Working With Undergraduate Student Employees: An Appreciation

At my library we are celebrating “student appreciation week” this week, and it’s got me thinking about the wonderful students I work with, and all of the ways that my own position has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of supervising them.

I am the junior member of a two-woman librarian staff in my library unit.  My job description includes hiring, training and supervising the 5-6 person undergraduate staff that works for us.  So I assumed that when I was hired, I would act as a kind of “bad-cop” or “vice-principal”; that is, that my job would involve a lot of nagging people to do their job, and taking corrective action if/when they did not.  I know it sounds strange, but I didn’t really think about the upsides!

I’m happy to report that supervising students is quite different than I expected.  Our crew is a self-selected bunch of high achievers, who applied for jobs with us because they are constantly studying in the Research Commons anyway.  In addition to taking great pride in their work for the library, they are also a deeply hilarious, bright, and inquisitive group of people.  I really enjoy conducting interviews, managing trainings, and writing recommendations, and I find that these activities offer unexpected rewards in the form of opportunities to reflect on my work, notice issues in the workflow, or discover new ways to articulate our mission.

As is common in many libraries today, the Research Commons Help Desk is staffed by student employees the majority of the time. We rely on our students completely to be our public face.  This makes sense in an area like the Research Commons, where we do not have a print collection, and reference interactions are limited. Help Desk interactions typically consist of equipment checkout and directional questions. However, the Research Commons is very busy, particularly now, as winter quarter draws to a close. The traffic doesn’t slow down on weekends and evenings, when most of the librarians go home. It is therefore essential that our student staff be prepared to exercise sound judgement in a variety of situations.

As their supervisor, I find that modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the behavior that is expected of our students is a big job. For example, a student that I supervise was recently called upon to assist emergency personnel in a crisis situation that occurred in our facility during our evening hours.  It was a tremendous relief to realize that the student was prepared to act appropriately in that situation. Coping with the trauma of that event and supporting that student and the rest of the team thought the uncertainty that it caused has been difficult, but it has also provided an opportunity for our staff to come together as a group.

Ultimately, I am very grateful for the contributions of our student staff.  Incredibly, a couple of them have even expressed an interest in librarianship as a profession.  Does that make me a role-model?!  It’s an identity that feels weird to me, but I’m starting to get used to it.

Getting Started with Instruction

This semester marks a significant step for me as I’m finally getting into doing instruction sessions on my own. Throughout last fall, I observed a lot of instruction sessions from several librarians and across a range of subjects. I also co-taught a handful of classes with a colleague, but it wasn’t until this month that I took on my own instruction sessions. I’m really glad I did some co-teaching already, because I was definitely nervous at the time and it’s good to have that out of the way now (for the most part).

In a short span of time I have done a handful of sessions, and not one of them the same. I started writing detailed reflections of all the instruction I have done so far – what I did, what worked, what didn’t work, what I would do differently next time, etc. – and while that is incredibly useful for me personally, I will refrain from posting the entire detailed accounts here! However, I will give a quick run-down:

  • So far I have done one-shots for two sections of Rhetoric, a course that’s required of all undergraduate students, but which can vary a lot depending on the instructor. For one section, their assignment was concept-mapping and researching potential careers based on their majors; the other section needed to find images to use for a visual analysis. Like I said, interesting stuff going on that was fun to work with!
  • I did a workshop in collaboration with TRiO, an organization that works with first-generation students. Part of the goal was to send them out into the stacks in a safe, no-pressure situation, so that they can avoid the “panic moment” later on when they really need to find something. Attendance was pretty low as expected, because it wasn’t required for a course, but some good discussion came out of it nonetheless.
  • Large groups of middle school students visit our library throughout the year to do primary research for the National History Day competition, and on one occasion I gave a 15-minute introduction. I kept it simple with just basic information and demonstrating SmartSearch – it was fun to switch gears for a bit for a much different audience than usual.
  • And most recently I gave an Express Workshop on how to use and make infographics. Express Workshops are weekly 30-minute workshops held in an open area in the Learning Commons, with a different topic and presenter every week.

I’m glad to have such a variety of classes to work with – for one thing, it keeps things interesting, and for another, I think it’s more challenging (in a good way) than if I were repeating basically the same session. However, the planning has been difficult at times.

A lot of the difficulties may come down to time management and figuring out my own process. I planned ahead as much as possible, but often felt like I was really getting prepared when time was down to the wire. I wanted to have lesson plans laid out a good deal ahead of time and prevent the stress of procrastination, but it was difficult for me to focus on future sessions when there were others to take place first – especially since these were my actual first instruction sessions ever. I think my planning problems stem in part from the fact that this is a much busier time of year than I expected it would be!

I can’t wait to get to the point where I’ve done enough instruction that I’m more confident with the whole process, from planning, to delivery, and assessment. When planning a session I consider many possible options and what would be most effective, and then still tend to question my decisions on what to include and how to conduct the session. I already feel a little more confident in my teaching abilities than I did even a month ago, and I know that the rest will take some more time and practice.

