I’m back from my wacky wild trip into our legal system. I’ll just say that I hope I’m never on the other side of the law, because it was nerve-wracking enough just being in the jury pool! And I don’t know if this is typical, but the courtroom was the coldest room I’ve been in. I live in Florida for goodness sake and I was literally shivering!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what libraries are looking for in a job candidate since I am on the job hunt full-time now. Since I was a kid, I have been constantly told that academic achievement and learning as much as you can are the most important things and will lead to a good college, good job, etc. And I took that very seriously. I’ve always been an overachiever and worked like crazy to get top grades. I also have been a voracious reader since the age of 7 when I discovered the Chronicles of Narnia and fell in love with books. In high school, my grades really did matter, because I wouldn’t have gotten into Wesleyan without them (I’m still fairly amazed I got in there at all considering how amazingly brilliant some of my friends were). One could even argue that my grades in college were important for getting into grad school. But I am starting to think that all of my academic achievements mean absolutely nothing in the job world, and it is a truly discouraging idea. Is it even something employers look at? Does it matter that I had a 4.0 GPA when I don’t have years of library experience? Does it matter that I went to a top University when I haven’t done any collection development work beyond the classroom? Should it matter? I don’t know. I’d like to think that good grades show that a person is smart, that they are hard-worker, and that they don’t give up easily. I would think my academic achievements would tell a library that I can quickly learn what I need to know to be successful in any position. But it’s experience that is the gold standard. Experience says that a person doesn’t just have the capacity to do something, but that they have proven they can do it. Experience means that a person probably won’t need as much training to adjust to a new position. I can’t disagree with the logic. If I were an employer and had two resumes in front of me — one of a person with tons of relevant experience and one of a new graduate with excellent grades but little experience — I’d probably say that the former was the safer bet. But that doesn’t mean that the latter may not be better in the position and offer so much more to the library.
Especially in libraries, I don’t think library experience should be the only measure of a candidate’s worth. I know plenty of librarians with decades of experience who are horrible with people. And librarians who are technophobic. I think most people can be trained to do a reference interview and to know what resources are out there, but it’s important to have someone who genuinely likes people, is patient, is tech-savvy, and who likes to play the detective. I think anyone can learn how to do collection development as a YS librarian, but it takes a special person to understand a child’s perspective, to know what kids really want/need, and to develop a rapport with kids. If I were the head of a library, my ideal candidate for librarian would be someone who evinces a passion for librarianship, who has great ideas for improving my library, who loves working with people, who is patient, who has a quick mind, and who is a good communicator. I wouldn’t just throw away a person’s resume because they haven’t worked in a library before. I’d look at what else they’ve done, and if those achievements are evidence of the qualities I am looking for. I’d talk to people on the phone to get to know them before picking the three people I would seriously interview. That person whose resume you’re throwing away may be the best candidate for the job, but you’d never know it because you didn’t even give them a chance.
When I see a passionate, intelligent, politically active librarian like Michael McGrorty being rejected by a library because he didn’t pass their completely useless and arbitrary test, I really wonder what chance I have of getting a job. He’s active in the ALA, he’s a published writer, and he has 20 more years of life experience than I have. He goes to conferences, networks, and seems to want to learn everything he can about being a great librarian. By reading his blog, I can see that this guy has a PASSIONATE love of libraries and reads like his life depends on it. What is it exactly that libraries are looking for if not for someone like him?
Here is something Michael himself wrote about what skills a librarian should have when he met Nancy Pearl, everyone’s model of what a librarian should be:
Yes indeed, I do actually expect the average librarian to come equipped with an immense store of personal knowledge about a large variety of subjects, and to be able to answer questions using that mental collection. For instance, if I were to inquire how the Electoral College operates, I would expect the librarian to tell me—while showing me where to confirm that information, from at least a couple of reliable sources. The reason I expect this is because I would expect it of any person who had taken a basic government class in college, and because I expect a librarian to be on top of things like this. I do not expect, nor will I take kindly to a librarian who will point in the direction of the encyclopedias, unless she is heading that way to prove to me that her comments are on point. If you are a librarian and disagree with this, you had better quit reading now.
What that means is that I consider it necessary that the librarian have done a considerable amount of reading—close, critical reading at that, and that she keep reading as if her livelihood depended upon it. Because it does. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t hire anybody to work a reference desk who couldn’t be awakened from a dead sleep to give a book talk to a reading club. If you wonder why, here’s a hint: the walls of the library are still lined with books. You might have noticed this in passing. The salesman in the carpet store is an expert in his wares; the grocer knows his apples or he’s out of business. We cannot hide behind the fact that books are published by the dozen every day; it is another instance where a noble failure is acceptable but surrender is not.
So maybe all of my reading, studying and good grades wasn’t a waste after all? For Michael’s sake and my own, I hope the people conducting job interviews see things the way he does.