Student Workers: What do they owe us, and what do we owe them?

Whether you want to start a new habit or break an old one, the new year is a popular time to reconsider our patterns. In the academic library, the switch between semesters gives us a chance to start over – in the classroom, with our colleagues, and with our student workers. The questions I’ve been asking myself have to do with my role as a student supervisor: What do I owe these students and what should I expect from them?

We owe them mentoring.

Whether it’s in my job description or not, I’m more than a supervisor to our undergraduate student workers. I’m one of the main “adults” (by which I mean non-student, non-teacher) in their lives at school, a sounding board for homework questions but also the delicate issues of college social life. I can think of conversations from last semester where I thought, “Should I give my honest advice here, or let her make the mistakes I made and learned from when I was in college?” Mentoring student workers can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but it is very rewarding.

One of my colleagues says that part of our role as student managers is to be a campus ally, and I agree. Undergraduates face all kinds of real world obstacles during their time in college, from stress and mental health to poverty and family needs. Our student workers view us as a stable presence that can help them navigate campus resources and personal dilemmas. Even as I recognize the emotional labor cost of this work, I believe we owe our students a mentoring relationship, interest in their lives and their success. It’s worth our time, and absolutely part of our job.

We owe them meaningful work.

There’s been a conversation at my library lately about giving our student workers more meaningful work, beyond administrative and clerical duties. We’ve been brainstorming how to ask more of our student workers while still honoring their pay grade and what’s fair. But I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “meaningful work” yet – should we give away all the fun tasks like social media and event planning? Don’t our students expect to get homework done at the desk?

Recently I’ve encountered two models for student work that I found interesting. Hailley Fargo makes a good case for encouraging student employees to provide peer-to-peer reference services in her article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe: “Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders…Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful.” Careful training and building student worker confidence so that they can handle more complex questions at the reference desk might be one answer to the meaningful work question.

I also had the privilege of meeting with the librarians at Gettysburg College and learning about their Peer Research Mentor (PRM) program, which was created to give student workers a high-impact learning experience beyond the traditional responsibilities of a library student gig. In both of these cases, the authors emphasize the importance of thorough and on-going training, and in an understaffed library that makes me tremble. But even if I am not sure how to find the time for this yet, I admire how the librarians at Gettysburg have worked to make the ongoing training fun and connected to real-world work responsibilities – from “research question of the week” activities to attending and running department meetings. Every library harnesses their student workforce differently, and comparing notes with other librarians will help our library find the way that works for us.

They owe us their labor – within reason.

If job creep bothers me in my position, then I should be a guardian against responsibilities sneaking up on my student employees as well. The librarian at Gettysburg who described the PRM program to me emphasized that these students are separately recruited, trained, and paid to reflect their additional responsibilities, and I think that’s key to harnessing student labor ethically.

I think that job descriptions should be as transparent as possible, regularly revisited, and created in collaboration between manager and employee. I don’t like the words “other duties as assigned,” because I think they crack the door for job creep, and I don’t want to exploit our student workers. And for good and bad, this is the first job of many of our student workers. It’s a good sandbox for them to learn professional norms like reliability, work attire, and taking initiative. It’s also a chance for their supervisors to demonstrate healthy management and boundaries.

We owe them respect.

In my tour of the library at Gettysburg, I was struck by how the staff worked to honor the contributions of their student workers. Student employees who work in rare book repair or the college archive are credited for their labor in archives publications and on the rare book containers themselves. The PRMs, with guidance from their librarian advisors, are trusted to design drop-in workshops and even help teach information literacy sessions. We should show that we value our student workers and their contributions to the library.

We often say they’re the public face of the library, and the assistance they provide makes a lot of things possible. At our library, student workers make regular shelving (and my lunch break!) possible. With great responsibility should come at least a little power – a say in programming or marketing materials, a voice at staff meetings perhaps, or their work memorialized by bookplates and other employee celebrations. Connecting the shelving, printer restocking, and front desk management to our larger mission makes those tasks meaningful too. It’s worth taking the time to help our student workforce see how they advance the mission of the library, and celebrating their contributions how we can.

As I conclude this blog post, I realize that I’ve been thinking out loud and I don’t have a simple definition for the give and take of the librarian/student worker relationship, but I’d like to continue this conversation. How does your library manage and/or mentor its student workforce?

Weaving It Together

Image from "Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving" by E.A. Posselt is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.
Image from “Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving” by E.A. Posselt (1899) is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.

