By Rachael-Joy Davis, Library Services Specialist, California State University, Sacramento University Library
As a member of the User Services department, I supervise 25-30 student employees at a busy library service desk. Our student employees are the first and last faces library patron see when entering or exiting the library. They are fulfillment operators and shelvers, reference and roving reference support, and technology troubleshooters. They are friendly, familiar faces to our patrons and provide exceptional service in a non-threatening, positive, and inspirational environment. I’ve just described our student workforce from my own perspective, seeing them every day as I work alongside them. Our Student Assistants (SAs) are a deeply diverse group of college students. As their supervisor, I must remind myself of this often in order to maintain and nurture the trust and respect between our student workforce and department supervisors. Our student employees are students first, a status that carries with it many challenges they must balance every day. Some have an easier time with this than others, and it is part of my job to recognize when a student employee is struggling. This became very difficult to do when we were faced with stay-at-home orders from the State of California due to the Novel Coronavirus which entailed the abrupt switch to online classes and the closure of the University Library at Sacramento State.
During the week before the library closure, our SAs continued to show up and do their work without knowing what challenges each day or the next might bring. Some SAs were willing to take on extra shifts to cover for their co-workers who had made the difficult decision to leave campus to be with family. Other SAs welcomed impromptu training on book scanning to assist with the fulfillment of faculty digitization requests as classes moved online. Almost all of the SAs asked the question, “will I still be able to work if the library closes?” We did not have answers for our SAs, and it would be weeks after the library closed before we could provide one. This reality put my stomach in knots because I couldn’t help but think about what our SAs were feeling; how anxious were they about their future. Most of our SAs depend on their library paycheck to sustain their financial well-being.
It’s very easy to be task-driven in a busy User Services department where patrons are constantly in need of service. If we are always task-driven, we run the risk of having only transactional relationships with Student Assistant support staff which is something User Services supervisors work very hard to prevent. Communications with SAs were becoming very transactional, and I had a strong sense that we were all becoming very disconnected from each other and the library’s mission to inspire excellence in teaching, learning, and scholarly activities. Managing 25-30 student assistants definitely brings some daily challenges, but during this time of physical distancing, I would take those challenges over the separation we are facing. Working remotely and absent from their presence means a huge part of my daily purpose is also absent, so it became necessary to be even more deliberate and proactive with every effort to stay connected.
As library staff settled into our new remote roles, I wanted to reach out to our SAs to let them know we were here for them during this time, to encourage them to communicate with me, and to continue to communicate whenever they felt the need. I sent individual email messages to our SAs to conduct wellness checks, and I received responses from just about everyone. The word cloud below represents their responses and was such a positive reminder of how amazing and resilient they are.
“Thank you for taking the time to reach out! It's been really nice to see that the library really cares about its employees in comparison to the places where my friends and family are working at, where it's been a bit rough for them.”
– Sacramento State University Library Student Employee
Leading up to and immediately after the library closure, some very difficult conversations about the possibility of student work not being available were taking place among university administrators. Within approximately four weeks, the library was able to advocate and secure remote work for our SAs to contribute to the library’s 508 Accessibility Project for the digitized theses in our institutional repository, ScholarWorks, and this work will continue through summer. The remote work SAs were tasked with was very different work than they were accustomed to. The majority of SAs now doing remote work were front-line service desk support physically handling library materials and interacting with hundreds of patrons every day. SAs would now be performing basic remediation to enhance digitized theses. They are responsible for redacting signatures, running the Accessibility Checker on files, reviewing logical reading order, providing alternate text for images and figures, and reviewing tags for accuracy.
Preparing SAs to receive the remote work was challenging, but I welcomed the challenge as it allowed me to meet with them individually via Zoom to coordinate work schedules, discuss remote work expectations, and to continue to care for and nurture some of the library’s most vital and vulnerable resources. It was almost like being back in the library with them and seeing our SAs thrive loosened some of the knots in my stomach.
Student assistants are vital to the success of our library’s daily operations, a fact I believe strongly in. Our student workforce is resilient, and never have I seen our student workers so eager, determined, and willing to help. With them, the library can continue to provide service to the Sacramento State community in the face of a global pandemic.