Thursday, October 25, 2012

30th Year Reflections/21: Interviews

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won't get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.” — Lemony Snicket

Thirty years ago this month I started my first professional position. That recollection got me to thinking about all the interviews I’ve participated in over my career. By many standards I’ve probably held fewer positions over a lifetime than most workers. According to a 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal the magic number is at least seven career changes and possibly twice that number before retirement. Over my three decades I’ve worked for four different institutions in five different jobs: instructional services/reference librarian, library director, medical librarian, director of archives, and curator of special collections and rare books. If all goes well and according to plan that number will not change, or change very little before I retire.

This means there have not been many interviews over those thirty years. If I add the number of interviews for which I was not successful to those in which I was the total is still under ten. So I may not have much to say to those who will shift jobs and interview more than I have. On the other hand, I have been on the other side of the process more times than in “the hot seat.” What words of wisdom, if any, might I offer about the interview process? Three phrases come immediately to mind: be yourself, be accurate/truthful, and know your stuff.

I don’t know how helpful it might be to expand on those three phrases in this short space except to invite some contemplation. Individuals or committees looking over a resume or cover letter are fairly skilled, in my experience, when it comes to matching a paper trail with a flesh-and-blood person. They spot inconsistencies, they sense artificiality, they are rigorous in trying to find out who you are as an applicant and whether or not you are a good match for the position, especially in a day of shrinking dollars and a tight job market. Cover letters can be both deadly and comical to a hiring authority when the same descriptive phrases show up again and again. Just type “tired resume phrases” into your favorite search engine and you’ll get an idea of what to avoid.

A few other thoughts come to mind when I think of interviews. The first—which I’ve done myself—is to look at an interview as a means toward sharpening skills. At least one time in my career I realized that it had been some time since I’d put myself through the interview process; it is not something you can really practice on your own or with a friend. And so I applied for positions of interest, updated my vita, and ultimately got an interview. I was a finalist for a position and although I wasn’t hired the experience was invaluable for the next—successful—time. Second (and this, perhaps, from the perspective of an employer)—look at the hiring process as a way to invigorate and diversify a staff. New blood in an organization is important. As I’ve been researching and writing my article/book on the closing of the U of M library school I discovered how important it was to the university for the school to look across the profession, beyond the bounds of the upper Midwest, when filling new faculty positions. Hiring from within, or from a small, provincial pool of applicants can be deadly to an organization.

Finally, it really is important to be yourself. The interview for my present position was an all-day affair, starting at 8 in the morning and ending at 7 in the evening. I had just returned from a trip to Israel; my mind and body were in another time zone. In the middle of my public presentation that afternoon my mind froze. (It didn’t help that a gentleman in the front row fell asleep early on; I found out later that he fell asleep at every event.) For what seemed like an eternity (to me) I stood silently at the podium, my mind racing with questions: Where am I? What am I doing here? What did I just say? I caught myself and continued with my talk. Afterwards I confided the episode to a friend in the audience. His comment: “It just looked like a dramatic pause.” I didn’t lose my cool, I knew my stuff, I carried on, I was myself. Perhaps I was fortunate. In any event, I was prepared…even for a mid-afternoon brain freeze.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

30th Year Reflections/20: The Seminarium

“But that time is not lost which is employed in providing tools for future operation: more especially as in this case the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.”— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

Where is the seed-bed, the nursery, the seminarium for nurturing an informed citizenry? Some might think it is found in the debating halls most recently on display or in the post-debate spin rooms of punditry. Others might look for it on the editorial pages of our great national newspapers. Some, more corrupt in their thinking, might believe it is found in that great wasteland known as talk radio. And still others might think, with some small hope, that the source lies within the classrooms of our distinguished colleges and universities. The latter might be closest to the truth, but for me the hope for an informed citizenry is found in the hearts and minds of our youngest children, their teachers, and—should our children be so fortunate—school librarians and media specialists. It is here, in the earliest grades, that the greatest public good will be found “in providing tools for future operation.”

