Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Fitting” into the Big Tent: The Role of “Fit” and Moving Between Library Types, by Becky Yoose


Library workers perform and specialize in similar core duties throughout different types of libraries: aiding patrons with their inquiries, organizing information, maintaining and preserving physical and electronic collections, providing services and programs, and so on . One would assume that, provided that the worker can perform the duties, the worker can work in a variety of library types in their career, including academic, public, special, and school libraries.

I am a firm believer of Andy Woodworth’s Big Tent Librarianship philosophy. No matter what type of library or information environment we work in, we all share a common core of beliefs and skills that we can use to benefit all library and information organizations. Outside of the common core, we all stand to learn from each other in terms of challenges faced by each organization type. Cross pollination is a sign of a thriving environment.

And yet the reality is much more... quirky.

When I applied for an IT manager position at The Seattle Public Library, I was concerned that my lack of public library experience would negate all the other qualifications and experience I gained in my many years in academic libraries. Why? A sizeable portion of that concern results from the well documented bias in hiring committees surrounding “fit”. Like tends to seek out like, which makes it harder for those who want to transition from one organization type to another. You’ve probably experienced this roadblock if, for example, you are a public library worker applying for an academic library position, and vice versa. The “fit” roadblock extends to within organization types, creating another level of frustration for workers. Community college transitioning to a four year research university, rural or small public library transitioning to an urban or large public library - if you haven’t experienced the difficulty for yourself, you probably know someone who did.

In short, you have your work cut out for you.

What can you, as an applicant who wants to make the transition, do to better your chances?

    Research. Obvious first step is obvious. If you come charging into a hiring process saying “I can do x, y, and z!” without any knowledge as to how x, y, and z would fit into the new environment, then you’re no better off than the applicant that hands in a generic cover letter and resume. If your mind glazes over when looking at the hiring library’s information, here are some starter questions:
     Which populations do they serve (along with major demographic factors)?
     What are their popular/prominent collections, services, classes, and programs?
     What is their strategic goal/mission and how does that fit in current operations?
    Create the crosswalk. Now that you have a sense of the hiring organization, your focus now is to see how you can take your current skills and knowledge and convince the hiring organization that those skills can benefit them. Organizing programs and classes in one type of library can transfer over to another: securing event space, working with organizations/individuals outside the library, marketing, and volunteer wrangling are some common threads in program/class organization. Organizing and managing information can be crosswalked as well, including tools and standards.
    Be prepared to answer “Why?”. Indeed, during my interviews with SPL, the question came up - “Why are you wanting to work in a public library when you’ve worked in academic libraries?” You will get this question on multiple occasions during the interview process. Spend time reflecting on this question before the interview process - if you need a starting place for your reflection, look at the hiring organization’s mission statement or the community they serve and work from there. The most important thing, in the end, is to be honest in your answer.

With some crosswalking of skills, additional research, and a concise answer to the inevitable question of “Why?” (and probably a good amount of luck), I managed to successfully make the transition from academic to public libraries.  Again, I could have done all those things and still not made the transition due to hiring committee factors, and you might find yourself in the same place. Many hiring committees are still unaware of the “fit” roadblock that they made for applicants in the hiring process. Because of this, the burden shifts to the applicant (you!) to prove that your skills are valuable and applicable to the organization, no matter which part of the Big Tent you worked in the past to gain those skills. It’s more work on your end, but until we see a more systematic way of addressing bias in library hiring processes, it’s what we have at the moment. Nevertheless, there is room to move under the Big Tent - go forth and explore all the corners of the Tent!

(“But wait,” you might say before going off to explore, “what can be done in hiring committees to address the roadblock? And how do I make sure I don’t fall into that same trap when I get onto a hiring committee?” Stay tuned for part two which focuses on the hiring committee part of the process!)

Becky Yoose is the Library Systems and Applications Manager at The Seattle Public Library. She tweets at @yo_bj.

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