As young professionals working in the field, those about to graduate, or first-years that will be interviewing for internships, preparing for interviews is something that most of us see as a dreaded necessity. In an attempt to alleviate some of my own anxiety, I thought it beneficial to ask some seasoned professionals about their experience as the interviewer and interviewee. My first question was intended to highlight commonly asked questions for people to use to prepare for their own interviews, the second was mostly for my own amusement, and the third was meant to tease out the crucial parts of various jobs – as well as the specific skills required to do them. For me, this helped put into focus the spectrum of jobs a media archivist can have (i.e. catalogers vs. preservationists vs. digital asset managers vs. metadata specialist and so on).
The questions asked were:
1. What is a question everyone should prepare for?
2. What is the weirdest question you have ever been asked?
3. What is a question that you would ask someone if you were interviewing them for your job or an assistant position?
Many thanks to Genevieve Havemeyer, Linda Tadic, Morgan Morel, Jen O’Leary, Robert Vaszari, Anthony L’Abbate, Michael Pazmino, Kate Papageorge-Schneiderman, John William O’Neill, Shira Peltzman, Andrea Kalas, Blanche Joslin, Snowden Becker, Dino Everett, Susan Etheridge, Mark Toscano, Annette Doss, and Magnus Berg for taking the time to participate!
– Brianna Toth
UCLA MLIS MAS ‘19
AMIA Student Chapter Co-President
(NYU MIAP ’15 / Media Preservation Coordinator, New York Public Library)
1. “Do you have any questions for us?” This question is so you can show that you’ve actually been listening, are curious about the work, and it gives you a chance to interview them back (to make sure you really want to work there). This is also important because bad (and fatigued) interviewers use it as a fall-back when they can’t think of anymore things to ask, or when they’ve lost their place in their “list of questions,” so they might ask you this question repeatedly while they thumb through their notes. It can get a little awkward if neither of you are prepared. Once I was actually asked this twice in a row – as a follow up after asking several questions, and I was like, “Uhh, I already asked all my questions?” I didn’t get that job, but I was kinda glad.
Runner up: “Why are you here?” This is usually the first question, often framed as “Tell us about yourself,” but is really trying to determine whether you can a) describe how your general interests relate to the position, and b) not get distracted and go off on a tangent about your childhood or early college life. I think it sets the tone for the interview, for better or worse.
2. “How do you approach ‘difficult’ coworkers and/or clients?” This is a trick question. The answer that worked for me is that there are no “difficult” people, only difficult situations, and people with different perspectives. I followed this up with saying that open, collegial communication and discussion is necessary in all difficult situations.
3. I recently went through a lengthy interview process to hire an assistant. One of the more important questions we had was about physical and digital media handling experience, and the most promising candidates were able to speak to their knowledge of the formats that were relevant to us and talk about which ones they didn’t have much/any experience with. This showed self-awareness, while also showing that they had most of the skills we needed. I guess that was a “what are your weaknesses” question hidden within a technical skills question.
(UC Berkeley MLIS ’93 / Founder & CEO, Digital Bedrock)
My responses are based on what I would ask people interviewing at Digital Bedrock, not necessarily what would be asked of any candidate at any job:
1. Digital preservation is detailed and complex. Do you have strong attention to detail? Can you remain focused on solving a problem or a particular task without distraction until it is completed perfectly, even if it means you’re sitting at a computer staring at Excel spreadsheets or data for 4 hours straight?
2. I can’t think of one!
3. For my job: Do you have the attitude that “we can’t” is not an acceptable answer? You should always have plans B, C, and sometimes D in your back pocket. [This implies that a person should be well versed with the best/optimal standard practice and associated costs/budgets, but have a dose of reality to identify appropriate compromises for a given situation.]
For a Digital Archivist position: What actions would you take now to ensure the digital content in your care today will be accessible in 100 years? What are the threats you can anticipate, and what are the solutions? [The answers to these questions would tell me more about their experience and knowledge than any resume.]