Does anyone else have similar concerns? Do you plan ahead, or do you work better under pressure? How much time does it take to plan a session?

Navigating a New Campus

One of the challenges I’ve encountered as a new academic librarian – that I’m sure other new professionals can relate to – is navigating the campus outside the library. I don’t mean physically navigating (although we all may get lost in a new building every once in a while), but figuring out the connections between various units and departments.

This particular issue stands out for me because I haven’t had to deal with it before – or at least, not in a very long time. Although I was in my last position for only a little over a year, I already knew the library and the university very well by the time I started in that position. This was the university I attended as an undergraduate, where I worked as a student assistant in Interlibrary Loan for my four years at the school, and later went on to work part-time in Special Collections while I was in graduate school. By the time I was a full-time employee, I was already familiar with the library and many of the people who worked there.

Having gone to school there as an undergraduate gave me a lot of prior knowledge about the university, which meant I didn’t have to worry about “figuring out” the campus when I began working there in my first full-time library job. Thanks to my experience as a student there, I already had a thorough understanding of how the campus worked in so many aspects – colleges and degree programs, various units and departments, the traditions and history of the school, and the general sense of “who does what around here.” In comparison to my previous experience, it’s clear now just how helpful it is to have that knowledge of the whole campus – something I’m sure I took for granted at the time. Now that I’m in a new position at a different university, I no longer have the advantage of already knowing “how things work” and “who does what.”

Getting a sense of the campus at large is something that has to be learned and pieced together over time. Not everything is going to make sense right away, which is why it is so important to ask questions, and to ask many people. I think that is an obvious bit of advice for anyone, but it can’t be said too much. My point of “knowing your campus” and “figuring out how things work” may be coming across a bit vague – that’s because it’s different for everybody and varies depending on the academic institution, and the individual’s job and responsibilities.

My recent venture into working with International Programs is an example of what I’m talking about. There is no one at the library designated as a liaison to International Programs, so I have taken on the project of looking at how we are currently serving international students and how we might serve them better. Upon investigating the International Programs website, I discovered that it consists of several sub-units, and it was unclear who I should contact to talk about creating a connection between international students and the library.

Although I didn’t fully understanding the structure of International Programs or who I should contact, I still had to take some sort of action to get the ball rolling (in this case, starting string of emails asking the same questions to multiple people didn’t seem like the best course of action) . Fortunately, I saw that the International Students Orientation was coming up soon, and was able to get myself on the agenda for a 5-10 minute presentation. I’m really excited that I was able to talk to the students at orientation, and it was great way to start strengthening our connection with this student community – now they have at least had an introduction to the library and know that they can ask librarians for help. It was also helpful for me as a chance to meet someone from International Programs in person and have a quick conversation, the result of which was a better understanding of International Student and Scholar Services (a sub-unit of International Programs) and knowing who I should contact next.

In a situation where I wasn’t sure how to get started on something due to being unfamiliar with the organizational structure, I was able to learn more about the campus unit by literally getting my foot in the door and showing up. It takes time to learn your campus and get a better idea of the bigger picture, but it definitely helps to jump on opportunities to get involved with, collaborate with, or even just have a conversation with people outside of the library.

Perks and Quirks of a Single Service Point

In my last post I talked a little bit about the Learning Commons that opened in August at my library, a major renovation that brought exciting changes to the first floor of the Main Library. Although I wasn’t here to see the “before,” the “after” is bright, shiny, and new. It’s an appealing place with a lot more space for students to study and work: there are plenty of computer stations and a variety of flexible study spaces, including 16 group study rooms. Another major new feature of the Learning Commons? The Service Desk.

The Service Desk is a consolidation of what were previously separate service points for circulation and reference into a single service point. During the day, there is typically a mix of people at the desk: a circulation assistant, a librarian or another library assistant, and a few student workers. The librarian staffing the instant message service is also on back-up for the Service Desk, in case it gets particularly busy.

I don’t have any insight to the development of the Learning Commons or the Service Desk, the choices made, or future plans – especially as a relatively new employee (I’ve been in this position for four months, and have been doing shifts on the Service Desk for less than two months). I can only speak from my own experience at the desk, and as with most things, I see an upside and a downside.

Good news first: I really like being out on the desk! I enjoy interacting with people, seeing how patrons use the library’s space and services, and finding out firsthand the kinds of questions people are asking. Since I haven’t done much instruction yet, right now this is how I see students the most. I think that interactions at the Service Desk can also be used to inform what I include in instruction sessions. On top of all that, every time I’m at the desk is an opportunity to get to know other people who work in the same building as me every day, but who I otherwise wouldn’t see very much if at all.

