Thursday, April 24, 2014

Break Down the Box: Serving Populations, not Clichés, by Jessica Smith


About six years ago I interviewed for a part-time position at a non-profit. I’d already been through one interview with the man who would be my direct superior—the interview lasted more than an hour and was congenial, so I had high hopes for getting the job. The second interview was with a woman from human resources. She seemed to have a list of questions from a “how to interview job candidates” book. She asked me what I would say about myself to convince her I wanted the job if we were in an elevator together and I had thirty seconds to sell myself. As someone with experience working in non-profits and academia, I’d never heard this question, so I said: “I wouldn’t talk to you about myself in an elevator; that would be awkward.”

Then she asked me, “Has there ever been a time when you had to ‘think outside the box’? Can you describe what happened?” …And I knew, even more clearly than I knew when I bungled the elevator question with my “outside the box” answer, that there was no way I would get the job. 

“Thinking outside the box” has become such a cliché that there’s really no easy way to answer the question. It seems to mean, “what kind of innovation can you bring to our company?” But the people who interview for jobs in libraries, non-profits, teaching, customer service, and similar humanities-heavy jobs are probably not great at thinking inside the box. Every day on the job requires synthetically rethinking the job and how to serve the patron/student/customer’s specific needs. There is no box. There are relationships between people.

When I interviewed for the librarian position I currently have, I knew it would be a good fit because no one asked me questions about my feelings vis-à-vis elevators or other boxes. There were sincere concerns about the way the library worked, or didn’t, and how I could help.  No one said “innovation.” No one said “tradition.” They indicated that the system was broken and needed to be fixed. I listened.

The library had been poorly maintained for almost three decades, although some serious innovations had occurred—one faculty member had spent a summer organizing the school archives, the previous librarian had weeded about 10% of the collection, and the librarian before that had converted the paper catalog and circulation to an electronic catalog. The collection was astonishingly out of date; the average age of the collection was 1977 and there were almost no books purchased after 2000 (I took over in 2011). No one checked out books, but hundreds of books were “lost” every year. It took a lot of listening to understand what the problems were and how to fix them. The budget had been inadequate for years, but the board of trustees was ready and willing to help. The faculty wanted to be able to use the library for research, but the collection was too outdated. The students wanted to check out traditional paper books to read, but the fiction collection didn’t have any of the books they wanted. The circulation system was difficult to use; the library wasn’t part of the school culture. The library needed to continue to be a fairly traditional library, but it needed to be a functional library. 

“Thinking outside the box” doesn’t necessarily mean “innovate.” It may be shorthand for “the system is broken and needs to be fixed.” By listening to the population I served, I established that the library itself needed to be “inside the box” – the straightforward book-based research library one imagines. I had to “think outside the box” by thinking about the complex web of relationships between faculty, students, staff, the current collection, the potential collection, the labor force I had, the labor force I needed, and the budget.

If I interview again in the future and someone from HR asks me about a box, I will take a deep breath. Then I’ll ask: what is the box and what do you need it to do? What do your patrons want out of the box? In what ways is the box broken, and how do you expect someone in this position to help?

Jessica Smith earned her B.A. and M.A. in Comparative Literature and M.L.S. at SUNY Buffalo. In addition to teaching Composition and German literature, she worked as a freelance archivist for the Poetry Collection and Charles Bernstein's correspondence for the Mandeville Special Collections Library; she also archived materials for NYPL through Internet Archive. She currently works as the librarian at Indian Springs School, a private school near Birmingham, AL. Learn more at

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