(University of Michigan, School of Information ’13 / Preservation Manager, Bay Area Video Coalition)
1. “Who are you?” I think if you prepare a really solid answer to this you can look really impressive. You don’t want to make your answer too long, but it’s your chance to put your experience, your skills, and your goals in a narrative that tells your story. Stories are “in” right now. Remember that the interviewers have your resume, so you don’t need to go into excruciating detail about your work experience, but certainly bring up the moments that made you who you are today.
Another question you should be prepared to answer is “When can you start?” Be realistic! If you have to move across the country give yourself time. If they want you they’ll wait, don’t sell yourself short.
2. I often ask people applying for a digitization technician position “What is your favorite TBC.” It’s not super weird, but it ask people to make a personal decision about a technical concept. I ask this for two reasons 1) I want to know if the interviewee is experienced enough with TBCs to have developed a favorite and 2) I want to know that the interviewee has the ability to bring their own humanity to a technical position.
3. Whether I would ask this question depends on the hierarchies or culture of the workplace. However, in my experience, a lot of organizations try to keep themselves and their programs organized through hierarchy, which is why i think this is an important question: “If your boss asks you to do something a certain way and you think there is a better way to do it, how do you proceed?” The appropriate answer may vary depending on the structure and culture of an organization, but in most cases an interviewer at an archive wouldn’t be too happy about somebody saying they would go maverick and go against their boss’s directions.
(UCLA MIAS ’16 / Archive Library Analyst, NBCUniversal)
1. “What makes you unique/what makes you stand out from the other applicants?” Also, have questions to ask at the end of the interview. Your questions don’t necessarily have to pertain to the job itself. You can ask if the company has any professional development opportunities, or questions about the company culture. It’s a great opportunity for you as the interviewee to find out if you think the company would be a good fit for you. Finally, if the job has specific requirements, be prepared with examples of how you know and have used those skills, or how you know something close and have been able to learn new things quickly. For example, if the job description asks for you to know how to make pivot tables in excel, 1) learn how to make pivot tables in excel before the interview and 2) be ready to explain how pivot tables work.
If you have a connection to someone who works at the company you’re applying to, even a friend of a friend, take advantage of that – reach out and ask them if you can give them a quick call to talk about the job. I will always take the time to talk to someone about a potential job in my department (if it’s directly on my team or not), and I’ll almost always pass along the resume of someone who reached out to me. But, do not name drop your connection in a cover letter without reaching out to them and asking permission to do so.
2. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked a super weird question. I think the best interviews I’ve had have been a conversation.
3. I want to make sure applicants have a basic knowledge of the skills needed for the job, and what sets them apart from the other people applying. Also, always send a thank you note after the interview. If you’re able to hand write and mail or deliver the thank you note, even better.
My job is really analysis heavy, so a strong understanding of excel would be crucial, which isn’t always a skill we learn in an MLIS program. Understanding PowerPoint and being able to present in front of people would also be a plus. A general knowledge of physical and digital media formats is also important – understanding the difference between original negatives, interpositives, internegatives and prints; a basic knowledge of tape formats; and what different file formats are. That being said, most of those skills are teachable, so if an applicant was weak in those areas, it wouldn’t automatically disqualify them from the job. Most employers are looking for intangible skills- the ability to learn and pick up on instructions quickly, to be able to adapt to change, to know how to make workflows more efficient, and someone who I wouldn’t mind talking to for hours each day!
Jen O’Leary was the 2015 recipient of the Image Permanence Institute Internship and serves as one of the Chairs for the AMIA Education Committee.
(UCLA MIAS ’14 / Assistant Film Conservator, Harvard University)
1. What about this specific institution/company (i.e. not just the position itself) excites you and motivated you to apply to work for our institution/company?
2. “What do you do when you pop a film core?”
3. In your previous work or educational experience within the archiving field, what has been one of your most successful, interesting, and/or rewarding projects that you have worked on and why?
(Preservation Manager, Moving Image Department, George Eastman Museum)
1. What experience do you have – professionally or personally – working with materials such as nitrate and safety film? What formats have you handled before? Have you ever handled damaged film? Ever repaired it? Give some examples.
