by Julia Feerrar
Last week I found myself suddenly teary-eyed during a meeting with a librarian. No, I wasn’t sad or upset. The librarian’s obvious love for his work had just inspired and moved me so much that I couldn’t keep my eyes from filling.
I’m only a little bit embarrassed to admit that this wasn’t the first time I got a little misty about librarianship. There are few things I find more inspiring than talking to people who love what they do, and that goes for librarians especially. Accordingly, incorporating informational interviews into my supply of professional development tools was one the best things I did during my first semester in library school (shout out to Zack Frazier and his tips for the first semester). Talking to librarians about their career paths and current positions has given me opportunities to learn about specific library settings, the skills involved in certain positions, and the challenges and joys of librarianship as a profession. I have also expanded my professional network, gained confidence in my interviewing skills, and boosted my enthusiasm for the future.
The web has lots of resources about informational interviewing. This tutorial from Quintcareers.com and this article from About.com offer guidelines for preparation, active listening, and follow up. Instead of rehashing all of the information found on these and many other sites, I’d like to offer my thoughts on two aspects of informational interviewing that I see as most challenging: working up the courage to ask for an informational interview and figuring out how informational interviews can play a part in job hunting.
Even as I sing the praises of informational interviewing, I recognize that it can seem intimidating or potentially awkward. I used to be afraid of bothering librarians or asking silly questions. I often feel nervous before pressing send on a carefully drafted email and before walking into a meeting because those first impressions are so important to me.
Before attempting to schedule an interview, I like to begin by identifying some kind of learning goal. For example, soon after I started library school I realized that I had only a vague understanding of how a large university library system works with its various departments and branches. I decided to contact the director of one of the libraries on campus, hoping to learn about how her library fits into the university context. My initial reflection gave me direction (I knew that I wanted to talk to a director at one of the main libraries) and confidence (I felt like I had a valid, central reason for requesting an interview).
When asking for an interview through email I always begin by introducing myself as a library school student interested in learning more about x or y. Having a mutual acquaintance to reference in that first introduction can be another confidence booster. As students, we have incredible networking resources in those around us and I would certainly recommend asking an instructor, classmate, or colleague if they can put you in touch with anyone who can then answer your questions. However, I don’t see this is a prerequisite for interview requests. If you already have contact information (a librarian on campus or a guest speaker from a class), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with approaching them directly.
Information seeking and job seeking
Almost every article I’ve read about informational interviews warns explicitly against asking for employment. As a general rule, I agree completely: informational interviews are about seeking information, not jobs. However, as I searched for library experience last semester, I found that keeping my job hunt totally separate from informational interviewing was pretty difficult. I wanted to ask questions like, “I’m really interested in working here or somewhere like it and I’d love to get more experience in x, do you have any advice?” or even, “Does this library hire student assistants? How does that process work?” Those kinds of questions hint at employment. Is that okay? As students looking to get hands-on experience, I think we may have a little flexibility to stray into job- or internship-seeking discussions as long as we proceed with caution and keep learning as the focus of the interview.
Regardless of whether or not employment-related discussion features in an interview, I see informational interviewing as playing such a useful role in job interview preparation and professional development more broadly. I hope that it won’t be too long before I can offer inspiration and encouragement from the other side of the table.