Vol. V, Issue 3, June 28, 2007
Depending on Student Employees: A Win-Win-Win Situation
Joyce Salisbury, Public Support Specialist, Central Michigan University
Student assistants are an integral part of an academic library, yet there is a continuing debate over what role they should play in the library and even the value of hiring students at all. Library literature dating at least as far back as 1930 discusses hiring and training students in academic libraries (Smith, 1930). The Journal of Library Administration devoted its July-August 1995 issue to the topic of “Libraries and Student Assistants.” The problem appears to be how to mold a capable, motivated workforce out of what is essentially a transient flow of humanity. Two recent articles confront the issue from diametrically opposed points of view and, unsurprisingly, come to two very different conclusions.
The difference in their approaches is apparent from the titles of the articles to the concluding paragraphs. Bella Karr Gerlich (2002) says in the opening paragraph of her article “Rethinking the Contributions of Student Employees” that “students are costly in terms of money, time and training—and most often their output is not worth the expense” (p. 146). Lynn N. Baird’s attitude is quite different and is apparent from the title of her article, “Student Employees in Academic Libraries: Training for Work, Educating for Life.” She concludes her short article by saying, “We fervently hope that we have been more successful in enriching their educational experience than we have their bank accounts” (Baird, 2003, p. 23).
Gerlich and Baird are both librarians in university libraries and yet their attitude toward hiring student assistants is completely different. Gerlich approaches the issue from a purely monetary viewpoint – is the quality of output worth the dollar amount spent. Baird views the students’ employment in the library as a positive part of their college career, an enhancement of their education as well as an employment opportunity.
The goal, then, is to bring these viewpoints together. How can we make it economically worthwhile to hire and train student assistants while creating an experience that makes the job more than something that helps pay the rent? How can we make this a Win-Win-Win situation? This is not an impossible dream. Clark (1995) says, “Like permanent staff, students take pride in their jobs and they want to feel that they are contributing to the success of the organization” (p. 88).
Let’s look at the “pitfalls” Gerlich identifies in hiring student assistants: “high turnover, poor attendance, lack of understanding, and irresponsibility—to name but a few” (Gerlich, 2002, p. 147). High turnover rate is a built-in fact of life on an academic campus. Four years is generally the longest you can hope to keep even the best student employees, but there is no reason to lose students regularly for reasons other than graduation. The other problems, lack of understanding, poor attendance and irresponsibility, are a matter of training, motivation and communication. University students are intelligent adults. If they were not attending college, they would be working in the “real world,” where such behavior would not be tolerated. By effective training and communication and by holding high expectations for your students, these disciplinary problems can be minimized.
Student Help at CMU
At the Park Library at Central Michigan University, the Reference Department depends upon its student employees to staff both the Information Desk and the Printing Station at the Reference Desk. We have a system of hiring, training, communicating and motivating students that is well established and runs smoothly. More importantly, it works. We continually have an excellent group of students. Our turnover rate is low and our students are committed to providing quality service and solving patron problems. They support each other, taking shifts when one of their peers needs time off. They appreciate the fact that working in the library enhances their educational experience in addition to the income it provides.
The public stations staffed by students play a key role in serving our patrons, primarily the students, faculty and staff of the university. The job duties are very different at these two stations, but our student staff (which numbers about 17 students at any one time) is cross-trained to work at either desk. The Information Desk is the first point of contact for many visitors at the Park Library. The student who works at this desk functions as a greeter, answers simple directional questions and acts as a security presence to make sure that books are not removed from the library without having been checked out and to make sure that patrons do not enter the library with drinks in improper containers. Duty at this desk requires constant diligence, making eye contact with patrons and offering them a friendly greeting. The students should appear approachable, as though their only purpose there is to serve the patron. This student cannot leave their station for even a moment.
The duties for the students working at the Reference Desk are more varied. The primary duty is to assist patrons with our network printing system. This involves setting up printing accounts and troubleshooting. They also assist patrons having trouble with our compact shelving when it becomes stuck. In addition, they are trained to help patrons find books in our OPAC and articles in our databases, though these duties are reserved for those times when a trained librarian is not on duty, generally later at night. When the research problem goes beyond their training, they refer the patron to a librarian for further assistance. The two desks have very different paces and the students’ trade places periodically to avoid boredom.
Our system logically falls into four distinct parts: hiring, training, communications, and rewards/ motivation.
The library is a desirable place for students to work so we receive hundreds of applications to choose from. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is important to have selection criteria in mind when you are faced with such a stack of applications. The primary criterion in the Reference Department is that the student has taken our Introduction to the Library course (LIB 197). This is a one-credit course which teaches students how to use the resources of the library including the online catalog and research databases; how to evaluate websites; recognizing and avoiding plagiarism; copyright and fair use issues; government documents, and library classification systems. This requirement alone narrows the field greatly. We then seek feedback about the students’ performance in the class. The instructors who teach LIB 197 are reference librarians so they know the requirements for the job and have a good idea of how the student will handle the duties.
Another selection criterion that narrows the field even further is to look for second-semester freshmen or sophomores. Since our training program is extensive, ideally we will keep the students for three or four years once we have trained them.