2. Looking at this particular job description and your understanding of what this job entails, what would you say is your weakest area? What is your strongest area
3. Excellent communication is a key aspect of this position. The person hired will be part of a team of four people and will be working closely with them, and also interact with the rest of the MID. Some interaction with external customers is also possible. How would you describe your communication skills and your interaction with others? Can you give an example of when your communication skills did make the difference?
(UCLA MIAS ’16 / Lab Assistant, UCLA Film & Television Archive)
1. Be prepared to answer what special qualifications you bring to the job. I personally like to use this questions as a jumping off point to see what kind of unique life experiences the interviewee has had and can apply to the job. So I like moving past the more technical stuff (film handling experience, cataloging experience, experience with DAM systems), which of course is super important, but won’t do much to gauge the character of the interviewee. I especially like to hear about their unique experiences working within and outside the field in order to see how they ended up where they are today. A lot of the day-to-day tasks can be taught, so I ultimately want to answer the simple question: “Can I see myself having a healthy professional relationship with this person for the next few years of my life?”
2. When I interviewed to be an intern for the Nickelodeon Animation Studio I was asked, “If you were a salad dressing, what kind of salad dressing would you be?” I was totally caught off guard, but calmly answered “cranberry balsamic vinaigrette,” because it’s my favorite dressing. I later found out that the internship coordinator used this question to get a better sense of an individual’s personality and to gauge how they reacted to random questions (and curveballs in general). I landed the internship so I’m glad I didn’t say “ranch.”
3. Career advancement within organizations and institutions is super important but unfortunately it’s pretty common to see individuals become stagnant and too comfortable in their respective (often entry level) positions, which in turn, prevents young professionals from entering the workforce. So my question would be, “Given the many possibilities for career advancement within our organization, where do you see yourself in 3 years?”
(UCLA MLIS / Metadata Specialist, The Walt Disney Company)
1. I prepared for a lot of specific questions and then often an interviewer would just say, “Tell me about yourself,” so it’s good to have your personal “elevator pitch” ready. Try, in a few sentences, to state clearly who you are and how you got to where you are. I think it’s helpful to construct a cohesive narrative around your past school and work experience, even if the narrative is, “I tried a lot of different things and got a breadth of experience, “or I tried a lot of things and realized that this kind of work is what I love,” as in my case. Also, if you have previous experience, prepare for questions like “what’s your favorite object that you cataloged or what’s the craziest thing you’ve cataloged?” Those superlative questions are always good conversation fodder.
2. One of the weirdest questions I have been asked is “How do you like to be managed?” It was weird because I spent so much time thinking about what qualifications I might have to make me a fit for the job, that I had never thought about what I want out of my relationship with my manager or supervisor.
3. For a lot of workplaces, personal philosophy and personality are as important as having the requisite professional training. I try to think of questions that gauge a person’s sensibilities. For example, in the past I have asked questions to determine how someone strikes a balance between doing accurate cataloging and taking into account users’ level of knowledge on a subject/their information seeking behavior. I have also tried to find about about an interviewee’s comfort level with idiosyncratic rules, because these are things I deal with regularly at my job.
Kate will be presenting at this year’s AMIA Conference in Portland with our student chapter’s Co-Presidents.
John William O’Neill
(UCLA MLIS MAS ’17 / Neil Young Archives)
1. The old cliché is pretty true: it’s hard to answer broad questions about your weaknesses, and they come up in every interview. It’s a real double trap of a question. I think most people tend to fuck up in one direction or another: either you are too real, and make yourself sound incompetent, lazy, or completely dysfunctional or you sound like a disingenuous asshole, “I can be a bit of a perfectionist; sometimes I work too hard.” This question is a good opportunity to let your interviewer(s) know that you are self-aware, humble, adaptable, and in the process of addressing your weaknesses/improving yourself.
