Some of the advice in this article stems from a training session we were given by Tom Dale and Jane Falconer in January 2023, many thanks go to them for their invaluable advice and support.
This article is intended to help and reassure those of you applying for the Oxford Graduate Trainees roles or any other entry level library position. If you’re applying for the Bodleian Traineeships then interviews are right around the corner, so we thought we’d offer up some tips and techniques that will help you feel confident and prepared when walking into the interview.
What not to worry about
First off, a few things to set your mind at ease. Below is a list of common concerns prospective trainees have raised – and the reason why you don’t need to worry! We’ve also tried to include advice for how to manage these concerns at interviews as well as links to introductions from previous trainees who were in the exact same position as you! These are only a small collection of our previous trainees and you may find others who have similar life experiences to you by browsing through our Former Trainees page.
- I don’t have any library experience… You don’t need any library specific experience to succeed at interviews. Over the years there have been plenty of trainees who have never worked in a library before being accepted into a trainee position. You only need to show that you have the skills to meet the job description, you can pull evidence of these skills from any area of your life such as jobs in other sectors, clubs, or volunteer work.
- Trainees like me: Sarah Smith, Sackler Library; Martyna Grzesiak, Lady Margaret Hall; Tom Roberts, Taylor Institution Library; Alice Shepherd, Radcliffe Camera; Charlie Ough, Bodleian Old Library
- I’ve never had a full-time job… The traineeship is a graduate position, so it doesn’t require you to have previous full-time work experience. Many trainees have been recruited directly after finishing their undergraduate degree, as before, so long as you can prove you meet the job description, you’re in with a chance! Don’t forget extra-curricular society roles are a great way to evidence skills like time management and working in a team.
- Trainees like me: Jessica Jones, English Faculty Library; Connie Bettison, St John’s College Library; Evie Brown, Bodleian Reader Services ; Léa Watson, Bodleian Law Library
- I don’t live in Oxford… Not living in Oxford before or even during the traineeship won’t harm your chances, and you’ll probably find that most trainees weren’t Oxford locals before taking on the job. Luckily Oxford has incredible transport links including a station, bus, and park and ride service, as well as being pretty bike friendly so if you do end up needing to commute in every day, you’ll have a wealth of choices for how to do it. The job doesn’t require you to be located anywhere specifically, so long as you can make it into work!
- Trainees like me: Luke Jackson-Ross, Social Science Library; Amy Douglas, St Hugh’s College Library;
- I didn’t study at Oxford… You definitely don’t have to have been an Oxford student to work at the Bodleian. There might be a few bits of Oxford jargon for you to get used to once you start working, but no one will expect you to know these ahead of time, and if you’re not sure about some terminology used by the interviewers then please just ask! The interviewers want you to do the best that you can, so they should be trying to avoid using any terms you won’t understand.
- Trainees like me: Nicky Hilton – University Archives; Diana Hackett, Oxford Union Library; Alan McKechnie, Sainsbury Library; Ivona Coghlan, Bodleian Law Library; Jenna Meek, Bodleian Law Library;
- My degree is in an unrelated discipline… Although it may seem as though every librarian has a degree in either History or English it’s very much not the case. Previous trainees have had degrees in a wide variety of subjects including maths or science related disciplines. What you studied in the past isn’t going to adversely impact your chances so long as you can meet all the criteria of the job specification.
- Trainees like me: Siobhán O’Brien – Jesus College; Kat Steiner, Bodleian Law Library; Emma Quinlan – Kathleen Major Library, St. Hilda’s College; Leanne Grainger, Christ Church Library; Izzie Salter, Sackler Library; Jenna Ilett, Sackler Library;
- I graduated a while ago… Whether you graduated 2 years ago or 20, so long as you have a bachelor’s degree you count as a graduate. As with many of these questions, the key is to use your life experience to show that you have the skills to meet the job specification. Those skills can be demonstrated through all kinds of activities so if you’ve had a break in your career you can look to things like volunteer positions and societies or clubs.
- Trainees like me: Diana Hackett, Oxford Union Library; Tom Vickers – Sainsbury Library; Grace Exley, Jesus College Library
- I’ve had a previous career outside of libraries… No matter what you’ve been up to before applying the key thing is to use your experience to your advantage and show your interviewers exactly why it makes you the best candidate for the role. Maybe you previously worked as a teacher and therefore have fantastic written and oral communication skills thanks to all the classes you’ve had to teach and learning materials you needed to produce?
- Trainees like me: Diana Hackett, Oxford Union Library; Chloe Bolsover- Taylor Institution; Grace Exley, Jesus College Library; Miranda Scarlata, Weston Library
What will the interview be like on the day?
Every interview is different but at least at the Bodleian, they should all follow a similar schedule.
First you will be given a tour of the library you’ve been invited to interview at. A current member of staff, sometimes even the current trainee will take you around the library and tell you around the building, explaining a little about what the job entails on a day-to-day basis. This is not part of the interview.
