And then [s]he practised being thanked by the grateful miller…

And then he practised being thanked by the grateful miller. Illustration by Quentin Blake, from "Mouse Trouble" by John Yeoman

And then he practised being thanked by the grateful miller. From “Mouse Trouble” by John Yeoman, illustrated by Quentin Blake

If this sounds familiar, here’s some helpful advice from Oliver Burkeman.  “Strategic incompetence is the art of avoiding undesirable tasks by pretending to be unable to do them” he writes, and while not advocating that we all do likewise,  he suggests that “[t]raining our bosses, partners or children not to expect a “yes” in response to every single request might be crucial for preserving sanity.”  Read his full article here.

This story reminded me of a hopeful tendency among librarians to expect that our users, colleagues, and bosses will all notice and reward us when we perform at a consistently high level, rather than shout about our successes.  And it’s a great excuse to post that lovely picture of the miller’s cat.  Every home* should have a copy of Mouse Trouble.

*or library. Fit in into your collections policy any way you can…

Library leadership

In this recent post by Jenica Rogers, she identifies some problems in library leadership and some of the consequences:

  • We suck our hard workers dry, and can’t understand why they turn into dust in the wind.
  • We undervalue what we have in-house, and respond badly to open expressions of ambition.
  • We compensate for our perceived failings in strange and valueless ways.
  • We forget that our really remarkable new librarians are still new librarians

This term, I’ve been focussing on the development and career progression of my team members, and ways of measuring our success as a team, building on it and celebrating our accomplishments.

New leadership is coming to my organisation this season: a new Bursar next month and a new Principal in September.  I am looking forward to working with them to help to continue to develop my team and the service we provide.  The changes and potential ahead are exciting!

Writing a job advertisement that will attract the candidates you want

This post is a summary of my notes from a recent Bodleian Libraries training session and does not constitute legal advice. 

Remember that your job advert may be the first impression many applicants have of your organisation, so make sure it’s a good one!

Your advert should

  • Be attractive – create impact by providing all the relevant information
  • Be informative – help potential candidates decide if they would be suitable applicants (put off those without the required skills, and eliminate jargon which may put off good candidates unfamiliar with your local terminology)
  • Be accurate – it’s important not be misleading or inaccurate.  There’s no point trying to make a job appear better than it is – you might hire an unsuitable person who won’t stay long
  • Be approachable – provide potential applicants with all the essential information and give the contact details of someone they can ask about any further queries
  • Elicit a response – inspire potential candidates to apply
  • Be personable – to help applicants feel more affinity with the role, use statements with “you will have” rather than “we need” e.g. “you should be passionate about…” instead of “the successful candidate will be passionate about…”
  • Be cost effective

Write the job description, the selection criteria and then the advertisement.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • Being discriminatory, for example by using language that is gender- or culturally-specific e.g. advertising a role as “Store Man”, referring to the post-holder as “she” or “he”
  • Being too technical – libraries are rife with technical language and jargon, and not all of it is universal.  Choose job titles with meaning e.g. library assistant.  I hear “reading room supervisor” used at lot at Oxford, but I don’t think this is a contemporary term for this job at other university libraries
  • Being misleading or inaccurate.  As mentioned above, giving misleading information about a post may attract unsuitable candidates. Beware of putting lipstick on a pig
  • Exaggerating qualifications required – if an MA in Information & Library Management isn’t necessary in order to be able to do the job, don’t ask for it
  • Stating the obvious, such as writing “we are looking for an admin assistant” in the body text of the advert – candidates know this from the title of the advert.  Be concise and don’t repeat yourself
  • The use of generalisations such as “the work will involve a wide range of duties”, “you will be providing a service to all readers within a particular library”, “you will be required to undertake general library assistant duties” – be more specific.  This feeds into the job description and appraisal process, so getting this right before advertising the job will also be helpful once the chosen candidate is in post
  • Advertising solely by word of mouth – this is unfair and potentially excludes a large number of suitable applicants.

Do you need to pay to advertise? 

Information from the Bodleian Libraries’ Personnel team states that 90% of applications within University are made from unpaid advertising sources.  Make a selective media choice and choose the most popular publication in the relevant field in which to advertise (though I notice that Bodleian Libraries don’t seem to be using LISJobNet any more, just

You can save money by creating a short advertisement (limit the word count to 50) and direct potential applicants to the full details on your website.

Work permits

Consider the implications of obtaining work permits for any applicant who does not already have the right to work in the UK – generally only an option for more senior posts where you can demonstrate that no suitable candidate with UK employment rights was available.  If this is the case, you’ll also need to advertise at Job Centre Plus for at least 4 weeks.

For Bodleian Libraries roles on grades 1-5, it is acceptable to include the phrase

“this post does not meet minimum requirements for work visa employment; we can therefore only accept applications from those who can prove their eligibility to work in the UK”

as the Libraries would not be able to apply for work permits for these posts.

Key information to include in your advertisement

  • Job title (make sure it will make sense to applicants outside your organisation)
  • Department and location of the role
  • Main purpose of or tasks involved in the role (choose the most relevant parts of the job description – make it interesting!)
  • Hours (make it clear if the job is full-time or part-time; and if it’s part-time, state the hours)
  • Grade (if applicable) and salary range (pro rata if part-time)
  • Length of contract e.g. permanent, 6 months, maternity cover for 12 months
  • Where to find more information and how to apply
  • Closing date

Further particulars

In the further particulars, it is good practice to put the job in context by providing more information about how the role fits into the library/department.  Provide the full job description and selection criteria.  Give clear guidance on how to apply e.g. covering letter and CV or application form.  Include the contact details of someone who can respond to informal enquiries about the role. If possible, state the interview date(s) so candidates can keep these free in case they are shortlisted.  You could also include the benefits of the role, such as pension, holidays and training prospects as these could be good selling points.


