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In 2010, Green Peak Partners and Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations conducted a study about the importance of self-awareness as a trait for leaders. They found that a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of success. I am not surprised by this.

photo of a brown owl looking in a mirror

cc-by Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes

Over the years I have met a few professionals who, when I hear them speak, I think “Yes! I agree completely!” Their philosophies match my own perfectly. However, then I find that their methods of following through on their ideas are actually demoralizing to staff, controlling, or insensitive. Their actions do not match the inspiration and enthusiasm of their words. Maybe they mistake aggression for assertiveness and are actually just a jerk with good ideas, or maybe they have no idea how they are coming across to others. That is, they mean well but have no self-awareness.

When hiring leaders, we should ask the candidates about how they accomplish their work, rather than just be impressed by the laundry list of important projects they have completed. We should also be sure that when we call their professional references, we ask about the candidates’ self-awareness. Not just “What are their strengths and weaknesses?”, but “How do they improve themselves?” and “How do they gain feedback?”. The important part here is how they gather feedback.

You can also use personality tests like Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder as part of the hiring process for positions of leadership. Are you hiring a personality type that complements those already on staff, and among those whom they will work most closely? Are you hiring a personality type that is compatible with the goals of the institution?

Leaders, to you I suggest putting yourself in your co-workers’ shoes. If your boss had this decision to make, this procedure to put in place, or this project to complete, how would you want to receive the information? What would make you feel included and empowered? Look at the last few big projects you completed. How do you think your co-workers would describe your effectiveness? Be honest, and take into consideration the areas you know to be your weaknesses.

If anyone has other good ideas about self-awareness and leadership, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Staircase decorated with elaborate marble carvings - cherubic children holding a book and studying

Scholar and publisher putti. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith via the Library of Congress.

Years ago, I took a weekend vacation from my first semester of library school to visit Washington D.C. with a friend who was also a librarian.

In between visiting Smithsonian attractions (the Air and Space Museum is my favorite) and checking out the Adams-Morgan nightlife, we made it a point to visit the Library of Congress.

The tour focused on the building, and we learned about the history and architecture of the Library. Our tour guide expounded for several minutes on the “putti”: marble carvings of cherubic children representing career paths such as hunter, mechanic, printer, and chemist.

The tour touched lightly on the services and collections of the Library of Congress, but I don’t recall any mention of the chief administrator. Even as a librarian in training I was more caught up in the mystique of the building than the library itself, and I didn’t pause in the Great Hall to wonder about the Librarian of Congress.

That position got a lot more press coverage recently with James Billington’s retirement. In a few months, President Obama has the opportunity to appoint a new Librarian of Congress for the United States. This is an important position: in addition to running their eponymous library and naming the Poet Laureate, the Librarian also oversees the Copyright Office.

Obama’s appointment will be a fascinating indicator of what the United States administration looks for in the library profession. The information landscape has altered dramatically since the position was last filled: Billington has been the Librarian since 1987.

The months-long wait for Billington’s retirement allow for sundry opinions on the best choice for the next Librarian of Congress. Many librarians found Billington frustrating, wishing that the Library of Congress would be closer to the forefront of digital innovation. Billington did, however, have a great track record in securing funding for the LoC.

For prior appointments, the American Library Association made a big push for the position to be filled by a librarian, which had not been the norm in the past. Several putti would be needed to depict past Librarians of Congress; there was a doctor, a Pulitzer-winning writer, several scholars and career politicians, and one professional librarian. The professions held may have been diverse, but in other ways the candidates were very similar. Every single Library of Congress has been a white male, which has led to some pointed feedback to the White House.

In preparation for naming a new appointee, librarians are both reaching out to the White House and being individually invited to share their perspectives on what qualities the next Librarian should hold. The general consensus sounds a lot like any library director job posting: someone who is forward-thinking and tech-savvy, fosters innovation, and is deeply knowledgable about copyright concerns. Perhaps that person is Brewster Kahle, as suggested in Slate, or perhaps Jessamyn West can fulfill the Librarian of Progress role she champions. There are a number of candidates that could be considered, with a vast range of leadership experience.

