By Cara Mia Calabrese
As I entered my last year of my MLIS program, I began to mull over my undergraduate years of being a Student Assistant at the University of Central Florida Libraries. I had worked as a Student Assistant for Acquisitions & Collections Services, Reference, and Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery Services departments. I am now a full-time employee at the University of Central Florida Libraries in Acquisitions & Collections Services. During my nearly four years as a Student Assistant, I was the recipient of a range of leadership techniques, management styles, a variety of policies regarding what part-time staff / Student Assistants are allowed to do, as well as numerous workflows. I had been in departments that were micromanaged and macro managed. In some departments I was given leadership roles and the ability to co-train new Student Assistants, while in other departments I had little interaction with anyone and was given assignments that did not inspire me or provide me with critical thinking skills, nor did I understand the reason why I was assigned the task.
From my observations of working in three different departments, Student Assistants need strong communication and training in the beginning and then follow-ups in both areas periodically. Student Assistants need to know what is expected of them. They, unlike full-time staff, do not necessarily receive a detailed overview of what their job duties will include before they are hired. In my instance, one department had clearly outlined responsibilities and duties of Student Assistants, while another department provided a general overview of the department and utilized a list for tasks that were assigned to all the Student Assistants. While no way is wrong, a strong line of communication from the time of the interview to the time they move onto other gainful employment is the key to strong workmanship and high quality work coming from Student Assistants.
Another observation I had is that full-time librarians and staff members often have departmental meetings and discuss office procedures or new policies and procedures. Student Assistants are not included in those discussions. Student Assistants have insight into how the minds of their peers work, what is trending or not, and how new policies and procedures would be received by other students. They should, whenever possible, be included in departmental meetings. If they are not able to be included in departmental meetings, a separate discussion/meeting with Student Assistants should be done to gather their ideas, input and thoughts, and check on how their work and training are going. This not only teaches them about team work and collaboration, but also incorporates Student Assistants and makes them feel valued in their job.
Working in the three different departments showed me that there is a variety of training levels, skill sets, and expectations. Staff and Student Assistants understand that Student Assistants are only part-time workers with little to no experience in the library field when hired. Some form of training is needed. In addition to training, full-time staff should keep in mind that this is the job Student Assistants are interested in and this job can help them develop skills for the everyday workplace upon graduation. If a Student Assistant is expected to spend their entire 10-20 hours a week shelf reading or dusting books, they are not developing the critical thinking skills needed in future employment and their job is not teaching them about team work or adding to the skill set they need to graduate from the University. This is also the fastest way to have a new employee seek new employment.
Training does not have to be a long or arduous process for either party. It can be as simple as explaining a spreadsheet, how to correctly place a label on a book, or how to locate the call number in the online catalog. If you hire students that are freshman or sophomores, you can hope that they will stick around for the long haul and you can devote more time to training them in in-depth procedures. For example, the ILL/DDS department, a department that is heavily reliant on Student Assistants, has a small staff (3 full-time staff members) and processes over 100,000 requests a year. The highly skilled students and their excellent work ethic are part of the success. The ILL department treats their Student Assistants as they would treat full-time employees. As soon as Student Assistants start, they begin the training process where they learn everything that the department does. They are expected to look up call numbers, find full-text articles, pull books, update materials, scan articles, create shipping labels, and package items. The ILL department includes Student Assistants in discussions and promotes leadership and career focused learning among the Student Assistants. Student Assistants that have been around for a while are expected to train the "newbies." These high expectations lead to low turnover and teach critical thinking skills to all Student Assistants.
Communication and training are two key components to keeping Student Assistants happy, working and providing good service in our libraries. The more full-time staff can connect and train Student Assistants and help develop and teach critical thinking skills, the more Student Assistants will want to come to work and participate in a team environment.
Cara Mia Calabrese is currently pursuing her Master's of Library and Information Science at Florida State University and works for the UCF Libraries in Acquisitions & Collection Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.