A single service point can create a better experience for library users, eliminating any question or confusion over where to ask for help. At our Service Desk, patrons can check items in and out, pick up Interlibrary Loan material, course reserves, and holds, get basic technology help, and ask anything from “where’s the elevator” to an in-depth reference question. It’s great for our users that they can know “this is where I go to ask for help in the library.”

Now here’s the downside, at least as far as I’m concerned: with a greater variety of questions and interactions handled at one desk, and fewer hours spent staffing the desk for any given individual, it can become more difficult to help patrons efficiently. So far I have been on the Service Desk about once a week for a two-hour shift, and it is more often the circulation aspect that I run into trouble with (sidenote: I personally don’t mind handling circulation transactions, where librarians previously would not have done this at the reference desk). When something less common comes up – creating a community borrower card, for example – it may have been weeks or months since I have last done that process, if ever. With less hours spent at the desk, there is less hands-on practice performing circulation processes, which leads to me getting frustrated when I can’t remember how to do something.

I must say, this is not for lack of training: I have been trained on the circulation processes that I need to know, there are opportunities for additional training sessions, and instructional documents are easily accessible online. Also, because of the variety of employees that staff the desk, no matter what comes up, there is usually someone there that can handle it. If I don’t know the answer or don’t remember how to do something, someone else will, and I can use that as a learning opportunity for myself. However, that doesn’t make those situations any less frustrating for me when they do arise.

The consolidated service desk is new for everybody, so I’m sure that time and experience will work towards smoothing out bumps in the road. But I also have to remind myself that I’m still pretty new here and have less prior knowledge about the library and collections. I’m taking things in and learning about my new environment, and to be honest, there is a lot to learn and it can be difficult to remember even simple things! The other day, somebody asked me “what floor is this call number on?” and I had to check the floorplan to be sure – that’s totally fine, but I also wish I could remember more of those little things without having to check the website or ask someone else.

While out on the desk earlier this week, I came up with a way to work through the downsides I’ve encountered. Whenever I learned something new or something came up that I felt I needed a reminder on, I jotted down a quick note – starting with the call number range on each floor.

notes

To be clear, these notes are purely for my personal gain and not intended to be a record of any kind or contribute to our Service Desk stats. I’ve found in the past that I can remember something better once I’ve written it down, so by taking some quick notes when I’m at the Service Desk, I hope that these bits of information will stick in my mind better. If I had to create a community borrower card for somebody that day, I would have taken notes on that as well.

I like the fact that I learn something new whenever I staff the desk, whether it be about our online resources, common student needs, or how to troubleshoot technology (you may notice several points about a certain scanner in my notes above). I’ll continue to take these notes for now, in addition to reviewing the instructional documents for areas where I know I could use a refresher. I’m optimistic that this will help me retain more information as I continue to learn about my library, and assist patrons more efficiently and effectively.

Shelfless Acts: Beginning a Non-Traditional Library Job

I work in a library without any books.  Yes, that’s right…no books.

What we do as librarians is difficult enough to explain to people outside our field as it is…misconceptions about shushing and horn-rimmed glasses abound…but add a non traditional job description into the mix and most people just can’t contextualize you at all; they short circuit and tune out while you ramble into the void about your daily existence.

I am an Assistant Research Commons Librarian, which means that support the daily operations of a Research Commons, a flexible library workspace which was created to support the changing needs of researchers on my campus.  We occupy one floor of one wing of a much larger academic library (and yes, it has many, many books) but within the confines of the Commons we do things a little differently.

Sometimes I worry about the difficulty of explaining what I do here to my next prospective employer.  Many of the typical duties of an academic librarian are absent from my job description.  For instance, I don’t develop, acquire, or manage any print or electronic material collection.  In fact, there is no collection associated with my library unit.  Likewise, library instruction is not a part of my job description, and my reference duties are limited.

So what DO I do all day?  I know that I’m constantly busy, but the answer is complex.  The Research Commons was designed as a collaborative study space for students.  But we provide more than just space.  We are, as my boss likes to say “a library as salon,” which creates and implements innovative programming to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between students and faculty.   We also provide support for all aspects of the research process; writing, publishing, securing funding, and finding presentation opportunities. Managing the daily operations of one of the most heavily used library spaces on campus is a big task, as is the design and implementation of original programming.

Does my position represent the future of library jobs?  I’m not sure.  Certainly it tells us some things about the direction that libraries are headed; away from monolithic service models, unbound from responsibilities to house print collections, towards flexible space design and rich programming models.  But I have significant moments of doubt about my own ability to embody a “librarian of the future” ideal.  Although it doesn’t impact my ability to do my job, I often feel that I am personally sympathetic to the more individual and contemplative modes of scholarship that are associated with traditional library models. I’m committed to the idea that library models like mine can supplement; not supplant, the tried and true models that many of my colleagues inhabit.  When I reach the next stage in my career, wherever that may be, that’s the philosophy that I’ll try to express:  I may not contain multitudes, but I sure am trying.