2. I guess “What are your weaknesses?” It’s gonna come up, trust.
3. If you could make a change to the professional culture or widely accepted best practices of archives and media preservation (or, you know, swap out depending on job and institutional context), what would you like to see change and why? —I think it’s a good question for seeing A) how someone thinks on their feet, since this isn’t likely to be one of the questions for which they’ve prepared, and B) where their priorities are, how they view themselves in relation to their professional community, how they contextualize their labor/rationalize its social or historical importance. You can get a good sense of whether you’d like working with someone based on this kind of unexpected, open-ended question, and an under-discussed aspect of the interview that they’re often trying to get a sense if they’re going to like being around you all the time.
If you get a question out of left field, don’t spin out. Take a second to think about how you want to start answering it and then don’t be afraid to think out loud, explain your reasoning, and be conversational.
(NYU MIAP ’13 / Digital Archivist, UCLA Library Special Collections)
1. Almost every interview I’ve been to starts with some version of “Tell me about yourself?” Having a succinct and on-point answer to this question is important since it will start out your interview on the right foot.
2. “Tell me about the last film you saw here and loved.” Not a ‘weird’ question—especially since I was interviewing for a job at a film archive—but one that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be asked.
3. A lot of what we do in processing born-digital archival material involves troubleshooting, so I always ask people interviewing for a position in the digital archives program to describe a technical problem they encountered and then walk me through their approach to troubleshooting it. I don’t care whether the problem described was even resolved. What I’m looking for in an answer is to get a sense of how the candidate approaches a technical issue, whether they’re able to break down the problem into smaller, test-able pieces, and finally how well they’re able to explain a technical problem in lay terms.
Shira was the 2015 recipient of the AMIA Community Fund Travel Grant and 2012 AMIA Sony Pictures Scholarship.
(SVP, Archives at Paramount Pictures)
1. One question I ask is, “Where did you work in high school?” I like hearing about the first job experience people had.
2. Maybe mine is weird 🙂 Honestly, I’ve never been asked a really strange question. I think a good one I got asked early in my career was about science and technology. Often new archivists have a stronger humanities background, and it was a good question because science and technology have been a large and rewarding part of my career.
3. I might ask them about their favorite film/tv show/doc/video in detail. It shows me their interests in how these things get made and that is a huge help as an archivist – understanding moving image production.
(Studied Film + Photography Preservation and Collections Management at Ryerson University ’18 / Archive Technician, NYU MIAP Cinema Studies Archive)
1.In every interview I had I was asked, “Tell us about yourself” and “Why do you want this job?” Every time I wasn’t prepared for it because I was so focused on really technical answers. Don’t overthink it. You’re probably interviewing with people who don’t often perform interviews. Keep it simple.
2. How would you explain this job to a 3 year old?
3. “Tell us about a time you fixed a piece of equipment?” Or I would come up with a specific question about each format they would be working with.
While talking to Blanche about this post, she forwarded me the Twitter thread below, which has some great questions if you’re being interviewed for a position in a library context. Take a look MLIS peeps! Blanche also serves as the Student Liaison for the AMIA Education Committee.
(UCLA MLIS ’01 / MLIS Program Manager, UCLA Department of Information Studies)
1. “What interests you about this job?” It’s the first thing I want to know when someone is asking me to serve as a reference, and I’m honestly surprised how often it seems to take people off guard. You might be able to default to the good ol’ “I believe my skills and experience make me an excellent fit for this position” stance in your cover letter and not get dinged for it. When you’re face to face with the person who might soon be your boss, though, and they ask you this, you should have something more substantive to say–about the nature of the work, the setting, the chance to deploy or develop key skills, how it’s a natural next step in your career that you’re totally ready for, etc. (Helpful hint: “I need the money” may be 100% true, but it is not an ideal answer to this question.)
