Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Student workers & how to use them effectively...

Earlier this week on COLLIB-L, a library director dealing with an administration looking to freeze her student worker budget turned to the group to get some ideas for projects she could add to their workload to justify their existence. in the course of composing my own response and reading others, I was struck by just how much we rely on our student workers, even relative to the other librarians who posted about their student workers' tasks. At least at our institution, it's a lot easier to justify another student worker position than another "real" employee, which means that a lot of the time consuming, easily trainable ongoing tasks have been delegated down to our student workers over the years as the student staff has grown. Below is my response to the mailing list, followed by some thoughts I've had based on how this thread evolved.

Well, here’s what we do with our student workers…I’m the access services guru so I’m mostly thinking of circ-related tasks, though I know there are a few other ongoing student projects I’m forgetting.

1. Circ desk stuff (check in/out, pulling holds, the usual)
2. Shelving, book shifting, general stacks tidying and shelfreading
3. Pre-processing/labeling of books
4. Inventory (I set up the initial reports in the system, they scan the books into the wizard)
5. Catalog clean-up projects (item type fixes, re-barcoding older items, etc.)
6. Periodicals checkin
7. Govdocs checkin
8. Compiling monthly new book lists for the website, searching in the collection for potential items for subject area pathfinders, etc.
9. ILL (pretty much anything that isn’t a faculty request)
10. Front line reference when students are so intimidated they head right for the youngest face at the desk
11. front line tech support when students are so intimidated they head right for the youngest face at the desk :-)
12. keeping the printers/copiers filled with paper/toner
13. more special projects/data entry chores than I can think of right now (ex: I’m going to have 2 helping me this summer with the annual reserve room clean-up)
14. artwork/posters for PR/Marketing stuff (we have several VERY talented art majors on our team)
15. extra pairs of eyes watching the state of our supply room for reorders.
16. Mentoring the newbie student workers as they come in (nothing official, they just naturally take them under their wings for the first few weeks).

Essentially, any ongoing task that doesn’t involve money, MARC records, instruction, or involved reference work is fair game. Don’t underestimate your student workers’ abilities or interests—several of our long-time student workers could probably do most of my job (but don’t tell my director that! :-) )

Whoops--I think I did just tell my director that! (for reasons that elude me, my boss seems to think this blog is worth reading...) Anyway, after posting the laundry list above, I began thinking a bit more about what libraries typically do and do not use student workers for, and the various issues that have to dealt with. For instance, we interview and select our student workers, and are able to pick out outgoing students with good GPAs and solid work ethics. The few inevitable glitches aside, we've generally had very good luck with our student workers, and I'd pit their customer service, professionalism and performance against any other department's student staff on this campus. Apparently some schools have their student workers picked and sent over by financial aid, and have to make do with what they get. I'm sure that impacts the tasks they can and cannot assign their students. Also, turnover is a factor with students--at least at our library workers tend either to leave the library after a semester or stay with us through graduation--we don't have too much middle ground. Our veteran workers (at least two of whom have worked here longer than I have!) are a big reason we can outsource things like ILL to them. In fact one of our long-time workers has been considering going for her MLIS after she graduates! :-)

So, how can you use your student workers' time more effectively? Obviously, every library's circumstances are different, but the biggest thing I can say is not to underestimate your students. When I first became the access services librarian, I attempted to personally handle any and every task related to circulation management, and quickly got overwhelmed. I couldn't do everything, and many of the most time-consuming tasks simply weren't the best use of my time. We also had student workers bored, needing more things to do. Around that time, our director came back from a program for academic library directors that he attended at Harvard, and asked all of us to look at our tasks for things that we could delegate to students, as he had several new projects he needed our help in implementing.

With that comment in mind I took a hard look at the things that ate up the biggest portion of my time, and found several ongoing "maintenance" projects that could be partially or completely delegated. Yes, I had to spend time training the students--but usually no more than an hour or so for the particular task/student, checking their work for the first few weeks, and jumping in for a few minutes here and there when they hit a stumbling block. my schedule opened up almost immediately, and I was able to spend more time on a lot of high-value projects that had been on the back burner.

I could probably write a full-length article and/or presentation on the effective use of student workers (and now that I'm thinking about this issue, I just might!). However, it really comes down to hiring good people, taking the time to train them well (and it doesn't take near as much time as you may think), and giving them opportunities to stretch. All of our student workers have to take their turns with the oh-so-glamorous tasks of shelfreading and inventory, but I think the fact that most of them also have a special project helps them feel like they are an important part of the library, and in turn gives them the motivation to do their best.

So...how does your library use your student employees?