Questions to ask your interviewers

Several friends and acquaintances have recently asked what they should ask in an interview when the search committee or director inevitably asks “Do you have any questions for us?” (Hint: You should always have questions for us.)

If you’re looking for a really good job that’s a great fit for your skills and goals and interests (as opposed to just looking for a job, any job, one with a salary and benefits, really, any job will do), the interview is crucial to knowing whether or not you’re going to fit in there. And asking questions is one way to bust through the veneer of polish that we all put on for interview days. Seriously: you’ll never see more ties and jackets and heels than on days when we have a candidate coming. We’re all on Best Behavior, because we know we’re selling ourselves as much as you’re selling yourself. And you want to know more than our Best Behavior if you want to know if we’re a good fit for you.

So test us on that. Find out if we’re a good fit.

Here are a dozen questions that I a) enjoy asking, b) enjoy answering, and c) think can reveal something about the institution and the staff of a library. My brief commentary on why I would ask or what I suspect you might learn follows each question.

1.  What do you think the successful candidate’s first project will be?

What the heck do they really want this hire to DO? Do they have the same kind of vision when they talk about the job as they have when they write about it? Consistency of response can tell you something about their certainty of purpose.

2. What is the greatest challenge that the successful candidate will face?

This can pull some unspoken and unexplained information to the fore, about staffing, culture, money, vision… And that can be either absolutely exciting or it can be horribly discouraging.

3. What one thing on my CV made you think I’d be an interesting candidate to interview?

What about you intrigues them? Is that the thing you want most to be? Or is it something you did as a one-off project that you’d rather never do again? Do they want you to be something you want to be, or something you would rather avoid?

4. What skills do you think I would need to build up if I were hired?

Find out where they think your weaknesses are, and where they think their needs are going to be evolving. And then follow up: “What do you have in place to help staff learn new skills?” or “Will that be something I can easily do here?”

5. Why do you like working here?

This is just a classic “tell me a little about yourself” question, and a great way to get people to gush about what’s awesome about their workplace. What they don’t say here is also just as important. No one mentions the great community of colleagues? Pause to wonder if there is one… etcetera.

6. What is this library’s greatest challenge in the next year? 3 years? How do you plan to meet that challenge?

Where is their vision set? Do they have realistic understandings of the future of libraries? Of their own weaknesses? How do you feel about their answers?

7. What does the library’s hiring plan look like for the next 3 years? What’s the retirement forecast? Have you done succession planning for that?

Because holy crap this can completely change a place — what if four senior librarians plan to retire in the next two years, and there’s a hiring freeze, and no one’s been crosstrained? Do you wanna work there? Flipside, what if there are four open librarian lines, being collaboratively designed by the library staff, and should be hired in a staggered plan over the next two years. Do you wanna work there?

8. What’s the most innovative thing you’ve done in the last year?

This is just another great “tell me about yourself” question. Judge the answer for yourself.

9.  How would you describe this library’s management culture? If I were the successful candidate, who would be my supervisor? How is that relationship managed and organized?

You need to know this. Full stop.

10.  If I came up with a new idea that had never been implemented here, what is your method for getting that underway?

You need to know this too.

11. How does the library get its budget? What’s that process like?

This is an easy way to get a concise crash course in institutional politics, the library’s resource pool, the library’s relationship to campus powers that be, and how the library staff feel about it all. Very little is as telling as money.

12. What’s your approach to supporting professional development?

This is particularly relevant in tenure-track librarian lines, but for anyone who expects that librarianship’s gonna be changing continuously from now on (duh) and thinks that updating skills is a vital part of succeeding. What’s the answer? “We gots no moneys” vs “You’ll get $2000 annually” vs “We have lots of grants to apply for” are all very different scenarios.

So. There’s a list from me. What do you like to ask?


  1. Great list, especially 6-12. I’d quibble on #3. Putting interviewers on the spot to identify “one thing” privileges parts to exclusion of whole (I don’t like to ask candidates “one thing” questions either). Also, having been given the opportunity to ask questions, and knowing you likely won’t get much time to do so, I’d skip asked them to talk about you and focus on learning about the organization more directly. It’s your list though so obviously yours to decide what’s on it! 🙂 I’d add then to make sure you ask it of people who were involved in deciding to interview you. At my institution, most of the people a candidate meets with weren’t in on that decision.


    • Me, I ESPECIALLY liked #3! But I see part of your point, and maybe what I would ask instead would be more like “What points in either my CV or cover letter made you think I might be an interesting or good candidate for this job?” Perhaps I would also frame it in terms of “always hoping to improve, to build upon what I have done or learned.”


  2. I asked a variation of #10 to 2-3 different groups / people wen I interviewed at my current institution. The answers very clearly pointed out some key differences between my then place of work and now place of work, and those were important to me.