2. An interviewer once asked me a VERY specific hypothetical question–the answer to which would have been totally dependent on a lot of factors I’d only be able to weigh when I’d become well-versed in the job, so I felt like it was impossible to give a specific response! I opted to just describe two or three of the factors I could see being important in that hypothetical situation, and then said “I’m confident that I could make a good call under pressure when there are conflicting priorities–does that answer your question?” To which the interviewer responded–I kid you not–with an exasperated sigh and “I’m just TRYING to get a sense of what your COMPUTER skills are like.” The hypothetical situation did not involve computers in any way, so I was very confused by this, and felt off-balance for the rest of the interview. Later, they offered me the job, and I actually turned it down. What I learned from this: Interview(er)s can be very weird, and it’s OK to turn jobs down.
3. “What are you really good at, and what are you really terrible at?” There’s no right or wrong answer to either of those, by the way. Even if you’re terrible at something that I think is pretty crucial to the job, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t hire you–especially if you seem willing to improve as needed. And if you’re best at something that won’t be part of the job at all, that doesn’t necessarily make you a bad fit for it, either. Ideally, a job will have a lot of elements you can do well from day one, while still providing you with some room to grow and learn. Your answer to question like this gives me a sense of what you’re bringing to the job as well as what you might get from it. If I’m interviewing multiple candidates and I ask them all the same question, I’ll have a good idea of what the trade offs will be for each of them, since everyone represents a different mix!
(UCLA MIAS ’09 / Archivist, USC School of Cinematic Arts, Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive)
1. I would think along the lines of why this field, why archiving, what are your goals in this field, etc… because it illustrates whether or not you are a good risk, or have the missing info that a biz needs.
2. What animal would you be?
3. For my particular job overseeing an entire archive that runs on a small budget I would ask them for examples of problem solving such as, “OK lets suppose that you take over an archive that has 50,000 films, 20,000 video tapes and 30,000 pieces of paper and no equipment. What would be your initial plan of action to deal with the material? Based on how they answer would tell me if they are qualified. If they start talking about grants for digitization, etc I would know immediately that this archive is going to eat them alive.
Dino was the 2007 recipient of the AMIA CFI Sid Solow Scholarship, and has mentored countless students from the UCLA program, providing them with hands on experience with moving image media.
Susan P. Etheridge
(UCLA MIAS ’14 / Film Lab Specialist, Packard Humanities Institute)
1. The one question that people should prepare for, and will probably be in every interview is, “So tell me about yourself.” Granted, that’s not a literal question, but it’s something that I’ve had to respond to in every single interview. That’s why having a prepared elevator speech is so important. It lets you rattle off things about yourself without having to sit and ponder while the interviewer taps their toes.
2. I haven’t had super weird questions. I’ve had interviewers think that they know about the position that I’m applying for, even when they have archival experience, and throw out a question that doesn’t make sense during the interview. When that happened it really stumped me, and I didn’t know how to respond without insulting the interviewer, or seeming like I didn’t have experience. I wish I had prepared for how to handle that situation. It was a job that I really wanted and didn’t get.
3. If I were to ask only one question to someone interviewing for my position or for an assistantship, I would ask them what led them to choose this field and to apply for this job. I would be looking for passion over expertise or knowledge. I can teach people the skills that they need for this job, but if they don’t have the passion, then they’ll never learn. A lot of what my job entails as a film technician is patience and adroit hands. That can come with time on the job, but if someone isn’t passionate, they won’t bother to pick up those skills. Technical knowledge is important too, but that also comes with time and passion will give someone the curiosity they will need to seek out the technical knowledge.
(L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation ’00 /
Film Preservationist, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Film Archive)
1. Well, I think deep tech knowledge is not really the most important thing. That can be learned. I think project management is really important, also organizational skills, people skills, flexibility and personal initiative. I know that these are some of the more prized qualities in our preservation staff. I think one of my strengths is that I’m not a hardcore archivist.
I think it’s important to know the identity, mission and priorities of the place you’re applying to. Ideally, you should share some of those personally and, by extension, in the interview process it’s a good idea to express that to the interviewer (i.e. that your own aims, values, goals, etc. are aligned at least somewhat with the organization [you’re being interviewed for]).
