I want to tell you a story. A story about the worst library job interview of all time. Lots of library blogs talk about how to apply for jobs, but you don’t often read how to interview prospective librarians. Let this be a cautionary tale for hiring committees. Oh, and the following is all true to the best of my recollection.*
Before the interview
Friday morning. I looked over the agenda for my on-campus interview and noticed that there was a 45 minute gap between the time the car picked me up at the hotel and my first appointment. Nothing particularly unusual about that…sometimes traffic is a pain in the ass. Then again, my hotel was only a half-mile away from the library where I was being interviewed. I could actually see the library from my hotel window.
The car dropped me off 3 minutes after picking me up. I had 42 minutes to spare.
So, I decided to head in to the library and see if I couldn’t meet with anyone. I walked up to the front door, took a deep breath to steady my nerves…oh, there’s a card swipe. I don’t have a card.
41 minutes until my interview.
Since the car dropped me off early and I was locked out of the library, I decided to stroll around campus for a bit. This lasted all of 10 minutes before (1) I got bored with the sprawling suburban campus and (2) I got tired of being outside in 40 degree weather without a jacket. So, I headed back to the library just in time to catch a student entering the building. She was kind enough to hold the door open for me. Lane 1, Card Swipe 0.
Since I wasn’t entirely sure where the reference and instruction department was, I went straight to the front desk where a rather bored-looking student worker was staring vacantly at a computer screen. “Excuse me, I’m here for an interview. Could you point me towards Wendy Williams’ office?” “Who?” “Wendy Williams? Head of public services?” “Umm…I don’t believe she works here.”
Normally, I hate it when people refer to college students as “kids.” College students are adults and it’s patronizing to refer to them otherwise. But, this kid needed a reality check. “Well, since she is your boss, I have a feeling she works in here somewhere. Maybe you could look it up?” Pointing across the library, he muttered, “you should ask research services over there.”
24 minutes until my interview.
In my library, the reference desk is in the middle of our information commons. I can see the entire commons and students can see me. This library had no reference desk and the Research Services department was tucked into a suite off to the side. I walked in confidently and was immediately stopped by a student worker. “Can I help you?” “I’m here for an interview.” “Oh. Well, I don’t think anyone is here yet.” I was dropped off for an interview and there was no one there. 22 minutes left and I already want to leave.
“Let me double check.” The student worker invited me to sit down in a small chair next to what I later found passed for a reference desk. You see, this library uses a model where student workers provide reference help. Librarians live in offices down a dimly lit hallway off the main suite. It’s at the student worker’s discretion whether to call a librarian for help. I can’t say I approve of the model, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, I’m sitting in this chair that, for some reason, is tucked into the space between the “reference” desk and the door into the suite. I’m pushed all the way against the side of the desk and still I just know that if anyone opens the door I’ll get hit in the shoulder. So I stand up instead and hear the student worker talking to a librarian in her office. Finally!
“Umm…there’s a guy here for an interview.” “Really?” “Yeah, he says he’s meeting Wendy at 9:00.” “Well, she’s not here. Maybe he can sit in the lounge to wait for her?” “I’ll tell him.”
Hey there potential future coworker! Nice to meet you too!
I sat in a rather forlorn looking chair from the 1970s and picked at the fraying canvas.
18 minutes to go.
The first interview
When Wendy finally arrived, I was called back into her office. She had been at this library for at least a coupe of decades. In fact, the majority of the librarians I would meet had been at the library for over a decade. This will be relevant later. Anyway, even though this first scheduled meeting was supposed to be an interview with the head of research services (my potential future boss), it was really more of a 15 minute chat about the weather and my flight. Perfectly polite, but where were the questions I had prepared for? I didn’t get to find out because next I was off to the obligatory presentation. I had to present for 15 minutes about my vision for library instruction, were I to be hired. But first, they were providing a light brunch and meet-and-greet as I prepared for my presentation. Great! I couldn’t get breakfast (on account of the car coming 45 minutes early and all). Let’s just walk over to the classroom where I’ll be presenting and….
Brunch is gone.
The bagels, coffee, and what I presume must have been muffins had already been set upon by the library staff. Crumbs, coffee but no more cups, and a few depressed looking honey-wheat bagels were all they had left me. I hate honey-wheat bagels. No time to get sad, however. I had a presentation in about 15 minutes and I had to get set-up. Guess that meant no time for the meet-and-greet either. Oh well. I did get to talk to the library’s media guy for a bit and he was really cool. But I was still hungry.
At least my presentation went well. I’ve always considered myself a fairly good presenter** and from the reaction of most of the audience, I was saying the right things. Lots of head-nodding and smiles and that sort of thing. Sure, there were some glum-looking people in the back, acting as if this was all a terrible waste of their time, but most of the audience was fairly energetic and they asked some really good questions. As I later found, the energetic audience members were faculty from around campus who just happened to drop in. You can guess who my future coworkers were.