I recently finished writing my narrative statement for my second year tenure review file. It felt like pulling teeth. The statement required me to weave together the aspects of my work as well as my research and service to tell a meaningful personal story about my professional purpose and goals. The other sections of the file–the description of accomplishments, presentations and publications, committee work, etc.–were a piece of cake by comparison. I’m not sure why the statement felt quite so difficult, but, boy, did it ever.

All my teeth-gnashing about my narrative statement made me think about a program I developed with colleagues this semester, a series of panel discussions that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We developed this program in order to celebrate the work of our faculty and staff. Even more importantly, though, the idea for this series grew out of a desire to share stories within our campus community about how we engage in research and creative work. We wanted to host conversations about process, not just product. In sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we were hoping panelists would reveal their steps and stages, but also the information literacy and digital literacy skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to each project. I was excited about the potential of this panel series because I think uncovering process is not just interesting, but empowering. And by increasing the transparency of their component parts, we hoped these kinds of research experiences might feel more approachable to our students.

In conversations with panelists as we prepared for the series, we offered guiding questions they might consider as they prepared their remarks like the following: How did you take your first steps?, How did you ask questions?, How did you identify a path for your research?, How did you engage with other scholars’ work on the topic to develop your own?, How did your work change course during the process?, What attitudes were important to your process?, What skills and tools were key to your process?, How did you gather/organize/analyze data?, How did you draw conclusions?, and What did you learn along the way?.

I had imagined panelists would likely select a particular publication or project and discuss some aspects of its development. Instead, most chose to talk about their undergraduate experiences and their entry into graduate work or their field. Panelists described choices they made, challenges they encountered, and how their paths changed over time. Embedded in each of their stories, too, were practices and perspectives related to information literacy that seemed to me to have been crucial to their process.

What strikes me most now, though, is how each panelist interpreted the program theme and the guiding questions and how they chose to tell the story of their work. When my collaborator and I asked our colleagues to talk about their research processes, I didn’t give much thought to how personal their stories might be. As I reflect on the difficulty I felt in drafting my narrative statement, I’m thinking about the balance I, too, was trying to strike. I’m thinking now about how we weave together process and purpose, personal and professional to help focus and understand our work.

Leisure reading collections in the academic library

Here’s my honest opinion: I wasn’t a big fan of collection development during graduate school. When I was supervising the residence halls libraries at Illinois, putting new books in my virtual cart was always at the bottom of my to-do list. I didn’t have a good system of finding new books and once I found something cool, usually one of my colleagues had it in their cart. For me, I was always more interested in using my time to support the student employees or plan programming with residence life than I was in spending my time building a collection. The work of collection development felt like a chore.

Needless to say I was jazzed when I started at Penn State and had zero collection development responsibilities. I could go back to just me requesting the books for myself I heard about on podcasts or read in the many email newsletters I subscribed to. I “escaped” collection development for two years and this fall, the Leisure Reading  collection in the Pattee & Paterno Libraries fell on to my plate of responsibilities.

Leisure reading collections (also known as recreational reading, browsing collection, or popular reading collections) were first started in academic libraries in the 1920s and 30s, when a core value of academic librarians was to promote reading. These collections became less prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, when war impacted library budgets and people found it less important to have these collections (Dewan, 2010). It wasn’t until the 1990s that academic libraries started to create leisure reading collections again and publish on the importance of these collections. These collections continue to get pushback from the academic library world; some consider the collection not within the mission of an academic library; others talk of tight budgets and space limitations (Alsop, 2007); there is even an assumption that faculty, staff, and students do not have or any interest in reading for leisure (Van Fleet, 2003). However, more recent studies have shown the benefits of reading for leisure, including a correlation with higher academic achievement (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), promotion of critical thinking, and improvement of reading comprehension and developing one’s own writing voice (Rathe & Blankenship, 2006; Trott & Elliott, 2007). But just like anything done well, building this sort of collection takes time, energy, and resources.

The decision to put the Leisure Reading collection on my work plate was strategic — pivot the collection to take a student engagement approach, leverage the talents and energy of our student engagement intern and part time student employee to help with the vision and maintenance of the collection, and tie the collection more closely with our outreach work in order think about how we highlight and promote this collection. During the first few weeks where the collection was now “mine,” I drew inspiration from UCLA’s Powell Library, who worked with students and student clubs in a variety of ways to help build a student-driven collection (Glassman, Lee, Salomon, & Worsham, 2017). I felt like I was sort of stumbling through the dark those first few weeks, just trying to understand what the collection was, and where we could take it. Luckily, I wasn’t tackling this project alone — the Leisure Reading team is up to five: 3 full-time library employees, and two student employees.