2. I don’t think I’ve never really been asked a weird question, but since 2000 I’ve only had two interviews! Canyon and here.
3. If I were leaving this specific job, and were able to interview the possible replacements, I would want someone who had a lot of balance (i.e. isn’t super tech-focused or super access-focused only, but has overall enthusiasm and ideas for all the facets of the job). It would have to be someone who could think creatively, but have a clarity to their approach that really understands the terms of the films and filmmakers, as well as archival terms. Confident but not egotistical. Someone who doesn’t miss the forest for the trees, but who can remain aware of and sensitive to the unique details and needs of each project: able to understand tendencies and patterns without trying to force those patterns onto other projects where they may not be ideal.
(UCLA MLIS ’09 / Cataloging Supervisor, UCLA Film & Television Archive)
1. One of the most common question asked of interviewees is, “Why are you interested in applying for this position?” Everyone should be able to explain why they are applying for a specific job, and express what they could bring to the role and also what they hope to gain from the experience.
2. I don’t think I have ever been asked a weird question, but I have been asked questions that are unrelated to the position and my previous experience. For example, someone on an interview panel once asked me if I could have any job in the world (and money was not the issue) what would it be.
3. Since I would be interviewing someone for a cataloging position, I would ask questions related to the skills required for cataloging. That includes both hard and soft skills. One of the questions I always like to ask candidates is if they prefer to work independently or as part of a team. Aside from attending meetings and workshops, cataloging jobs require many hours of working independently. We generally don’t interact with the public like reference librarians often do. Candidates should be able to think about what type of work environment they would thrive in and answer the question as best they can.
(Library Services Assistant, Archives at The University of British Columbia Okanagan)
1. Definitely be prepared to answer practical questions (i.e. What are the steps you would take when processing a collection?). Some places require you to do some kind of skill test alongside your interview as well. I had to do two short tests directly after my interview.
I’d also say do your homework on the institution your interviewing at and be prepared to answer questions about what you know about the institution.
2. Not necessarily weird, more pleasantly surprising, I was asked how I have/would champion diversity and inclusion at work.
3. I haven’t started my job yet so it’s harder for me to speculate. I would probably ask something like, “A user asks you a reference question about a subject you are not familiar with. How would you serve that user?”
After listening to Magnus’s interview on Archivist’s Alley I also asked them if they could provide some advice for those interviewing from the LGBTQ+ community:
“My main piece of advice for anyone interviewing from the LGBTQ+ community, or really anyone interviewing that belongs to a marginalized community, would be to not let imposter syndrome get in your way. I almost didn’t apply for my position at all because I was worried that I wasn’t qualified enough, even though I totally was. Going into my interview, and now that I’m on the job, I still have a lot of imposter syndrome and worry that I’m not good enough, or that I’ll mess it up or something. One thing that Blanche would always remind me is that cis het white guys apply for, and get!, jobs that they aren’t qualified for all the time! And that we, as marginalized folks, miss out on those opportunities because we feel that we aren’t good enough. The other thing, that is increasingly being talked about now, is that a lot of job postings in our field are often looking for “unicorn” candidates, being candidates that either don’t exist or that the institution can’t reasonably afford. I find this goes hand in hand with imposter syndrome to keep “diverse” candidates away from jobs and institutions that they have every right to be in. So I guess the takeaway is, apply for the jobs that you want and don’t get too hung up on qualifications (unless it’s a big stretch obviously) and have the confidence of a white cis het man!
The other thing I would say is that there is a national conversation happening right now, both in Canada and the U.S., about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. As a result, most institutions are interested in hiring people from marginalized populations and, as mentioned in my previous email, this was even discussed during my interview. I’m not going to lie, there will always be disadvantages. There will always be people that will not call you in for an interview because they read your name, or they clocked you somehow, or they don’t like that you worked for community organizations in the past. This happens all the time and I’ve dealt with my fair share of it, albeit before I started grad school. But there is a shift happening and none of my friends who are marginalized and in the moving image archiving field have had any problems finding employment after graduation, which has been a really pleasant surprise.”