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New Librarians and the Civil Service Exam

by on June 1, 2013

As a student at Syracuse University it is natural I seek future library positions in New York state.  According to the New York Library Association public librarians are public employees, and as such fall under the civil service laws.[1]  I applied for a librarian certificate and when a civil service exam was issued in one of the counties, I applied to take it. The fee was small, but I wonder now if it was a waste of money.  According to the exam I met the minimum qualifications, but I had never worked at a public library in a professional role, and while I presume this was true of every MLIS recipient at some point, I did not realize that this might mean that I was ineligible for a Librarian I  position, and in fact that it might be illegal for a library to hire me in this capacity.

The New York Civil Service Law is in place for the following reason: “to help ensure that the hiring process is competitive and fair.”[2]  While this is a noble effort, the problem is that one aspect of the law, for the Librarian I position specifically, makes it impossible for librarians without prior public library experience to be eligible for many positions.

One of the primary principles of the New York civil service exam is the “rule of three,” which states that in order for a candidate to be eligible for a position they must be in the top three scores received.[3] For an objective test this would provide an opportunity for only the most competent applicants to be given an opportunity.  The benefit of limiting any cronyism would likely outweigh any loss of autonomy felt by the institution. The problem with many of these tests and specifically with the Librarian 1 exam, is that they do not objectively measure competency for a specific task.  In fact, the “exam” is basically a CV with possession of a master’s degree and years of experience post-graduation seemingly holding the greatest sway on the score given.

This creates the problem that it does not link specific skills to eligibility.  Would years of being a children’s librarian be of greater value on being a successful cataloger than taking courses, working at internships, and library staff positions in cataloging? This dissociation between passions, skills, and projects not only undermines job applicants, but can also create a situation where a library cannot hire anyone, because the only candidates who meet their qualification are not eligible due to the examination.

Within New York state there are also free and association libraries that do not fall under civil service.[4]  I bring these up to highlight successful libraries in New York that follow a different hiring mechanism.  In a recent conversation with a director of a free library, it was stated that in determining a fit for the library, passions and projects play a far greater role than years of experience, where the applicant went to school or their GPA.  Another example of a library that does not use the civil service exam to vet candidates is Fayetteville Free Library  which has recently received a tremendous amount of acknowledgments, awards, and grants.  Much of their staff have come directly out of library programs.  New York librarians can find tremendous success without first holding professional positions in other states or in a temporary capacity.

Finally, the civil service exam is not a good mechanism for narrowing the selection process.   According to the Monroe County Exam Information forty-eight applicants scored 100, and one hundred four applicants were within the scope of the rule of three.[5]  What it does not show is how many individuals took the exam or how much lower #105 was to #104.  What is clear is that only those on this list can legally be hired for openings in public libraries that are subject to the exam. This means that not only does the exam create an exclusionary atmosphere, it also does not have a significant impact on the number of resumes a library needs to consider.

The goal of any hiring process should be that it fairly brings in the candidate who best meets the needs of their future institution. I believe that at its best the current civil service exam is antiquated. At worst, it is discriminatory against new professionals and undermines the autonomy of libraries. I close with two questions: One, am I missing something or misrepresenting the civil service process?  What hiring policies exist elsewhere, and how can we make the process more equitable and transparent everywhere? Feel free to leave your insights and opinions in the comments below.


[1]“Librarians Guide to Civil Service.” UPSEU Professional Issues. Accessed April 26, 2013. http://www.upseu.org/?zone=/unionactive/view_article.cfm&HomeID=102205&page=Professional20Issues.

[2] “DCAS – Work for the City – The Civil Service System.” New York City Citywide Administrative Services.  Accessed April 26, 2013. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/html/work/civilservice.shtml

[3]“After I Take the Examination » Department of Civil Service.” New York State Department of Civil Services.  Accessed April 26, 2013. http://www.cs.ny.gov/jobseeker/faq/scorenotices.cfm#howistheeligible.

[4] “Types of Public Libraries: A Comparison.”  New York State Library.  Accessed May 24, 2013.  http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/libs/pltypes.htm

[5] . “Librarian 1 Exam Information.”  Monroe County.gov.  Accessed April 26, 2013. http://www.monroecounty.gov/mccs/lists/view/4014.

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3 comments

  1. Geoffrey Kirkpatrick says:

    Apr 25, 2014

    This is almost a year old now, so I don’t know if it’s worth replying. Matthew, most of your information about civil service in NY libraries is correct. I just wanted to point out that there seems to be several ways for recent graduates without “professional” librarian experience to score 100 on the NYS Librarian 1 exam. Continuing education, participation in library-related committees, and certain internships can also help you reach this score. I’ve worked with many recent graduates and looked over the results and scores of their exams. Civil service can seem daunting, but if you understand more than your peers, you’ll be ahead of the game.

  2. Jim says:

    Oct 27, 2014

    Might I suggest that a person take a low level job (such as in maintenance, or custodial) at the place where you want to work….. get hired under civil service. Become an internal candidate. I don’t care if 500 people score 100 on the exam or they have the most prestigious library degrees . In most cases, the institution will take the “internal hire” with a masters degree, over the people on the street any day of the week. They already know you, and Human Resources knows you, and chances are you will have cleaned the library you will eventually work in. An approach to smart humbleness, in an era where making connections is more important than the thousands of masters degrees floating around.

  3. James says:

    Aug 30, 2016

    I am from the area ( Monroe County ) that you spoke of in your exam. I have 16 years in NYS retirement system in previous Maintenance positions via SUNY and the Department of corrections. One thing you didn’t mention regarding experience is that the lower jobs in libraries, such as Library page, Clerk, and Library Assistant positions are in fact protected by Residency requirements. BUT the Librarian 1 positions are not. This means that since I live Outside of the county where the lower jobs are, I am not eligible for those positions, because I do not live there. HOWEVER – I DO qualify for the Librarian 1, since they say they have a problem getting candidates. Which is BS, since there are so many on the list. Its crazy to know that the lower jobs, the ones where you can gain entry level experience, are not available to some MLS graduates, yet they want experienced Librarians, but one who has the MLS can come in from day 1, and be the boss of a Clerk who has worked in that Library for 20 years. Its a stupid system.

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