Primary teachers and librarians are on the front lines of the Republic. Unfortunately—at least for our librarians—they are some of the first—along with teachers of art or music—to be sacrificed when school districts face faltering public support, a shrinking tax base, economic constrictions, or indifferent communities. I found myself wondering, as I watched last night’s presidential debate (and the inevitable commentary, tweets, and memes that followed)—where did these folks go to school? Where did they learn their manners? Is discourtesy or insolence the new norm? Did they ever, in their youth, experience the guiding light of a school librarian or social studies teacher, one who impressed “their minds with useful facts and good principles?” If last night was any indication, then the lesson has been lost and we have nothing but grief to look forward to.

If this is a bit of a rant, so be it. What I’m looking for—what should be planted at an early age—is the capacity to sort through multiple channels of information, the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, the patience to let ideas and thoughts stew and simmer for a bit, before any pronouncements or assertions are made. What I’m looking for is a civic exegesis, hermeneutic, or midrash that gives us the freedom to arrive at informed opinions without the press of incessant cultural chatter that demands immediate answers and instant gratification. Or, if truly pressed for time, I’m looking for a citizen quick on their feet and nimble of mind. I’m looking for slow-cooked ideas, robust in character, able to stand up to any fast-food thought that attempts to pass for informed conversation and debate. I want a young mind, nurtured by caring teachers and librarians, to see and understand the progression of thought from information to knowledge to understanding and, finally, wisdom.

Long ago I was introduced to the wisdom of the ages by a school librarian. I have been searching my memory for her name (and asked for help from the school district, hoping they would prompt my cloudy recollections, alas to no avail). Let me call her, for the moment, “Mrs. L.” Even in her anonymity she remains one of my heroes. I was somewhere between the fourth and sixth grades when she asked me to be a student assistant. My job was to help check out books, shelve those books that were returned, keep the school library neat and tidy, and help out in any other way needed. In the course of time I was introduced to a number of authors. I was not a voracious reader but rather a nibbler. I gravitated towards the picture books and mysteries. Every now and then I picked up a work of non-fiction or a biography. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of this—along with the Tab books and Weekly Readers that came to the classroom—created a civil atmosphere, a respect for learning, and fuel for my curiosity. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if “Mrs. L.” had not crossed my path, if the school library did not exist, if the world of ideas was diminished or hidden because my school district could not afford such “luxuries.” Our school librarians deserve all the support we can give them. Remember that when you go into the voting booth in November, especially if an initiative is present on the ballot that impacts public education in your community. We need to provide the tools for future operation.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

30th Year Reflections/19: Politics

“While library directors use statistics to document the excellence of their services, [Anne] Coriston suggests that in politics stories work better: pols may forget the numbers, but they won't forget the child who confides that the librarian is her best friend; they may forget that annual library attendance in New York City is 40 million, but they won't forget that that is higher than attendance at all the city's cultural institutions and sports team events combined.”— Library Journal, March 15, 2003

Last week Sherlock Holmes trumped everything else, but I did promise to talk about politics. So, unlike many of our politicians, I’ll keep that promise. I don’t see myself as a political animal in the sense that I’m not terribly fond of spending time with professional politicians. I’ve been to just a couple of caucuses, rarely put a political campaign sign on my lawn, never staffed a campaign phone bank, donated to a campaign, or gone door to door looking for votes. I’ve run for political office just once, as a neighborhood representative to a local school council in Chicago. I lost. I have been a political appointee (by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress, a position I gladly served for six years). But for the most part the political arena is not an environment I’m familiar with or comfortable in. I’m just not cut out for all the glad-handing and back slapping that seems to come with politics.

On the other hand, I rarely miss a chance to write, e-mail, or phone one of my representatives when an issue concerns me. I know my local city council member, and I know who are my state and federal representatives. I have taken part in lobbying for library efforts, both on the state and national level. But I haven’t been active enough. And perhaps this is the greatest “takeaway” from this week’s post. We have to become knowledgeable about and engaged with the political process. We need to gather stories (and sometimes statistics) to share with our political leaders. We need to have conversations with friends and colleagues. We need to debate the issues. We need to make our legislators (and members of the executive branch) know where we stand on an issue, both as individuals and as a profession. I may not be comfortable with the political arena, may not like the back slaps, but I better get over it, and get over it soon. Our future—professionally and nationally—depends on it.