I definitely took for granted the system that the residence halls libraries had set up for collection development. As a small system, we didn’t have too many other people to work with in order to keep the collection up and running. Here at Penn State, there’s 10+ people or groups interacting and supporting the Leisure Reading collection in some way. This meant that any changes we decided to make, had to be communicate clearly and often to all those involved. These folks also gave us some of the best feedback on the collection; their sometimes daily interaction really helped the new team wrap our heads around the current situation and see potential ways forward that would make the collection easier to find and use for both staff and patrons.

Our collection is mostly leased; something I hadn’t really considered before. In doing some research about recreational reading collections in academic libraries, I learned that academic libraries have been talking about leased collections since at least 1976 (Cushman) and people are interested in the pros and cons of having this type of collection, especially when considering if these popular books are “worthy” to keep for a long time (Odess-Harnish, 2002). Part of our lease agreement is that we get to keep a percentage of the books we lease, giving a new option to the research already out there about leased collections. Our monthly weeding gives us the chance to think about what we should keep and starts to give us a better sense of how our patrons are using this collection.

A big challenge that the Leisure Reading team tackled in the first few months was wayfinding and discoverability. Our collection is shelved in the Library of Congress classification, which can make it confusing to figure out where the new book by Phoebe Robinson or Tana French is going to be. As Pauline Dewan says so succinctly, “The Library of Congress classification is not an effective scheme for browsing fiction” (2010, p. 44). Our two student employees helping with the collection learned first hand how difficult the classification system can be when creating new signage to help people discover new items in this collection. But, we are working on it — trying things knowing they might fail and also trying to get as much feedback as we can from the people actively using the collection. The collection is constantly a work in progress.

As we look towards 2019, there are big plans on the horizon for this collection. Our spring will be devoted to tying the collection more closely to programming, making a stronger connection between our leisure reading and viewing (DVD) collection, and assessing if the things we are doing are actually impacting circulation and patrons who use the collection. The past several months, I’ve come to love this collection; it’s tough and challenging but it’s fun to collaborate with others and try to build a dynamic, usable, interesting collection.

Do you have a leisure reading collection in your library? Do you help maintain the collection? If you are in charge of this collection, what are some challenges you face and what are exciting elements of this sort of collection in an academic library?

References:

Alsop, J. (2007). Bridget Jones Meets Mr. Darcy: Challenges of Contemporary Fiction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(5), 581–585. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2007.05.004

Cushman, R. C. (1976). Lease Plans– A New Lease On Life For Libraries? Journal of Academic Librarianship, 2(1), 15–19.

Dewan, P. (2010). Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Reading Collection Now More Than Ever. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(1), 44–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691310903584775

Van Fleet, C. (2003). Popular Fiction Collections in Academic and Public Libraries. The Acquisitions Librarian, 15(29), 63–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J101v15n29_07

Glassman, J., Lee, S., Salomon, D., & Worsham, D. (2017). Community Collections: Nurturing Student Curators. In S. Arnold-Garza & C. Tomlinson (Eds.), Students Lead the Library: The Importance of Student Contributions to the Academic Library (pp. 77–92). Chicago, IL: ACRL.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: A survey of literacy reading in America. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/publications/reading-risk-survey-literary-reading-america-0

Odess-Harnish, K. (2002). Making Sense of Leased Popular Literature Collections. Collection Management, 27(2), 55–74. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v27n02_06

Rathe, B., & Blankenship, L. (2006). Recreational Reading Collections in Academic Libraries. Collection Management, 30(2), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v30n02_06

Trott, B., & Elliott, J. (2007). Academic Libraries and Extracurricular Reading Promotion. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(3), 34–43. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.46n3.34

Navigating uncharted territory: Short Edition at Penn State

So, you might have heard of a machine that disenspers short stories. You’ll find these dispensers at airports, hospitals, gig cities, malls, and community spaces. With a press of a button, you can print off 1, 3, or 5 minute short stories or poetry. These dispensers are made by Short Edition, a company based in France whose mission is to “propel literature” and share short stories and poetry with as many people as possible. Their machines have been featured stories at Mental Floss, LitHub, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

There definitely is something novel about the machines; I’m actually writing this post while sitting near one in our library. Penn State got several dispensers in spring 2017 and PLA just finished up their Courage writing contest, and I can only assume some more libraries will be getting their own dispensers in the next several years. I love watching students approach the dispenser, some not quite sure what they are all about. They press the button and the machine whirls a bit, gearing up to print the story. It spits the story out, the five minute stories always my favorite to watch because it’s always longer than you’d expect. They smile when they pull it out of the dispenser, folding it carefully while they walk away. My favorite comment to hear is, “Can you actually read that story in one minute?”