    But these are all good questions. I’d also suggest asking those that are appropriate ( like why do you like working here) to different people. Different answers are telling too.


  3. Lisa, that’s very fair, on all counts, and good contextual advice.

    Laura, absolutely re: ask lots of people. Different (or similar) answers tell you things about the institution, for sure.


  4. I always ask 5 and a variation of 9. Those answers are probably some of the best reasons for me to accept or reject a job offer because it lets me see how well I would fit into the culture.

    In addition to 12, I like to ask about the expectation for professional involvement in the positions. In some there is none or there is an expectation of a certain kind of professional activity. I then follow up about support (time off, funding, etc). If there’s funding but no expectation that the librarians are professionally active, that’s a red flag for me.


  5. I like to use this part of the interview to prove that I’ve done my research on the library. So for example, if they just implemented a new discovery service, I might ask how the project was accomplished and what the response has been from the users. This type of question could also give you an idea of the work environment.

    I’m on several search committees right now and I hope the applicants we are interviewing read this post!


  6. I always ask about the budget. In fact, it’s usually my first question. “Very little is as telling as money”—amen, sister.

    Also, I always ask something like, “What are the college’s/university’s priorities for the library over the next few years?” (I’m sure there’s an equivalent for nonacademic libraries.) As academic librarians, we can’t get around the fact that we work within the larger context of the institution, and its issues are our issues. You will leave a better impression if you can show you have some understanding of that.


  7. Thanks for the excellent list of questions. I’ll have to add some of these to my interview repertoire.

    Questions I like to ask of interviewers include: is this a new position or not? (though in my experience so far interviewers tend to answer that at the beginning of the interview when they explain the general context of the position).

    What are this organization’s priorities in the next year? A version of your #6.

    What would a typical work day be like for the successful candidate? A version of your #1. I need to reword this question, though, because a frequent response is, “There is no typical day.”

    If the organization were involved in a project I’m interested in, such as Biodiversity Heritage Library or Flickr Commons, I’d ask questions about that, too.


  8. I have thought about my interview and site visit for the job I currently hold for almost 10 years. I remember specifically asking “What’s great about working at a small school” (similar to #5) during the informal interview part with all the library staff after the official interview with the director. There was stiff silence and some awkward answers. I assumed it was because library people are introverted. I later learned that vibe had to do withe the circumstances under which my predecessor left, and it all made sense after I got some back story about 2 years later (because in spite of that staff awkwardness, I took the job) SO I think #9 needs to be in all caps and told to everyone who is interviewing, anywhere. I wish I had better understanding of that.

    Is there a way to ask about the person who is being replaced? Or how the job will change from the way that person did it to the successful candidate? Knowledge like that would have been very helpful for me going in, but I wouldn’t know how to ask that in a politic way.

    Great post!


  9. I think it’s appropriate to ask things like “what’s changing in this position, with the new hire?” or “How has this position’s job description been rewritten?” or “Is this a new position? What led to filling it?”. However, whether or not you get a good answer is on the interview team… and we’re not always good at being politically appropriate and also honest. But, then, again, that tells you something, too!


  10. These are excellent questions. In my previous position I was often involved in hiring. These would have been good questions from a candidate as long as I sensed that the person had done their homework on our organization. Just getting the question from a candidate with no context would be annoying. Ten questions is too many. I’d limit it to 2-3 based on how the interview goes.


  11. Just re-reading these in anticipation/blind optimism.

    Kathleen, I don’t think you necessarily need to ask all 10 questions….but you should be listening and dissecting what is said to see if you can find answers to some of them. In my experience, and if you are moderately good at reading people, you inevitably will find out some interesting bits of information without even asking.


  12. Jennica, these are some really helpful things to think about! Especially for me, as I am entering the last semester of my MLIS and, soon, the work world. I have another question that I’d like you’re opinion on: how do you approach the topic of salary in an interview, either when an employer asks your requested salary or when you feel the need to inquire about salary. This is an awkward scenario for me, and I feel totally unprepared!


  13. Wow! Thank you so much for the clever, insightful post-interview questions. I will be using as many as I can at my next interview.


  14. A friend recently shared this three-part question with me, and I think it makes a nice addition to Jenica’s great post:

    • What are the goals of the position? What would you want this person to have achieved at the end of their first year?
    • What’s in place to make the [position] a success in their first year?
    • What are the challenges or barriers to this librarian’s success?


  15. Thanks for the ideas! I might also ask, for a public library, “what is the community like? Who are the frequent patrons, families, retired persons…?” Then you’ll be able to tell more if you’ll be working with kids, helping with computer questions, research etc!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s