Long ago I carried on a correspondence with my representative in Congress. It had nothing to do with libraries and everything to do with what we were doing in Nicaragua (this at about the time of the Iran-Contra affair). In the course of my correspondence with the congressman I suggested a number of books he might read to better inform himself on the issue. At one point in our conversations things became a bit heated on my end, something I don’t recommend. Passion is fine, but stepping over into anger becomes counterproductive when communicating with a member of Congress. As it happened, I was in Washington a short time later with ALA colleagues lobbying for library issues. One of our appointments was with my representative. As we entered his office and introduced ourselves I saw a sudden spark of recognition in his eyes when I stated my name. At almost the same time I spied a pile of books on the credenza behind his desk. Many of the titles dealt with Nicaragua, including some of the books I had suggested. My message, it seemed, had been heard. I don’t know how much, if any, I influenced the congressman’s position on either Nicaragua or libraries, but I walked away with the sense that I was a participant, that all of this mattered, that I needed to stay informed and involved. We need to get into the political arena. We need to make our voices heard, now more than ever.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

30th Year Reflections/18: Elementary

“There is complete confidence between my husband and me on all matters save one. That one is politics. On this his lips are sealed. He tells me nothing.”— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Second Stain”

At the moment I’m listening to the first presidential debate of the campaign season, coming live from Denver. I thought I might use this week’s note to discuss the relationship between the library profession and the political process. But I’ve changed my mind. Politics can wait for another week (although I just heard Governor Romney proposing to end government support for public broadcasting—not a very smart proposition to my way of thinking; but I digress). It occurred to me that I’ve said very little in these first posts about Sherlock Holmes, someone intimately connected with my current work as curator of the world’s largest collection of Sherlockiana. And since the first episode of a new television series appeared last week dealing specifically with Holmes—“Elementary” on CBS—its seems that there’s no better time than now to bring the world’s most famous consulting detective to the fore. Here Holmes trumps politics.

I’ll say it right near the top: I enjoyed the pilot episode of “Elementary.” I’m intrigued with the casting of Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson; I think there’s enormous potential in this pairing. I’ll be very interested to see how the characters are developed over the course of the series. (And remember, in 1941 mystery writer Rex Stout proposed a theory that Watson was a woman at a gathering of the Baker Street Irregulars so the idea is not a new one.) I enjoy the creative work of writers and directors (and all the other folks associated with putting together a series such as this) and the attempt to place Holmes and Watson in the present. I would say the same for the BBC production, “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I’m actually more inclined to “Sherlock” and think that CBS stole a good idea, but that’s secondary to my joy of “the more the merrier” and that both of these programs will, I hope, drive people back to the original 56 short stories and four novels. And I hope these shows will also cause folks—especially students and faculty—to discover our amazing collections. Although I understand their position, I cannot join the traditionalists who object to any attempt to introduce the Sherlockian characters into a modern setting. They’re happy to see Holmes and Watson stay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm happy with them there, too, but also enjoy their company on the 21st century streets of London and New York.

I should also note here that I did not grow up a Sherlockian. I watched the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films on Saturday afternoons and read the stories as a kid. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was not a reader in my younger days. It was not until I entered college that I became hooked on books. And even then Holmes was not on my radar. It was not until PBS broadcast the new Holmes series featuring Jeremy Brett in the 1980s and ‘90s that I was drawn back into the fold. Since that time I’ve re-read and enjoyed all the stories, used them in classes, and taken pleasure in many of the parodies and pastiches. I’m sure that many among the true believers still do not consider me a Sherlockian. And they may, to some extent, be correct. My life is defined by more than Holmes. Even when I applied for my present position it was not the Holmes Collections that drew me to Minnesota; it was the spectacular collection of Swedish-Americana assembled by the late Swedish journalist Tell G. Dahllöf. But the local Holmes friends got their hooks into me early, shortly after I started at Minnesota fifteen years ago. And I’m glad they did. Since then I’ve been in marvelous company, surrounded by a group of very interesting and stimulating people, together drawn to the inventive mind of Sir Arthur and his creation. It is, in the end, elementary.  And as for the lips are sealed.