Filters are vital pieces of information within the advert which enable potential applicants to decide whether or not to apply.  Selection criteria identified as “essential” form the basis of filters for your advert, and may include qualifications, specific experience or membership of a professional body.  Do not include any intangible filters such as character traits or personal qualities as these are not measurable at interview and you run the risk of being accused of operating an unfair selection procedure.

Final tips

  • Use short sentences which are easy to read and understand
  • Use short paragraphs and bullet points
  • Don’t use ALL CAPS – it’s slower to read, less accessible and unfriendly
  • Use black text on a white background to increase readability

Having broadcast your job advertisement, sit back and wait for the applications to roll in 🙂

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

Tips for applying for library jobs

The application form and statement or covering letter

  • Like in an exam, read the information provided in the application pack.  If the recruitment process includes an application form, take care to complete all relevant sections (especially if the person specification calls for attention to detail!)
  • Look at the “essential” and “desirable” criteria in the person specification and describe clearly in your statement or covering letter how your skills and experience match these criteria
  • You may be asked to address specific questions in your application – the selection panel *will* notice if you skip this
  • If you are going to use specialist language, make sure you know what it means.  Not: “The library itself is arranged according to the Dewey filing system, and administered through the MARC”, “my home PC is an apple”, “majority of resources are online”, “resources – electrical as well as printed”
  • Be selective about what to include in your statement or covering letter.  The selection panel members have many applications to read through, so don’t waste their time and attention with too much fluff.  Be concise and back up claims with evidence e.g. experience of customer service or good IT skills

General points

  • If you’re applying for a post which requires good IT skills, don’t hand-write your application – word-process it.  Choose fonts with care (think about the image you are trying to project) and be consistent
  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar count, especially if the job calls for good communication skills
  • If you choose to copy and paste from a previous application, be sure to change references to the previous workplace.  Not: “The chance of working in the Bodleian Library is unique and one I would love to have.”  Nice to know, but I’m not hiring for the Bodleian
  • If you’re applying for a job in a library, don’t keep referring to your ambition to be a schoolteacher

Some gems

  • “I am looking forward to enjoying the quiet working environment in the library”
  • “I am keen to take up a career in librarianship because I am passionately intellectual”
  • “my goal would be to run such an institution” [from an application for the most junior post in the team – top marks for ambition though]
  • “looking forward to working with and hopefully reading the libraries collections”

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

Staff IT skills survey

Alan Brine (De Montfort University Library) carried out a survey of library staff IT skills in order to target staff training needs.

A number of competencies were listed, and each respondent ranked their ability by selecting one of these options to describe their skill level: I can / I need reminding / I can’t.

A range of training solutions was then offered, including:


  • Recognition of staff level of technology engagement by management was essential to the success of this project
  • It was also important to allow time for the additional workload involved, both in training and exploration
  • As possibilities multiply and skillsets expand, who will keep current?
  • Managing the overall student experience is now more complex
  • Face to face and personal communication still preferred and important

Good IT skills are a common requirement for many library jobs nowadays, but it is not always easy to know what is meant by this or find a way to measure it at interview.  Many library-related IT skills may be specific to a particular role depending on which integrated library system is used, whether staff support students who use Windows, Mac, Linux or other systems or a combination, so many staff will need on-the-job training once in post even if their general IT skills are already good.  This audit and follow-up sounds like a great way to assess the gap between the skills required and the skills of the current team members.

Equality, rights and the hierarchy of oppression

During a session about skills for equality, a discussion began about the ‘hierarchy of oppression’.

I learned that this idea was current in the 1970s, and it held that of any list of persons who may be oppressed in society, they were not all equal in terms of the degree of oppression they experienced, and the moral status of their disadvantage (gay people, for example, could be perceived as having ‘brought it on themselves’, or could choose whether or not to reveal their identity, unlike a person of colour).  Thus, one group’s needs or rights could be seen as ‘trumping’ those of another.

Although it was felt that the concept of the hierarchy of oppression is now out of date, there have been cases reported recently in the press in which a person with a religious belief has refused service or otherwise discriminated against a gay person (here is one example as reported in The Guardian).

Examples from the world of libraries included a library employee who refused to be involved in activities and displays helping to promote the services of a family planning centre because she was a Roman Catholic, and another library employee who would not direct library users to information resources for lesbian, gay and bisexual people because they were Muslim.

I would like to point out, as did many people in the room, that having a religious faith does not necessary mean that you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs about contraception, abortion or sexual orientation, but that was the case in the examples given.

Two ways of approaching such situations were presented: changing the employee’s duties to focus their work elsewhere (a bit of a cop out?), or possible disciplinary action if the employee did not follow customer service guidelines and instruction from their manager about how they should do their job (a bit fierce and unlikely to change the person’s mind?).

It makes me sad to think that some people think their individual beliefs can be used as an excuse to infringe the rights of others, and provide them with poor service.  This discussion carried on long after the end of the official session, and I was cheered up by a woman who described herself as a Christian and did not see any justification for such prejudices in her chosen religion.

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.


  • 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.

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.


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.


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.


  • 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.