What Student Employees Have Taught Me

As a new librarian, and as someone who is new to working at a university, there’s a lot to learn. I’ve learned about some of the university’s history and how it affects day-to-day operations, the degree programs and course offerings, different colleges on campus, how each college has their own rules regarding faculty promotion and tenure, and the ebb and flow of different semester schedules. Then, there’s the current environment and culture of the campus. Much of what I’ve learned comes from faculty and staff who have been on campus for decades, and for that I’m grateful. They have the best insight into the political and structural nature of campus and faculty life; however, it’s the students and more specifically, student employees, in the library that provide the most holistic view of campus life and culture.

Before January, I worked 9-hour shifts on Saturdays with the same staff. It was always me, a supervisor at circulation, and a mix of student employees. Saturdays, especially over the summer, were slow. My main duty on Saturdays was to staff the research help desk in case we had any drop-in questions. There would sometimes be long stretches where no one would come by with a question, and if I had nothing else going on, I frequently found myself chatting with the student employees.

I do not supervise any students, so I don’t have any insights about what that’s like (others have though, and talk about supervising and mentorship). I do, however, think that our student employees are great, which is why below, in no particular order, I’m listing out what I’ve learned from student employees along the way.

Campus life and history

Did you know that Main Hall is haunted by past Jesuits? And that, if you ask very nicely, campus safety will take you on a tour of the building’s basement on Halloween so that you can experience the ghosts firsthand? This tidbit came up in a larger conversation about ghosts, and suddenly, I knew about every haunted building on campus. This is the interesting type of myth that students know. Campus history is passed down from one class of students to another, and I’m not privy to it unless a student is willing to share. Any fun fact I know about the university most likely came from a student employee.

Beyond myths and campus lore, students have very strong opinions about their classes, professors, and perceptions of leadership. I’ve learned about what classes were difficult and why in different departments. One student ranted very openly and honestly about being treated as a dollar sign by campus administration instead of as a student who was learning and making mistakes in classes. Student employees will give you an idea of the general mood and morale on campus, especially during exams.

Basically, if I want to know how students feel about new construction plans, the history of a particular spot on campus, or the perception of an assignment, I just have to ask.

Reminder of what being in college is like

An employee had recently moved to off-campus apartments and was talking about how difficult grocery shopping was. They had never gone grocery shopping on their own before, and talked about trying to get the right amount of food on a college budget. They had to start from scratch with spices and staples, and it felt overwhelming. Conversations about life and firsts are a good reminder that, yes, college students are adults, but many that we label as traditional, undergraduate students are learning how to be independent for the first time. Students are taking classes, but also figuring out how to manage their bills, divide their time and energy, and take care of their health. Many of our student workers are undergrads, so I get the new college student perspective most often; however, I’m often reminded that graduate students or undergraduates that do not fit under the traditional student mold face a set of challenges all their own. It can be easy to fall into a trap of getting frustrated with the student in the back of the class that isn’t paying attention to my well thought-out and incredibly important assignment, but conversations about daily life and struggles remind me that student lives and experiences are rich, complex, and diverse. I’m grateful any time a student employee is willing to share their experience with me.

Great sounding board for ideas

I sometimes have what I think is a great idea for library instruction, or I want to try something new for outreach. I’ve taken these ideas to student employees who have been generous with their time to provide feedback. Now that they know me better, student employees are very honest about their opinions and provide some of their own ideas that have been helpful. I appreciate student input in things I’m designing for students. We’ve also had student employees play test the escape rooms we’ve created for finals week, give feedback about our surveys, and in general, be the student voice in the activities and materials we create for the library. Of course, student employees aren’t necessarily representative of the entire student population, so we don’t rely on them for everything; however, employees are a great start for engaging with students in general.

Assistance with our projects

Most of our student employees have defined job roles, but they are sometimes excited to try new projects or learn about different aspects of the library. For instance, I was working with our digital content librarian to weed DVDs in my subject area. A student employee I know very well was in the area, and I knew that she was heavily involved with the literature and poetry community. She ended up looking through content relevant to her major so that we could seek her input into the collection as well. Another student employee recommended popular biology titles that we didn’t have for our collection that she thought other students would be interested in checking out. If I haven’t made this point clear yet, then I’d like to emphasize that student voices are valuable to library operations. We can guess what materials are most relevant to students, or we can ask for their input. Student employee involvement in collection development has taught me more about what’s popular in certain subject areas or what students might be interested to see in a collection. Having student employees involved in library projects brings me to my final point.

Potential future librarians

If you ask your colleagues about their first library job, many of them will talk about being employed in the library as a student. I’m not sure what percentage of librarians started as student workers, but I think it’s significant. Some of our student employees today might be librarians in the future. The way that we engage with student employees, the projects that we give them, and the perception that we share of the library may shape future librarians.

Student employees are valuable to libraries. They provide honest feedback, give insight to campus life and culture, and have interesting perspectives. Getting to know the student employees has been one of my favorite parts of being a new librarian. If you haven’t already, take the time to find out more about the student employees in your library. I think we all have something we can learn from them.