An HR interlude
After my presentation I was whisked upstairs to a meeting with human resources. It was the standard stuff about benefits, promotion, tenure, and all the rest. It also lasted almost an hour. The woman from HR was really nice, really helpful, and she tried her best to make 401(k)s sound interesting. But I got the feeling that even she felt there was a lot of bureaucratic stuff that should probably wait until I got hired to sort out. Things like parking passes and time sheets. I don’t really remember because I sort of zoned out…at this point I didn’t want the job anymore. Everyone I had met to that point seemed either depressed or inconvenienced at having to deal with an interviewee. Only people from outside the library seemed to appreciate my vision. The service models were the exact opposite of how I like to help students. The student workers didn’t even know their boss’s name. My itinerary was so bizarrely off-base that it hinted at deeper organizational issues.
And I didn’t get a bagel.
The second interview
So after HR is done with me, my itinerary says I have 15 minutes until my interview with the search committee. Good time to hit the restroom and get a drink of water. Except, as soon as the door opens for the HR associate to leave, the search committee comes in, sits down, and starts the interview. No break for me, I suppose. What followed was about an hour or so of the standard interview questions. Initiatives I had planned and executed. Projects that had failed. Vision for library instruction. Professional development. Typical stuff. Until the outside faculty member on the search committee asked a very specific question about a very specific reference book that we don’t actually have here at UTC. I told him I couldn’t answer the question, but that I knew of X, Y, and Z similar resources and that I’d be sure to look at make use of his specific reference book if I had the opportunity. He sat back in his chair: “Gotcha!” All the questions about instruction and public service, all of my careful answers, all undone because I hadn’t used a specific reference book. The mood in the room changed and for the next 20 minutes most of the search committee seemed actively disinterested. I hadn’t used the magic book. I was not worthy. Oh well, at least my 20 minutes to ask questions was coming up. 5 minutes. 4 minutes. 3 minutes. 2 minutes. 1 minute. 0 minutes. -1 minute. -2 minutes. -3 minutes. -4 minutes…wait! Where’s my turn to ask questions? They just kept on grilling me until it was time for lunch.
They took me to a chain Italian restaurant just a touch off campus. It wasn’t really authentic; most of the food was jazzed up Olive Garden fare. But it was all right. I looked over the menu and settled on a carbonara. The server came to take our orders. Our orders at an Italian restaurant. Italian food.
Not me #1: “Do you make hamburgers?” “Umm…yes, we have a cheeseburger on the menu.” “Okay, I’ll have it. Well done.”
Not me #2: “I’ll have the cheeseburger too. What’s Boursin?” “It’s a type of cheese.” “Like sliced cheese?” “No, not really.” “I don’t want the cheese on it.”
Me: “I’ll have the broccoli carbonara.”
Not me #3: “Caesar salad.”
Not me #4: “Chopped salad.”
Which of these things is not like the other?
Why didn’t we just go to Red Robin like everyone clearly wanted to?
Meeting the dean
After lunch there was a half hour tour of the library. It was the all-too-common brutalist hulk that so many colleges built in the 1970s (my library included) and, for the most part, it was functionally equivalent to where I was already working. Nothing stood out aside from one particular art collection that I wished I could have spent more time with. The tour ended at a pair of windowless doors painted the same dark red as the surrounding walls. You could have easily walked past without noticing them. A small brass placard to the right said “Office of the Dean.” The door opened and I stepped inside.
To my surprise, the dean was wonderful. Energetic, intelligent, passionate about student success. She knew about the latest trends in student engagement, instruction, and assessment. She was witty and her candor was off the charts. She reminded me somewhat of my current dean. And when we got to talking, everything clicked. This dean had only been hired less than two years ago. The previous dean had spent over 20 years at the helm and, apparently, was rather hands-off and resistant to change. So, when the new dean came in, she started updating policies and procedures. She pushed for more engagement with students. She forced them to build an information commons (not yet built when I visited). And, she instituted a library-wide reorganization. The position I was applying for was a new position that fell out of the reorganization.
Everything made sense now. No wonder my interview was so bizarre. The staff didn’t like the new org chart. They resented having to change their ways after two decades of virtually no oversight. I come in talking about visions for the future and they’re pining for the past. The dean knew it too. I got the feeling that she was warning me away. She knew I’d suffocate in that work environment.
The grand finale
Of course the best was saved for last.*** Due to the suburban nature of this campus, my final meeting was at a building a half mile from the library where I was scheduled to meet the faculty of the department for which I would be a liaison. We pulled up to the building, parked, and went inside at 2:55. Navigating the maze of hallways we came to a room with a posted schedule: “Meeting with library search candidate. 3:00.” We went inside. And waited.
