “librarian” is such a generic word to the general public, perhaps using a different (new?) word for people who manage libraries might be a more effective way of having our professionalism recognised than trying to re-educate people about what the word “librarian” means.

Are you a Librarian, Learning Resource Centre Manager, Information Assistant, Assistant Librarian, Senior Library Assistant, Academic Liaison Librarian, Graduate Library Trainee or similar?  How closely does your job title describe the role that you actually perform?

Designing good interview questions

These notes are adapted from a session run by Cathy Hamer at the Bodleian Libraries.

Why do we ask questions at interview?

The main purpose is to assess the interviewee’s abilities, so to be fair to all candidates, a consistent approach is necessary.  Careful planning of questions allows the candidate to do most of the talking, demonstrate how their skills and experience fit the role, and their responses to be assessed against the selection criteria for the role.

Open vs closed questions

Closed questions allow only short answers, such as ‘yes’ or ‘no.  Example: Did you have supervisory responsibilities in your previous job?
While closed questions may be suitable for confirming details at the end of an interview, they do not allow the candidate to elaborate on their experience.  Open questions use words such as ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘where’, ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. Example: ‘How do you set priorities in tackling your workload?’.  Using an open question increases the amount of information the interviewee can give you, and helps you learn about their opinions and attitudes.

Multiple questions

Asking more than one question at once causes confusion and often the candidate will only answer the last or easiest questions.  Example: ‘In your last job, what were your responsibilities in terms of monitoring the budget, and what was the system for balancing and checking the cash account?’.  Don’t ask multiple questions – separate out the questions and ask them individually.

Leading questions

A leading question is one which indicates the required response, for example ‘Presumably you will get on well with your work colleagues?’.   The interviewee can only provide a useful answer by interrupting or disagreeing, as they are unlikely to say ‘No’.  Instead, ask a more open question such as ‘Tell us about your experience of working in a small team’.

Discriminatory questions

Questions relating to the candidate’s sex, age, marital status, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or disabilities are an obvious no-no.  For example: ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Do you have any children?’.

Hypothetical questions

These are a type of open question, and can be very helpful in assessing a candidate’s thinking skills and how quickly they can respond to a new situation.  Example: ‘How would you go about planning the move of this unit/office to another building?’

Quantifying questions

These are a type of closed question which can be useful in ascertaining how many people the candidate has managed or the size of the budget for which they have had responsibility.  They are best used in conjunction with a follow-up question to allow the candidate to give a more descriptive response.

Behaviour-based questions

Examples: ‘Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision that involved a large expenditure’ or ‘Describe a situation in which you had to work to a tight deadline.’
Past job behaviour is a good guide to future performance, so asking for prior examples can be useful in predicting if the candidate will be able to demonstrate the necessary skills in the new job.

Probing questions

Every conversation is different, even though the main interview questions will be the same for each candidate.  Sometimes you will need to probe a bit further for more details, or to validate a claim.  Be careful not to lose the thread of the main question. Probing questions can also be useful to help the candidate back on track if they have gone off on a tangent in their answer.

Tips

  • Well in advance, determine which aspects of the selection criteria you are going to assess at interview
  • Design a question for each skill that you wish to assess
  • As far as possible, keep questions open and only ask one at a time
  • Avoid closed questions, giving away the ‘correct’ answer
  • Address any gaps on the application form
  • Use a combination of application form/letter, task and interview to assess each candidate against all the selection criteria for the job
For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.

Knowledge management

Here is a summary of a recent Mind Tools article about knowledge management that I found interesting.

What is knowledge?

Data is a specific fact or figure, without any context; information is data that’s organized; knowledge builds on the information to give us context (remember this from library school?).

There are two different types of knowledge, explicit and tacit:

Explicit knowledge includes things that you can easily pass on to someone else by teaching it or writing it into a record. This kind of knowledge can be captured in a staff handbook or workflow.
Tacit knowledge is less concrete. It may relate to the best way to approach a certain person for their help or co-operation, or how to unjam the photocopier. This type of knowledge is usually acquired by experience.