Good leadership has some definable qualities, no matter what the scale of the position. We talk a lot around here about traits we want to see in library leaders, like listening, taking responsibility, and leading by example.

Possessing leadership traits is just part of the qualifications needed for the next Librarian of Congress. Perhaps we need someone who has a variety of putti pursuits mastered, in addition to library expertise. This is a huge job, and it’s hard to hire for it.

I’m glad I don’t have the tough choice of recommending potential candidates, but I know I want a dynamic leader representing my profession. I want future library school students vacationing in D.C. to know the Librarian’s name and work before they set foot in the Great Hall.

What’s your take? What experience should someone have to be considered, and what qualities would you look for in the next Librarian of Congress? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Internal Candidate Interviews

Eva —  March 16, 2015 — 1 Comment

Like most public libraries who are coming out of the recession, we’ve begun hiring again. Several public libraries in my region invite other library directors in to help conduct interviews, so in addition to doing a lot of interviewing at my library, I’ve also taken part in some civil service exam interviews for my neighboring libraries. Library directors talk–as you know–and one conversation I’ve had several times is about internal candidate interviews.

The interview is the audition, the time for that candidate to dazzle us. Being an internal candidate gives you an edge over external candidates, but you still have to demonstrate that you are the right fit for that particular job, and the way you demonstrate that is by giving an excellent interview. To borrow the attitude of Debbie Allen in Fame, my take is “You want this promotion? You want this permanent position? Well, right here is where you start earning it–with a great interview.”

My library is small enough that I know who you are and have an awareness of what your work is like, but large enough that our interactions are usually limited to a smile, a nod, and perhaps small talk at the Staff Day coffee station. The interview allows me to get to know internal candidates better and get a personal sense of how often they raise their heads above the day-to-day and look around to get the big picture of where our library is headed. So it disappoints me when an internal candidate violates the best practices of a good interview.

A weak handshake, poor eye contact, lackluster or pat responses, too-casual dress, not knowing our strategic plan, and the inability to answer questions taken straight from the About Us section of our website are mistakes that interviewees should avoid. When an internal candidate commits any of these no-nos, I think it’s worse than when it happens with an external candidate because internal candidates should know better. I cringe when internal candidates take themselves out of the running by giving answers such as “I am interested in the position because I need more hours/I need benefits,” “I actually can’t name any of the library’s strategic plan goals,” “I don’t have an answer to that question,” or the kiss of death: Wandering sentences stringing together random thoughts that don’t actually answer the question we asked.

Internal candidates should be slam-dunk hires. They have had the advantage of our training, professional development, and mentoring. You know their work habits, their attitudes, how they serve the public, and how they interact with other staff. The candidates know how the library operates, know what the work atmosphere is like, have demonstrated on a daily basis their commitment to the work, and are familiar with the expectations and personalities.

Don’t get me wrong; many fantastic staff are also fantastic interviewees who have the right balance of passion without being psychotic, demonstrate their knowledge of the library without being nitpicky or arrogant, and are diplomatic in their responses without lying to themselves or to us. I’m being earnest when I say that I don’t understand why some internal candidates don’t seem appropriately prepared for the interview, and I’d like to hear from you, library leaders, about what your expectations are of internal candidates. Do I expect too much?

Teenage Pages on the Job

Mary Kelly —  January 21, 2015 — 1 Comment

prepare for shelf readingFor the last 4 years or so, I have been doing a teen job search workshop. I got this idea from my daughter who was waitress all through high school. Even as a teenager, she was hiring and firing. She also complained that kids didn’t know how to even fill out an application or had their parents hovering around. Like any decent librarian, my first thought was PROGRAM IDEA! (If you want to read about my program click here to my personal blog.)

My daughter was not exaggerating one bit. I couldn’t believe how little the kids knew about getting and keeping a job. During this workshop, I talk about interviewing, job applications and on the job behavior. It is one of my favorite continuing programs at our library. The kids themselves have told me that no one has ever talked to them about jobs.