Short Edition started in 2011 and the company created their dispensers in 2015. Libraries have gravitated towards these dispensers and the mission behind the company, we seem like a natural fit. When Penn State first got our dispensers, they were fun machines we had in our library and in spaces across campus. But we wanted to do more than just have students print out stories; we wanted to build a program that could showcase student, faculty, and staff writing. I became part of the group tasked with building this program in fall 2017. In the past year, I have learned a lot — about Short Edition, the creative writing scene at University Park and the campuses, and how to take a fuzzy vision for a program and turn it into something a bit more defined.

I got involved because our administration had felt strongly there should be students involved with the editorial process and naturally, the Student Engagement Librarian knows some students. Other than some loose guidelines from the Editorial Board at Short Edition, we really had the chance to create what we wanted. While the machines themselves are “easy” (just plug them in and let them print), there is much more beneath the surface, and at the complimentary website, where the magic really happens in converting community content into something you can print off on the dispensers. There was definitely a learning curve and when we’ve got a contest running, I email my contacts at Short Edition at least once a week. We’re currently running our second writing contest, around the theme of Lost & Found. Running these contests seem like the best way to get content onto our website and our dispensers — having a broad, general theme (and prize money) seems to attract more writers than a rolling submission process. Sometimes, I have gone up to the group of students printing off stories and ask, “Did you know you can submit your own stories to this dispenser?” The students often chuckle and shake their heads, “I just like reading the stories, I don’t write” they respond. We’ve got a little hurdle right now — finding folks who not only enjoy the machines, but also want their stories and poems to be the ones getting printed out.

The other aspect about this project is now that we have some consistency around contests, our Editorial Board and guidelines, we are adding other elements to the program. Community members in Centre county can now add their content to our website and dispensers, we are adding dispensers to some of our campuses across the state of Pennsylvania, and working locally with the high school to see what their program could look like. It’s a lot of juggling and deciding what is urgent, what decisions will be strategic, and what elements we can hold off on until we are more ready. In that way, this program is elastic, willing to bend in what direction we think is best, at the time.

In all of this, when you chart uncharted territory, people look to you for advice or ways forward. Since our Penn State Short Edition project has taken off, I’ve received emails from a whole host of librarians, all interested in what we’re up to. I send along documentation, neatly packaged in a Box folder, explaining some of the unique elements of our program. In these email exchanges, I receive my favorite compliment, “Wow, this is thorough.” I’m curious to see how many other academic libraries invest in Short Edition in the next few years. Maybe, in the future, we can find a way to connect them, in a contest or through our Editorial Boards.

The biggest thing I’ve learned since taking on this project is that you sometimes just have to do the thing, even if you’re not 100% sure it will work. I’m someone who craves feedback and seeks a lot of permission first; spearheading the Short Edition project has definitely challenged that side of me. I’ve gotten a little better at just doing the thing and being confident in whatever decision I’ve decided to make. There’s so much room to grow, experiment, and take this project to another level so onward we go, charting new territory and propelling literature forward.


Note: If you’re interested in seeing some of our documentation for Short Edition or learning more, feel free to send me an email at hmf14@psu.edu.

 

 

Emerging as a Community-Engaged Librarian: Reflections on the Emerging Engagement Scholars Workshop

Context of the workshop

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Emerging Engagement Scholars Workshop (EESW), sponsored by the Engagement Scholarship Consortium. This workshop is meant for PhD students and junior faculty who consider themselves engaged scholars or aspire to be engaged scholars. For those who don’t know about engaged scholarship, just look up Ernest Boyer, he’s the guy around this topic. At its core, engaged scholarship is about academia collaborating with the local community to share and leverage expertise and ultimately, make social change.

The workshop is meant to give participants an inside scoop on the history and current context of the field, connect them with their peers and mentors, and in general, get jazzed around doing community engaged scholarship. All workshop participants brought in a community project, and we had several hours of dedicated mentor time to talk through these projects and make some strides forward. I decided to explore building a community of practice for the undergraduate interns at our library (more on that later).