The person giving you the tour has nothing to do with the interview process and is often actively discouraged from talking about you to the members of the interview panel. Obviously, that’s not to say you can start hurling insults their way without expecting repercussions, but if you worry that you said something that’s lacking your usual level of wit and intellect or walked straight into a glass door (we’ve all been there), don’t worry – your interviewer will likely never find out!
Take this opportunity to calm your nerves and find out more about the library you might be working in. Don’t forget, an interview goes both ways, and you want to be sure you’ll be happy working in this environment, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Before the interview itself starts you will take a quick test. This is designed to test your ability to use finding aids or understand shelf marking systems and normally take around 20 minutes. There’s no way to find out the test questions ahead of time, and you’re not expected to already know anything you’re being tested on. The interviewers are purely looking at how you tackle searching for materials and whether you’re capable of adapting quickly to new ways of sorting and searching through information.
It’s best not to worry too much about this part of the day. The test is short and is not the main way you will be assessed.
The interview is normally conducted by a panel of about 3 people, sometimes more, sometimes less. They will all introduce themselves before the interview begins but don’t worry too much about learning all their names and career histories, instead focus on answering their questions to the best of your ability.
The interview itself should take around 30 minutes and will consist solely of your interviewing panel asking questions and you blowing them away with your carefully planned answers! There is no set time that it should take to properly answer a question, it really depends on what you need to say. So long as you feel you’ve adequately addressed the question and provided good evidence of your ability it doesn’t matter if the question takes 30 seconds to answer or 2 minutes! There should be a little time at the end for you to ask your own questions as well – again this is an opportunity to get a feel for the work environment and decide whether this is the right job for you!
Remember, no matter what the schedule of your individual interview is, the key thing is to keep yourself as calm as you can. Everyone involved in the process is human – and sometimes things don’t work out quite how you’d predicted, but if you can give off an aura of positive confidence (fake it until you make it is the name of the game) then you’ll give off a great impression no matter what might go awry!
What can I do to prepare?
The key element to passing any exam is to know the syllabus requirements, familiarise yourself with the types of questions you might be asked, then practice your answers. It’s the same with a job interview – in this case however, the syllabus is the job specification. You should do your best to read the job spec thoroughly, so you fully understand what is being asked of you.
- Break it down
A fantastic way to ensure you know the job specification as well as you possibly can is to break it down into its component parts. Each criterion might list more than one skill that is required of you, so it’s good to make sure that you’re addressing the whole thing and not just part. A spreadsheet might be useful at this point to keep track of all the different skills you need to demonstrate. Once you have your list of skills, you should look at your previous experience (it doesn’t matter if this is professional or personal) and choose examples of times where you Demonstrate You Fit the Job Criteria to match each skill. You can record these on your spreadsheet too! One thing to note is that you don’t need library specific experience to meet these criteria. A lot of library work is reader services (helping readers) and experience in the service sector like shop work or hospitality roles can be a great way of demonstrating your sk.
- Think like an interviewer
Once you have your skills and your examples, try to come up with interview questions for each skill. The questions you’re asked will be designed to help you show off your abilities and demonstrate that you fit the job criteria. Try to come up with as many different questions as you can so that you cover every single way you might be asked about a certain skill. Remember, some, maybe even most questions can cover more than one skill requirement at a time, so don’t just address them one by one, come up with some questions that combine related skills, especially if they’re listed together on the job specification.
- Answer your own questions
Now you have a list of practice questions it’s time to do the dirty work. You need to come up with concise but comprehensive answers that fully cover everything asked of you. Focus on answering the question as it’s written, not the questions you wish the interviewers would ask. Maybe you have a great piece of work experience that you think would blow your interviewers socks off, but you should only bring it up if you can show them how it’s directly relevant to the question being asked.
- Practice Practice Practice!
Once you’ve drafted up your answers to the practice questions you’ve come up with, it’s time to practice saying them aloud. Even better would be to get a friend to help by choosing random questions for you to answer. Remember – the goal here isn’t to memorise your answers, but to get yourself comfortable talking about your skills off-the-cuff. Feel free to adapt and improvise as you go, just make sure that you’re always demonstrating those key skill requirements and presenting yourself in the best possible light.
- Do a dry run
If you have the time and means, then visiting the library that you’re interviewing at ahead of time is a great way to help you panic less on the day. Not all libraries are open to members of the public, but even just practicing making the journey so you’re not stressing over public transport links can be helpful – but this is by no means essential to having a good interview. Whether you can travel there in person or not it’s always good to familiarise yourself a little with the collections and style of the library. Is it a listed building with little room that mainly caters to academics, or a modern space with all the newest library amenities for students and members of the public? Small things like this might not seem overly important, but they could influence the approach you take in interview answers, and showing you have prior knowledge of the library itself can never hurt. You can find all this information and more about the many different Bodleian Libraries here: Find a library | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)
The 2022-23 trainees would like to wish you all the best of luck for your future applications and interviews. No matter how things turn out, making it to the interview is a significant achievement so even if you don’t get this job, don’t let it deter you from applying to others. The key thing is to learn from your experience, gather as much feedback as possible and do your best next time around!