I mention this because I have had some recent experiences with hiring teen pages, and it wasn’t pretty. (This is also when I start a rant about “these kids today….”) Even though I knew teens were pretty green at what real world work was about, I was shocked at how much kids really didn’t know. In the span of 3 months, I hired and fired a total of 5 people. So far, my last 2 hires are working out, so crossing fingers. (This is where I tell you that you must start a similar program at your library. I am quite sure this problem isn’t limited to South Eastern Michigan.)

I finally realized I had to re-think training, especially for young people. A branch manager friend of mine told me that as a “first” job for many kids, we have a duty to teach about what it means to work for a living. So, if you have teens on your payroll, shore up your training to include a few of these tips.

  • Give an overview of a library’s functions in terms of how materials move in and out of the library. Remind them that when there is a clog in one place, it will mess up so many other library activities. Don’t assume any prior knowledge about ANYTHING.
  • Don’t overwhelm an employee with too many tasks. Roll out the duties slowly.
  • Telling isn’t teaching. Make sure you explain fully how your process works. Test your pages and offer feedback right away. Lather, rinse, repeat until it everyone involved feels comfortable.
  • If a page isn’t catching on within a couple of weeks (depending on often they work), chances are they aren’t going to ever catch on. Cut your losses now and let that person go.

After my recent foray into page hiring, I found one of my newbies in the stacks shelf reading (without prompting!). He told me it “bothered” him that stuff was out of order. I wept with joy! All true library people are “bothered” when things aren’t arranged correctly. Finally, someone drank my Kool-Aid.

Inside & Out

Eva —  November 6, 2013 — 7 Comments
photo credit: bgottsab via photopin cc

photo credit: bgottsab via photopin cc

I’ve noticed an increase in librarian job postings, which I think means that we are entering an economic recovery–fingers crossed! Now that the hiring freezes are thawing somewhat, library workers are finally getting the opportunity to move up in their libraries–whether into an official librarian job, a full-time job, or a management job–and I’ve been asked, “You run a public library, Eva–how does moving up work?” so that they can get a better idea of how the process may go for them within their own organization. I’ve learned a lot over the years–and I’ve made my share of mistakes.

I don’t do much hiring myself anymore. They keep me in the loop, but my managers hire their employees. I guide the managers, I question them, I poke hard at their assumptions, and I do the second interviews for key positions, but by and large I trust my managers–which means I give them room to do it their way within the general framework, because every situation is different.

External vs. internal postings

We don’t have a requirement that positions are posted internally or externally or in a certain order. They don’t even have to be posted at all, if I choose to promote someone directly into a position–and I have done that, like when a back-up has been training for a position or when a reorganization leads to a reclassification.

When we post, it is usually an internal posting, an internal posting for a week followed by a wider external posting, or a simultaneous posting, inside and out.

I have posted externally only–though I think that’s weird for librarian positions. We had an accountant job open, for example, which we posted only externally because I knew no one on staff had those skills. But with librarian positions, you probably have interns and library techs and pages and clerks and volunteers who have the degree, and not allowing anyone internal to apply sends the message that you think they’re all losers. It’s a morale-buster for sure, even if you have really excellent reasons for doing it.

I’ve heard about word-of-mouth or invited postings, where an employer doesn’t want to wade through 150 applications but is interested in getting some outside applicants, so they post internally and also allow staff to pass the posting on to people they know (presumably the best ones). I saw this a lot when I worked in the private sector. I’ve seen it occasionally in public libraries, but I’m not sure it’s a valid public sector option; we are publicly-funded and have an obligation to be transparent, so an internal posting that’s also a secret external posting for the cool kids seems unfair and even unethical to me. While it may be perfectly legal, there is no good way to spin it to your staff–it is a huge demoralizer for employees who will think the internal posting was just a sham so that you could hire from your own pre-ordained pool of preferred external candidates. I’ve not seen this be too successful at the few libraries I know about–lots of resentment toward management, and also resentment toward the new hire, which leads to a tension-filled work environment.