Like a Real Library?

I’m a regular reader of Matt Reed’s Confessions of a Community College Dean blog over at Inside Higher Ed, and last week he published a post that has had me thinking ever since. His post “Like a Real College” reflects on the experiences that hybrid and online learning in colleges and universities sometimes leave behind, like graduation ceremonies and in-person social interactions. Reed notes:

I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students. They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.” I’ve heard those words enough times that I can’t write them off as flukes anymore.

How does this translate to academic libraries? Lots of recent research has shown that many students appreciate what we think of as a traditional library atmosphere for doing their academic work: book stacks, good lighting, table and carrel desk seating, and quiet (see Antell and Engel, Applegate [paywall], and Jackson and Hahn, to name just a few). My research partner Mariana Regalado and I heard similar preferences from the students we spoke to in our research, several of whom also specifically mentioned their admiration for the the very formal, serious library at one CUNY college. To me this suggests that our library space planning and renovations need to balance collections and study space, and acknowledge the importance of books and other physical academic materials for environmental as well as informational reasons.

But what about online learning or competency based degrees, as Reed refers to in his column? How can the academic library contribute to the “real college” feeling that students say they want? Online learning seems to pull apart the collections and workspace roles of the library. And while not always the easiest or most user-friendly experience, online access to our college and university library collections is often (and increasingly) possible.

Is it possible to replicate, or even approach, the traditional academic library experience for studying and academic work with online-only students? One question I have sounds almost too simple to be asked, but also seems fundamental to the online student experience. Where, exactly, are our students when they do their online and hybrid coursework? At home? At the public library? At a coffeeshop (or McDonald’s)?

The college where I work is still very focused on our students in face-to-face classes, and we don’t have any fully-online degrees (though the university that my college is part of does). Anecdotally, we do see students working on their coursework for online or hybrid classes in our library computer labs, though I’m sure they also work on it elsewhere. But I’d be interested to hear about other academic libraries that have grappled with this: are there things we can do to bring the traditional, library-as-place to online-only students? Is the “real library” experience possible?

Digging Into Institutional Data

I have both a professional and scholarly interest in how the students at the college where I work do their academic work, and (of course) whether and how they use the library. In my own research I’m much more likely to use qualitative than quantitative methods. I prefer interviews and other qualitative methods because they offer so much more depth and detail than surveys, though of course that comes at the expense of breadth of respondents. Still, I appreciate learning more about our students’ lives; these compelling narratives can be used to augment what we learn from surveys and other broad but shallow methods of data collection.

Not *that* kind of survey
Not *that* kind of survey

But even though I love a good interview, I can also be a part-time numbers nerd: I admit to enjoying browsing through survey results occasionally. Recently I was working on a presentation for a symposium on teaching and technology at one of the other colleges in my university system and found myself hunting around the university’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment website for some survey data to help contextualize students’ use of technology. My university runs a student experience survey every 2 years, and until last week I hadn’t realized that the data collected this past Spring had just been released.

Reader, I nearly missed dinnertime as I fell down the rabbit hole of the survey results. It’s a fascinating look at student data points at the 19 undergraduate institutions that make up the university. There’s the usual info you’d expect from the institutional research folks — how many students are enrolled at each college, part-time vs. full-time students, race and ethnicity, and age, to name a few examples. But this survey asks students lots of other questions, too. How long is their commute? Are they the first in their family to attend college? How many people live in their household? Do they work at a job and, if so, how many hours per week? How often do they use campus computer labs? Do they have access to broadband wifi off-campus? If they transferred to their current college, why? How do they prefer to communicate with faculty and administrators?

My university isn’t the only one that collects this data, of course. I imagine there are homegrown and locally-administered surveys at many colleges and universities. There’s also the National Survey of Student Engagement, abbreviated NSSE (pronounced “Nessie” like the mythical water beast), which collects data from 1,500+ American and Canadian colleges and universities. The NSSE website offers access to the data via a query tool, as well as annual reports that summarize notable findings (fair warning: the NSSE website can be another rabbit hole for the numbers nerds among us). There’s also the very local data that my own college’s Office of Assessment and Institutional Research collects. This includes the number of students enrolled in each of the college’s degree programs, as well as changes through time. Retention and graduation rates are there for browsing on our college website, too.

What does all of this student data collected by offices of institutional research have to do with academic libraries? Plenty! We might use the number of students enrolled in a particular major to help us plan how to work with faculty in that department around information literacy instruction, for example. The 2012 annual NSSE report revealed that students often don’t buy their course textbooks because of the expense (as have other studies), findings that librarians might use to justify programs for faculty to create or curate open educational resources, as librarians at Temple University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have done. And at my library we’re using data on how and where students do their academic work outside of the library, both the university-collected survey results as well as qualitative data collected by me and my colleagues, to consider changes to the physical layout to better support students doing their academic work.

Have you ever found yourself captivated by institutional research data? How have you used college or university-wide survey results in your own library practice? Let us know in the comments.

Photo by Farrukh.