I have been wanting to participate in this workshop for a few years now, mainly based on a recommendation from my graduate school mentor, Martin Wolske.  I’d say Martin was the one who showed me what community engaged scholarship could like for librarians. He did that through his day-to-day work as a community member and librarian and by bringing me on as a Community Ambassador for the grant, Digital Literacy for ALL Learners, where community-engaged scholarship was the first outside the class thing I did in graduate school.

Overall, the workshop, and corresponding conference, was great. I did learn a lot, found some new language to talk about my job, and connected with new people. While I made an initial stab at my thoughts post workshop on Twitter, below is an expanded version of what I took away from participating in EESW.

Questions of identity

The workshop was billed as a space for PhD students and junior faculty (me). PhD students outnumbered junior faculty at least 2-1, which was not usually the case at previous iterations of this workshop. I was also the only librarian at the workshop, which meant I got to have a lot of conversations about what I do and why I was a participant with EESW.

At times I felt a little out of place. As with any space where you’re the sole librarian, there are questions about what we’re doing in that academic space. Do we actually do scholarship? What does an LIS research agenda look like? Can we really achieve tenure? As expected, talking about my faculty status, my ability to achieve tenure, and my research interests was the way in, and I definitely opened up some eyes. I will say that this space was incredibly welcoming; I had thoughtful peers who wanted to ask questions about my job and share experiences they have had with their subject librarians. My assigned mentor, Diane Doberneck, was also amazing. She’s doing great work at Michigan State and had such insightful feedback for my project around building a community of practice.

This workshop also reminded me that I do know a lot, more than I give myself credit. For example, we spent one section of the workshop talking about the tenure process and how to write about engaged scholarship in your dossier. While some PhD students had never discussed what tenure looks like, I felt prepared for the conversations and actually made good strides on my dossier (draft due soon!). Or, in one of our mentoring sessions, we talked about frameworks that supported our community projects and I was able to share reading suggestions (like Dorothea Kleine’s Choice Framework and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s many articles on intersectionality). In those moments, I felt like a librarian, passing along information, while also showcasing a bit of my expertise.   

Where do I want to go? And why am I doing this work?

As the workshop progressed, a few questions kept popping up for me. The first was, “Where do I want to go with this work?” And that question was quickly followed by “Why am I doing this work?”

Bottomline, I want to be a community-engaged librarian scholar. In learning about librarianship, it has always been in relation to communities – the community of Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, New York City, Urbana, IL, and now, Penn State. As a librarian, I do my job better when I listen, include, leverage, and support communities. Decisions about services, resources, and programs should be made with the community, not on behalf of the community. Communities can be vibrant, complex, come with a lot of baggage, embrace a rich history and traditions, or be ready for change. I love discovering all those threads as a librarian.

Furthermore, I see community engaged scholarship as a foundation of my research agenda. The work I’ve been doing as the Student Engagement Librarian has been building relationships, getting to know the various communities I engage with; these relationships will allow us to conduct meaningful research. To be a community-engaged librarian scholar means that understanding and working with communities not only drive forward my day-to-day, but influence and shape my research. Everything I do should be in service to or connected to the communities.

Finding the language and lingo

Recently, as my second-year tenure documentation due date looms, I’ve been low key freaking out. Some of the freak out was due to the me wanting to be intentional about how I build my dossier and the words I use to describe my work. I wanted to paint of picture that both my tenure colleagues AND my non-librarian colleagues can understand. This pressure, totally put on by myself, stopped me cold from getting some of that legwork for my dossier completed.

This workshop was exactly the push I needed to think about that language again. Our pre-readings and then workshop conversations highlighted how I could use community-engaged scholarship lingo to describe my work. I am grounded in community, and for me, I define and work mainly with communities connected to Penn State – undergraduate students, library student employees, undergraduate and student affairs professionals, and my Commonwealth library colleagues. I am hoping framing my work through a community engaged scholarship lens will resonate with others (we shall see!).  

What’s next?

Well, I have emerged as an engaged (librarian) scholar. I’m glad I had the opportunity to participate in the workshop and know those conversations will stick with me for the next few months. I would encourage others to consider applying and attending this workshop, especially for those who work closely with communities, in academia or with the local community. Does anyone else do engaged scholarship at your institution and if so, what does it look like? I’m always trying to find more community engaged librarians!  


Featured image by Park Troopers on Unsplash