Why is knowledge management important?

Sharing information within a team or department means that when a person is away on holiday or off sick, or moves to a new job, their knowledge persists in the organisation.
As well as time and cost savings, an environment which fosters the sharing of ideas can help increase innovation, build trust and improve relationships.

Implementing knowledge management

There are two different ways of managing knowledge: using technology-based systems, or using softer systems.
Examples of technology-based systems include a co-authored staff handbook or wiki. It is easy to access this information, but it takes effort to keep it up-to-date. Good for capturing explicit knowledge.
Examples of softer systems are shadowing or mentoring. Better for sharing tacit knowledge.
A successful knowledge management strategy should try to use both approaches.

Tips for implementing knowledge management systems

  • Identify tacit knowledge, then brainstorm ways of sharing it
  • Start with a small team to avoid information overload
  • Some people may feel uncomfortable about sharing their hard-won knowledge, so make knowledge exchange part of the organisational culture and find ways to reward people for sharing it freely
  • Make the processes of capture or sharing easy. Easier participation makes for increased involvement and success

Giving and receiving references

These are my notes adapted from a presentation I attended last week, given by Ruth Newman (Bodleian Libraries)

See also: How to write a job description and How to shortlist

What is the purpose of a reference?

  1. It provides information about a candidate’s employment history
  2. It backs up (or not) the statements made in the application form
  3. It provides an opinion on the candidate’s suitability for the post for which they are applying

For jobs at The Bodleian Libraries, references are sought for the successful candidate once a conditional offer has been made to them – this is to ensure that any information relating to absence or disability is not revealed until this stage in the recruitment process.

Questions asked of referees by The Bodleian Libraries

The above-named has applied for employment within The Bodleian Libraries and has given consent to our approaching you to provide a reference (copy of permission attached).  In particular, we would be very grateful for information on the following (where applicable):

  • The candidate’s relationship to you as a referee and how long you have known them in this capacity; The dates of the candidate’s employment with you, and job title;
  • The candidate’s ability, in your opinion, to meet the stated selection criteria for this post;
  • The candidate’s performance during their employment (for example, quality of work, relationship with colleagues, communication skills, attendance and time-keeping);
  • The candidate’s reason for leaving your employment;
  • The candidate’s current salary / salary on leaving;
  • The total number of days the candidate has taken as sick leave in the past 12 months, and the number of occurrences;
  • Whether there have been any disciplinary or other formal employment proceedings against the candidate which are still considered ‘live’ (including any in process at present / at the time the employment ended; and
  • Whether, in the event of a suitable vacancy arising, you would re-employ this person.

If you do not wish the candidate to see this reference, please mark it “strictly confidential”.  Any information you can give will be treated in the strictest confidence.  However, you are advised that under the terms of the Data Protection Act, all references are potentially disclosable to the applicant.

References may be written or verbal.  If a verbal reference is taken it should be written up and sent to the referee for confirmation that it is an accurate reflection of what they said.  Email correspondence is sufficient for this.  A conditional offer of employment is made subject to the receipt of two satisfactory references.  Alarm bells would include over 10 days’ sickness, negative comments, mention of disciplinary process in progress (6-12 months is the usual ‘live’ period for disciplinary issues).  If the references take longer than expected to arrive, the candidate’s start date should be delayed until they have been received, and are considered satisfactory.

Things to consider when reading a reference

  1. Who is the referee?  It is usual practice to use the current and previous line manager as referees, so if the reference is written by someone other than these people, investigate further.
  2. What have they included, and what have they omitted?  Compare their comments against the list of questions asked of referees.

Legal considerations

There is no legal obligation to give a reference unless explicitly stated as part of an employee’s contract; however, if the employer normally gives references for staff it will legally be regarded as an implied contractual term.