One final piece of data is considered, though it is more of a “pulling the applicant to the top of the pack” than a requirement. Many of the applicants have worked in libraries before, either in their school or public libraries. This experience indicates that they have an idea of the duties involved and have demonstrated a willingness and ability to perform them.
Ensuring that the students know up-front what their job duties will be and what your expectations are can improve retention rates (Wilder, 1990). This can be done through detailed job descriptions or through a series of “pre-employment activities” as suggested by Kathman and Kathman (2002,) such as “a letter welcoming students to the staff and outlining expectations, a schedule of orientation sessions, policy and procedure manuals or self-study/programmed instruction materials to read prior to the first day on the job” (p. 178).
Once the students are interviewed, each candidate is assessed based on their answers to our questions and other factors such as their self-confidence, assertiveness and their “fit” with the requirements of the job.
We hire new students toward the end of the semester before they will actually be assigned desk shifts. An intensive training process begins, for which the students are paid. The students go through approximately 10 to 12 hours of resource training which is conducted by our Instruction Librarian. They learn how to read a record from our OPAC to determine a book’s status and location, how to interpret call numbers in both the LC and the SuDocs systems. They receive in-depth instruction in the organization of our databases and the resources available in our Virtual Reference collection. An important part of this resource training is to define their role in serving patrons in regards to reference questions. They learn exactly what their limits are and when a trained librarian should take over. Additional training focuses on our patron printing system and how to troubleshoot the problems that arise with the system. It is also during training that we instill in them our expectations for their behavior, the importance of being on-time and the consequences of missed shifts, dress codes, the timekeeping system and other details of employment.
In addition to the resource training, the new student employees shadow our experienced students at both desks for a total of 18 to 23 hours. This gives them a feel for what the job entails and the types of questions and problems that are likely to arise. These training and shadowing sessions are required. To ensure that each student adequately completes each section, a detailed checklist tracks the components of the training program. Janice Burrows (1995) points out that a training checklist achieves three things. It “provides a generally familiar method of assuring that all bases are covered and that trainer and trainee maintain a mutual understanding of the process and its results; promotes fairness, uniformity, understanding and utilizes time to best advantage; and provides a stalwart support for the supervisor for whom training may not be a major strength” (p. 83).
Once students have completed the training and the shadowing, they have the option of picking up shifts that other students need a replacement for; however, they are not officially scheduled until the following semester.
Training continues throughout the student’s employment in the library. As databases, printing processes and other technical or procedural changes occur, sessions are held. Monthly student meetings, scheduled at a time that the majority of students can make it and for which they are paid, are an excellent venue for communicating changes and training for new procedures.
Students are evaluated at the end of every year. This can be viewed as a continuation of the training process. During the evaluation session, both positive and negative feedback is given. We let them know what they have done that is desirable and remind them of where they have faltered. These problems are addressed as they arise, so the evaluation process is more reminder and reinforcement than anything else. A thorough, accurate job description can help in the evaluation process as well. Kathman and Kathman (2000) point out that “clear performance measures should be established” for the student positions based on the job descriptions for those positions. These performance measures are important to identify the key job elements for training and will be helpful in the sequencing of training” (p. 178).
Maintaining a Communications Network
With a diverse group of students working at different hours of the day and night, it is imperative to have a method of communication for the entire group – student to student, supervisor to student and student to supervisor. An email distribution list is ideal. We can communicate information quickly and efficiently. The distribution list is used extensively by students looking for replacements for shifts or trading shifts when necessary. Such lists are easy to set up and require very little attention except at the beginning and end of the semester as student staff changes.
Some libraries use blogs to enhance communication among their staff. Blogs are excellent ways of reporting how difficult questions or problems have been dealt with. And, of course, there is the traditional logbook at the service desk for staff members to record problems and solutions for other staff members to read as they come on duty.
A big part of the reason for high turnover rates for library student staff members is that many of the jobs assigned to students are routine and can become boring with time. It is for this reason that our students trade back and forth between the Information Desk and the Reference Desk. At the Reference Desk, there are constantly patrons needing assistance, so students there are regularly challenged to deal with a variety of issues. At certain times of the day, especially late at night when there is not a librarian on duty, students have more responsibility. At these times, they help other students find research information. Even in this situation, though, they are instructed to fill out referral slips for any question that goes beyond a basic database search. A select few of our students become “advanced” students which require additional training. They are then eligible to give basic bibliographic instruction sessions for high school classes and other non-university groups. Not only does this give the student extra resume material, it is excellent preparation for their career. One of our former CMU students, wrote: “Giving the instructional sessions. . . has given me skills that I will retain for life. . . such as the ability to feel comfortable and competent speaking in front of a group of people” (Wilinski, n.d., para. 12.).
As important as a paycheck is for students, it isn’t enough. Charlene Clark (1995) wrote an entire article on "Motivating and Rewarding Student Workers.” There are endless ways to do this. She lists both big and small ways, from costly to almost free. Her options range from setting up an endowment to fund scholarships for library student staff members to rewarding them with bookplates for library books to recognize their service.
