Q: I’m finishing up my MLIS very soon, and I’m trying to get a feel for as many types of libraries as possible. I would love to get a behind-the-scenes look at a few libraries in a city where I’ll be vacationing soon. What is the best way to approach this? Should I request informational interviews, or offer to volunteer for a day or two? I don’t want to inconvenience anyone, and I certainly don’t want to overstep the bounds of professional courtesy. Thanks for any advice you can offer.
TA: Excellent question! And great timing. There are certainly a large number of soon-to-be-grads in your same situation: finishing school, maybe a semester or two remaining, and wondering what life is like at a real reference desk. Or, perhaps, about what it’s really like to be a children’s librarian? Or, more than anything, about what happens during any given day as a professional… You’re smart to start thinking about this now, and you’re very wise to recognize the limits of professional courtesy and the risk of overstepping those boundaries. There are ways, though, to get the information you need while working within the guidelines of professional courtesy.
First, to answer your basic question, I would try to set up several informational interviews, as opposed to volunteering for a day or two. We all know the old saying that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Well, along the same lines, volunteers aren’t really free. While libraries may not pay a salary, volunteers require orientation, training, supervision, space, and resources. In most cases, having a volunteer for only a day or two wouldn’t be in the library’s best interest; it would be a heavy investment of their time for very little return. Informational interviews can (and should) be scheduled in advance, and do not take a lot of any one person’s time. As a matter of fact, you may be able to schedule a couple of interviews in the same library, but with different people in different departments.
WHY do informational interviews?
Let’s briefly review informational interviews. In an informational interview, you can accomplish several things. You may:
- Explore careers and clarify your career goal
- Expand your professional network
- Build confidence for your job interviews
- Access the most up-to-date career information
- Identify your professional strengths and weaknesses
(Informational Interviewing Tutorial) WHAT to do?
Do your research: Research the profession, research the organization, and research the person with whom you are meeting. You may want to look at general resources that give an overview of the profession. For example, take a look at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. You could also look at web pages, annual reports, and statistics for the organization you’ll be visiting. Do your research on the person with whom you would like to meet. You want this appointment to be productive, so make sure you’re speaking with someone who is active in the field and ready to share his or her story with you. By knowing more about this person (Are they published? Are they active in professional organizations? Are they in a position you aspire to achieve someday?), you’ll be better able to shape productive questions for the limited time you have during an informational interview.
Make an appointment: Call, e-mail, or write in advance to ask for an appointment. You may also have a mutual acquaintance who could refer you. Be sure to be up front and tell the person that you have some questions about working in a particular area, and would be interested in meeting with them for an informational interview. Keep the appointment to 20 or 30 minutes.
Have your list of questions and take notes: Come prepared with questions (and something to take notes with). Remember, this is two- way. The person you are interviewing may be interested in learning about you in this process, so be prepared to have a conversation and answer questions about yourself. For a nice list of potential questions, take a look at: http://www.quintcareers.com/information_interview.html.
Say thank you: Before you leave, express your thanks for the person’s time. Also follow up with a written thank you note within a few days of the interview. Remember, you are not just gaining valuable knowledge about the profession, you’re establishing your professional network. You want to make a good impression.
What NOT to do?
Do not show up unprepared: See the notes above about doing your research.
Do not go over your time limit: Respect everyone’s time and do not stay longer than originally agreed upon, unless you are invited to stay by the person you’re interviewing.
Do not ask for a job: Remember, this is an informational interview only. Do not overstep the limits of the informational interview by asking about employment opportunities or your qualifications for a specific position.
I hope these tips help you plan for your interviews. Additional resources are also listed below. Most importantly, be sure to have a good time on your vacation!