I have no legal right to see a reference written about me by my line manager, but I can ask to see my personal file once I am in my new job – and it should contain the reference!

There is no legislation specifically designed to cover the provision of reference, but it is covered in other legislation relating to (among other things) disability and sex discrimination.

If you are asked to provide a reference for someone:

  • The reference must be given by someone qualified to give the opinions sought – if in doubt, ask for help from your HR advisor
  • Reply on headed paper/from your work email account [note: not for a personal reference]
  • Reply promptly
  • You have a duty of care to the person about whom it is written and to the recipient of the reference, so the reference must be factually accurate, supported by evidence and fair
  • It is good practice for the subject of the reference to be aware of its contents, so give them a copy of the reference and discuss it if necessary.  Employees should be aware of any complaints or negative comments which will be included in the reference before it is written
  • Avoid any personal or discriminatory comments.  Comment on the job description and selection criteria, keep the tone professional and refer to the person’s performance at work
  • Mark the reference “strictly confidential”
  • Bodleian Libraries staff are asked to include a disclaimer e.g. “given in good faith and confidence, without legal liability on behalf of the author or Bodleian Libraries” to ensure they are covered by professional indemnity insurance.

For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.

How to shortlist

This follows on from my earlier post about how to write a job description

Selection criteria: essential and desirable

When preparing the job description, the selection criteria will develop as you define the role and decide which criteria are essential or desirable.  A quick test to see if a criterion is essential (E) or desirable (D) is to consider if the candidate must already have the skill or experience (E), or if it can be learnt on the job (D).

Criteria may be moved between the E and D categories depending on how many candidates you expect to have applying for the job: if you anticipate a large number of applications, you might consider moving some criteria from D to E in order to narrow the field.  However, you may only do this before the job is advertised: once it’s out there, the criteria must stay and E or D in order to be fair to the people considering applying for the job.

Shortlisting

All the people on the interview panel should be involved in shortlisting the candidates.  Use a shortlisting matrix to evaluate each candidate against the selection criteria:

A variety of scoring systems may be used:

  • Simple tick or cross to show the criterion is met or not met
  • Marks out of 10 for how closely the candidate and the criterion match
  • Different criteria may be weighted according to their relative importance

It can be helpful to have several rounds of shortlisting.  For example, applicants for a graduate trainee position are required to have an undergraduate degree.  The first round of shortlisting would assess all candidates on that single criterion, and subsequent rounds would involve the remaining selection criteria.

Interviews

Aim for about 5 interviewees.  Have a few reserve candidates in mind in case any interviewees drop out.  List the reserve candidates in priority order.  Allow at least 5 working days between shortlisting and interviews.

Tips

  • Remember to compare the candidates against the selection criteria, not against each other.
  • Keep a record of the shortlisting matrix.  This is very helpful if any candidates ask for feedback on why they were unsuccessful in being called to interview.
  • When advertising the vacancy, state clearly the closing date and time.  A cut-off time of 12:00 (rather than 17:00) can be helpful if any applicants have any last-minute problems with submitting their documents, and allows time in the afternoon for packs to be produced for the interview panel who will then begin shortlisting.

For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.

One-to-one meetings

My top tip for developing a good working relationship with people who are your direct reports is to schedule regular 1:1 meetings with each person.

The frequency of the meetings varies according to each person’s circumstances.  When I was new in my role, I met with each of my team every week.  Once we began to know each other better, the frequency changed to once a fortnight.

Although as a team we spend most of every working day together, the 1:1 meetings create a dedicated space for a more private and longer conversation.

I save up non-urgent points for discussion in between meetings, and each person also has their own areas of responsibility which I ask them to update me about at each meeting.  Action points are agreed and I keep a brief record of each meeting for future reference.

Although the process is quite formal, the atmosphere is relaxed and I encourage my team members to speak freely and hope that in this way, any small worries can be addressed before they become bigger problems.