At the Park Library, rewards come from the top down. The Dean of Libraries goes out of his way to become acquainted with each student. During Student Appreciation Week at the end of every semester, he presents each student who has achieved four or more semesters of work in the library with a certificate and a bookplate with their name on it to put in a book of their choice in the library. This bookplate recognizes their service to the library. This reinforces the attitude that the students are important to the library. In addition to this, the Reference Department staff puts on a lavish spread of food for its students during Student Appreciation Week. They come in throughout the day to eat and socialize when they aren’t working. Finally, every student who graduates while working in the library is honored at a Graduating Seniors reception. They receive a certificate and gift as a memento of their service to the library.
Student employees are important to the library. The library could hardly operate without them. “Often in libraries the first person that a patron meets is a student employee, usually at the circulation desk. These student employees contribute significantly to the image of the library and the delivery of library services. Thus, library student employees should be considered ambassadors of the library and often ambassadors of the larger institution to guests on campus” (Kathman and Kathman, 2000, p. 176). It is important that they know they are important to the organization. It is even more important that they know that YOU know they are important. This goes above and beyond the four categories of hiring, training, communicating and rewarding. It is apparent in your daily attitude. It is treating the students with respect. This is not to say that problems will never arise, but student staff members, like all of us, tend to live up to, or down to, what is expected of them.
So, how is this a Win-Win-Win situation? The library could not function without its student employees. The student at the Information Desk is essential. The library cannot be open without someone staffing this station. Having trained students to help with routine directional questions and printing problems, frees the trained librarians to handle reference questions, to spend more time with our patrons who need help with their research. It is essential to make sure the students understand the vital role they play in the operation of the library. They are adults and if they are treated like adults, they will take their role seriously and be responsible staff members.
The win for the students, above and beyond a paying job, is that they get experience in a work situation. They have great responsibility placed upon them and they learn good work ethics. They learn that they need to be on time and that they can’t just not show up whenever they want to. Also, many of them decide they want to continue in the library field, so this is good training and a good resume builder. It provides them with references from people who know them in a work situation, not just a classroom situation. As the student above mentioned, she received experience in public speaking, a valuable asset in the work world. And, of course, they “increase their knowledge of the library and its resources” (Kathman and Kathman, 2000, p. 182). They have a definite edge over other students when it comes to conducting research for their classes. Another CMU student, writing in the 1970s in the Michigan Librarian, said “working in the Reference Department while attending school is almost like getting a double education” (Goodrich, 1972, p. 25).
The third winner in this Win-Win-Win situation is our patrons. There is a position dedicated to help them with their printing problems. For this reason, trained librarians can spend more time helping them with their research problems because they are not interrupted frequently to help someone print a paper or unstick a stuck shelf.
Yes, students are, by necessity, a revolving-door employment resource, but they are an essential resource. When hired as freshmen or sophomores, trained continuously and appreciated for the value they bring to the institution, they are a valuable resource. However, anyone who depends on student employees has to learn to say good-bye to valued employees and friends on a fairly regular basis.
Avila, A., Ford, C. and Hamre, R. (2005). Library training day: Developing an effective academic library student training program. Library Mosaics, 16 (1), 18-19.
Baird, L.N. (2003). Student employees in academic libraries: Training for work, educating for life. PNLA Quarterly, 67 (2), 13.
Burrows, J.H. (1995). Training student workers in academic libraries: how and why? Journal of Library Administration, 21 (3-4), 77-86.
Clark, C. K. (1995). Motivating and rewarding student workers. Journal of Library Administration, 21 (3-4), 87-93.
Gerlich, B.K. (2002). Rethinking the contributions of student employees to library services. Library Administration and Management, 16 (3), 146-150.
Goodrich, S. (1972). No, I'm not a librarian, but may I help you? Michigan Librarian, 38 (Winter 1972), 24-25.
Gregory, D. (1995). The evolving role of student employment: Organizing for student employment in academic libraries. Journal of Library Administration, 21 (3-4), 3-27.
Kathman, J.M. and Kathman, M.D. (2000). Training student employees for quality service. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 26 (3), 176-182.
Libraries and Student Assistants: Critical Links. (1995). Journal of Academic Librarianship, 21 (3-4).
Marks, S. and Gregory, D. (1995). Student employment in academic libraries: recommended readings and resources. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 21 (3-4), 161-176.
Randall, W.M. & Goodrich, F.L.D. (1936). Principles of College Library Administration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Russell, T. (1995). Student employment manuals. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 21 (3-4), 95-108. Gives detailed guidelines on what to include in a student manual.
Smith, J.J. (1930). Training of student assistants in small college libraries." Library Journal, 5, 307.
White, E. (1985). Student assistants in academic libraries: From reluctance to reliance." The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 11 (2). 93-97.
Wilder, S.N. (1990). Library jobs and student retention. College and Research Library News, 51, 1035-1038.
Wilder, S.N. (1995). Student assistants: Achieving the right balance. Journal of Library Administration, 21 (3-4), 125-135.
Wilinski, C. Library instruction as conducted by student workers: a personal reflection. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from http://www.libraryinstruction.com/student.html.