External. vs. internal candidates

We don’t have a policy favoring internal candidates over external candidates. Some places do, and some give additional preference based on seniority. In practice, these situations can be tough calls. Maybe your internal candidate is a grouch while the external candidate is a breath of fresh, enthusiastic air. Maybe the hiring manager and one of the internal candidates have a personality conflict that you know will bring untold horrors into the team dynamic. Maybe the hiring manager and one of the internal candidates went to graduate school together or were in each other’s wedding. Maybe the senior candidate isn’t the best fit compared to the junior applicant. Maybe one owes a drug debt to the other. It can get tricky.

My baseline is: Are you following the law? If you are preferring or excluding certain candidates on an illegal discriminatory basis, then you need to stop right there. If you are looking at two candidates who are otherwise equal and then disqualifying one based on a protected status, you need to contact your attorney right away. (I’m not an attorney.)

If you are acting legally, and if the candidates are otherwise equal, then there are any number of reasons why you might go with one over the other: fit, attitude, reputation, known quantity, results of the background/credit check, really good references, nepotism, friendship, or demeanor. It’s about your own ethics and comfort level, and whether you can explain your decision clearly. This is where I poke at my managers a lot, hit them with every possible question and make sure they are thinking clearly.


My library doesn’t have a policy that we have to interview every candidate, internal or external. When you have multiple internal candidates, you may find yourself in a situation where you want to interview one or some, but not all of them. A lot of what I said above applies here. One thing you might think about doing is scheduling interviews so that the internal candidates don’t have to watch the parade of interviewees go by. Maybe you schedule the other interviews while internal candidates are off, or staffing the desk way on the other side of the building, or out doing outreach. Most of the time this is impossible, but it is nice to make an effort not to embarrass your employees or put them in the awkward position of escorting their competitor to the interview room.

General things to keep in mind

If you have a plan for recruitment of a position, say so. Be clear and transparent about it. Communicate it. If it changes, communicate it again. While hiring has to be confidential to a certain extent, if you communicate what you can, staff will feel better about the in the end. Plus, with internal candidates they are all talking about it anyway, so get ahead of the grapevine when possible.

Once you’ve made a hiring decision, I suggest talking to the “winning” candidate first, getting the signed offer letter back, and then swearing her to secrecy until you say it’s okay to talk. Take this time to meet with the internal candidates as I discuss below, and then make the announcement to the general staff. Making sure the first candidate doesn’t change her mind is key–so wait until you get the offer letter back before you turn down the other candidates. If the first candidate changes her mind and doesn’t sign the paperwork, you’ve avoided the awkward, “Hey, second-best! I couldn’t get my first choice, so I will settle for you….How about it? You in?” conversation.

If you are not moving forward with an internal candidate, you should still write a declination letter like you would with any other applicant. I think a meeting, or at least the offer of a meeting in the declination letter, is a must-do. Not for you; a face-to-face conversation gives the employee the opportunity to talk. The fact is that this is your employee, your coworker, someone you have to look at every day, so be respectful and practice some common courtesy by giving her an opportunity to talk to you, and even to vent at you. It’s better to have someone yell at you, ask you their questions, and share their concerns outright rather than have them do it with coworkers in the staff lounge or at the local bar.

Lastly, if there is any time when a manager will feel the most hated, it will be when you don’t promote an internal candidate. Prepare yourself for that. If you’ve hired the best person for the job, it’s easier for you to say, “I hired the best fit for the library” with a straight face. But you will feel guilt. As hard as it is to turn down an external candidate, it’s a thousand times harder to turn down someone you work with every day. People’s feelings will be hurt. Bitterness will bubble up. Coalitions may form. People may leave. Keep your antennae up for signs of foment and unrest, and work with your HR manager to nip them in the bud. If an employee you’ve turned down is someone with potential whom you want (and are able) to develop, you should tell them that when you meet: “Let’s talk about how I as your manager (or the library) can help you get this experience for the next job posting, whether it’s here or at another library.”

What have your experiences been with internal vs. external applicants?