Reading Between the Lines


I really liked this article about cover letter writing (you can read it below), and it brought up a few issues close to my heart (and professional experience):

  • First: I spent several years teaching the Internship class to MLIS students, and quickly realized I did not have time to waste being constantly appalled by the horrid cover letters my students were writing, because it really dragged out the amount of time I took grading to be appalled by Every Single One. (I had to sleep sometime!)
  • Second: cover letters are not an inborn skill, and most people are never specifically taught HOW to apply well for jobs. Consequently, as an educator I would regularly see my very talented students (they were ALL talented!) fail to get jobs, or land jobs that I thought were beneath their skill level. As someone who also has spent years hiring in libraries, and had to wade through stacks of horribly-done applications – it makes me crazy to know that people with good skills are routinely failing so completely in selling themselves to a potential employer.
  • And third: I adjusted all of my classes to require everyone to write cover letters and resumes in every class, to give them more experience.I think it was good for them, and I felt much better about sending our very talented students out into the professional world, knowing they had the skills to present themselves well to future employers.

Whether or not you are looking for a new job right now, you need to know how to present yourself to a potential employer. If you are a ten-hour a week shelver, or a ten year veteran of library management, or anywhere between that – you need to know these things. You can always contact us here at CMLE HQ, on a confidential basis, to talk about your resume, your cover letter, and your job hunting plans! We want everyone to be happily employed, in the best job for you; so let us know what we can do to help!

Reading Between the Lines

In teaching this summer the final class students take in our program, I invited students to submit draft cover letters they might write to potential employers for critique. Well written, I believe the cover letter is the most important part of the application. It personalizes and energizes the standard application and injects personality into the resume/vita. I see it as an opportunity for students to advocate for themselves as potential employees and to signal how they stand apart from other applicants. Poorly written, the cover letter can do more harm than good.  t invites a potential employer to read between the lines and infer information that the applicant may not intend to convey. So, I was surprised by the bland and nondescript language that some students used in their letters and dismayed at what I was reading between the lines.

One student opened with the notion that working at the school would allow her to share her love of books and literacy. Another student seeking public library work promised she had the ability “to help perform library tasks accurately and efficiently” and to provide excellent patron experiences by cataloging and organizing books or working at the circulation desk. She talked about experiences “assisting” patrons at the circulation desk and “assisting” with programming. While I am certain it wasn’t their intention, when you read between the lines, each student in her own way emphasized traditional, stereotypical librarian skills or interests and failed to portray herself in the best possible light.

The school library student did not consider that her passion for books and literacy alone was not unusual or unexpected in a school library applicant and would not single her out as the best fit for the position. She did not elaborate on how working at this particular school would allow her to share her passion or even why her passion would benefit the school. While she wisely played up her classroom teaching experience and she did talk about teaching inquiry-based lessons, she missed the opportunity to advocate for the overall work of the school librarian or to lay the groundwork for eventual program change by describing other interests such as a desire to collaborate with teachers as an instructional partner and co-teacher, which is supported by research relating the work of a certified school librarian to student success.

The public library student talked about being adept at tasks more appropriate for a paraprofessional. She did herself no favors by talking about her experiences “assisting with” rather than planning or leading activities. While both students were enthusiastic, neither indicated anything that would set herself apart from anyone else applying for the job.

I encouraged both students to rethink and rewrite their letters incorporating strong action verbs and describing specific ideas they would implement in the new position. I challenged them to talk about what would make them stand out from the other applicants and convince an employer that they were the best person for the job. I suggested they provide more robust examples of their prior work or internship experiences that would clearly demonstrate their preparation for taking on the new role.

For the public library student, I urged her to give examples of planning and leading programs and collaborating with other staff members. I told her to speak about the librarian’s role in the digital era with less focus on the traditional roles of library work and more on incorporating technology to support patrons in their search and acquisition of knowledge, resources, and information.

For the school librarian, I suggested she explain how her love of books and literacy would bolster students to read for information, for pleasure, and for lifelong learning and would support the school’s reading initiative. Additionally, I prompted her to look at the AASL standards to talk about how she would engage students in inquiry-based learning, multiple literacies, and 21st-century skills, and how she would partner with teachers to integrate emerging technologies, lead professional development, reinforce reading instructional strategies, and ensure students could effectively access, interpret, and communicate information.

For both students, I wanted them to see how cover letters can say one thing and infer another if the message is not clear. By rethinking and revising their cover letters to focus on action and leadership and the value they alone can bring to the work, the message would be powerful and there would be nothing to read between the lines.

(Read this article and others this author has written here!)