By 3:15 it was clear no one was showing up and I was fed up. “I’m a little concerned about the planning here,” I exhorted, “What’s going on?” The committee member explained. “Well I sent an email out a few weeks ago saying you’d be on campus. I don’t know where they are?” “How many confirmed they were coming,” I asked. “Well, we didn’t ask for confirmation. We just sent them the time you’d be here.”
You sent an email a few weeks ago saying you’d have a candidate visiting today. No request for a meeting. No RSVP. Just an information item. For a meeting at 3:00 on a Friday, mind you. I packed up my things and we left.
Walking to the car I pulled out my itinerary. A car was picking me up to go the airport at 4:30. I had over an hour. And though I silently cursed having to go back to the library and wait it out, at least I didn’t have to stand around in 40 degree weather without a coat like a schmuck. Approaching the car we did that thing where you split so you can get around to the passenger-side. She pressed the unlock button on her key fob once. Once is for the driver’s door. Twice is for all the doors. She pressed it once. “Well,” she said, opening her door, “it was very nice to meet you. The committee will be in touch with you in the next few weeks.” “Umm…we’re going back to the library, right?” “No, the car is going to pick you up here. Safe travels!” And she got in her car and left.
For the next hour I sat on a curb with my fingers jammed into my armpits, daydreaming about that Snuggie knockoff I saw in the SkyMall just a day earlier. The car from the airport came just as it started to rain.****
I got a call a few weeks later from someone in HR. Apparently I was one of the top candidates and they wanted to negotiate salary and benefits (before the offer? hadn’t done that before). I asked for a ludicrously high salary out of spite. Then I felt bad and backed down to the maximum salary they offered. An hour later I wrote an email to HR stating that I didn’t want the job under any circumstances. I still don’t know who they eventually hired.
And that is the worst library job interview ever. Yes, this all really happened. Yes, time has probably embellished certain aspects. But not by much. I had the misfortune of interviewing at a library that was experiencing deep resentments between librarians and administration. Where administration was actually on the right side of things to boot. Where old habits didn’t just die hard, they flourished. Where change was a dirty word. Where forward-thinking ideas were seen as a threat, not an asset. I really, really, really hope that it was just that some perfect storm of coincidences lead to this comedy of errors. But I’ll never know. I just wish that library–and especially that dean–the best. Maybe one day I’ll see someone at a conference and it will turn out to be a big misunderstanding. Maybe one day we’ll laugh over the missteps. Maybe one day I’ll visit again.
Maybe one day I’ll get my damn bagel.
[EDIT: Wow. Lots of people are reading this. Like, thousands of people. Maybe now that I've got your ear I can add something I regret not adding in the first place: I'm a gainfully employed, middle-class white dude. What counts as a bad interview experience for me may not count as a bad interview experience for you. You see, my expectations of an academic interview are conditioned by certain privileges. I could turn the job down because I was already employed. I could focus on bagels, rather than leering stares and body-image expectations. I could complain that I didn't get to ask questions, rather than highlight the questions I was asked. Like, "What does your husband think about moving?" Or, "Is that how you would dress if you worked here?" Or, "Which bathrooms should we set aside for you?" I could complain about a question regarding an obscure reference book, rather than detail how an interviewer explained how reference books work. These things and more.
Maybe you find my interview story entertaining. Maybe you find it instructive. I don't know. But please remember that for every one of my left-over blueberry muffin crumbs and for every second spent waiting for someone to start the interview, there's a person in need of a job yet forced to put up with countless reminders that their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their identity is on interview too. Mine wasn't really the worst interview ever. This is just a story about dysfunctional organizations. The moral is simply that how you interview says a lot about your place of work. But, please don't forget that there are countless librarians and librarians-in-waiting that are forced to deal with far more systemic, institutionalized, and persistent problems. I can joke around because I'm privileged in ways that others aren't. But don't mistake my experience as the worst of the worst. I'm lucky that this crap-fest of an interview arose because of organizational incompetence, rather than who I was.
I don't know what it's like to interview outside of the skin I'm in. But, I'm doing my best to listen. You should too. #itsnotabouthebagels]
* It should go without saying that I won’t say where this interview took place. I won’t even say when. Sometime between 2009 and 2014 is all you need to know. And all names, of course, have been changed.
** Though I still have nightmares about a keynote I once gave. I was informed of a friend’s death less than an hour before going on and lets just say I was distracted and I bombed pretty hard.
*** Actually the best was a conversation I had with one of the search committee members after leaving the dean’s office. But I can’t explain it without identifying the committee member. Let’s just say that I asked a legitimate and innocent question about the reorganization and the response was both so casual and so outrageous that it bears not repeating.
**** Listen, I’m from Detroit. I can handle the cold. And 40 degrees is not cold. But, standing outside for an hour at 40 degrees in a suit and tie isn’t exactly comfortable either. Especially when the wind picks up.