Working at Learning: Developing an Integrated Approach to Student Staff Development

In Brief: In recent years, student staff have become essential to the success of library operations, particularly within higher education. Student library employment offers a unique opportunity for students to integrate library-specific knowledge and skills with their academic and personal development. This article will discuss the importance of developing an integrated student staff development approach.



There is an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy derisively comments on Linus’s desire to become a doctor, focusing particularly on the fact that Linus could never be a doctor because he doesn’t love mankind. In the last panel, Linus yells in protest, “I love mankind, it’s just the people I can’t stand.”

In April 2012, a colleague and I attended a local consortia meeting. During a post-lunch panel of various academic librarians, the discussion turned to student staff. A particular librarian commented negatively on the abilities of their library’s student staff, indicating that only the librarians were doing real library work. This feeling seemed to be shared, to some degree, by other librarians in the room. While this did not sit right with my colleague or me, to our own failing neither of us responded. On the drive home we began to flesh out what exactly bothered us about the comment as well as our own lack of response. We concluded that if librarians are not happy with the performance of their student staff, then the fault lies with the librarians. This conversation drove us to re-work our entire student staff approach.

It is quite easy to take Linus’s response and tweak it to fit attitudes that we as librarians can hold: “I love mankind, it’s just the patrons, or this patron, I can’t stand.” “I love mankind, it’s just the volunteer staff I can’t stand.” “I love mankind, it’s just the student staff I can’t stand.” Whether these sentiments are stated aloud in a consortia meeting or kept locked in one’s thoughts, they are going to impact the ways in which we as library staff relate to student staff. The foundational impact of student staff on the day-to-day functioning of the library can not be underestimated.  “Without the student workers the library could not remain open as long; costs for staffing the circulation desk would increase; document delivery and interlibrary loan services would take too long; materials would not be re-shelved in a timely manner; and processing new books would be slowed.” ((P. 148. Maxey-Harris, Charlene;  Cross, Jeanne; McFarland, Thomas. “Student Workers: The Untapped Resource for Library Professions.” Library Trends 59, Nos. 1-2, 2010.)) Recognizing these tasks are essential for library success is to also recognize reliance on student staff performing those tasks.

Recognizing the Role of Student Staff

Reliance on student staff has significantly increased in recent years. Consider that in the 1950s, professional librarians comprised 50 to 90 percent of the staff in college and university libraries. By the late 1980s, student staff members outnumbered librarians by a ratio of two to one. ((P. 635 Stanfield, Andrea G. and Russell L. Palmer, “Peer-ing into the information commons: Making the most of student assistants in new library spaces.” Reference Services Review Vol. 38, No. 4, 2011.))  During the 1990s, libraries passed the point where students were viewed merely as a “…labor reserve for the monotonous and repetitive tasks that are necessary for successful library operation.” ((P. 87 Clark, Charlene K. “Motivating and Rewarding Student Workers” Journal of Library Administration  21, no. 3/4 1995.)) This is particularly true in higher education, where the library is often perceived as a desirable place to work. The increased number of student staff in conjunction with the learning environment engendered by a collegiate atmosphere provides a unique opportunity; namely, “…library employment would seem to provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn on the job to their academic studies.” ((P. 547. Jacobson, Heather A., Shuyler, Kristen S. “Student perceptions of academic and social effects of working in a university library.” Reference Services Review 41, no. 3 2013.)) The library as an employer is uniquely poised to help student staff synthesize a variety of skills due to the eclectic skill set that library work can require. “It is professional staff members’ responsibility to provide student employees with an opportunity for involvement that is both meaningful and educational while assisting them in becoming successful members of an increasingly global society.” ((P. 199. Scrogham, Eve; McGuire, Sara Punksy. “Orientation Training and Development” in Perozzi, Brian (Ed.) Enhancing Student Learning Through College Employment. Dog Ear Publishing.  Bloomington, IN. 2009.))

What does it mean to provide involvement that is meaningful and educational? For student staff, working in the library should not be disconnected from other areas of life and study. Library employment is another avenue to support students as they work to integrate academic, professional and personal skill sets. In order to support this integration, the library must create developmental and assessment processes that will deliberately engage the student staff members recognizing “…work that is more firmly linked to academically purposeful behaviors and conditions would presumably have greater positive effects for the students.” ((P. 549.  Jacobson, Heather A., Shuyler, Kristen S. “Student perceptions of academic and social effects of working in a university library.” Reference Services Review 41, no. 3, 2013.))

In order to hire and train student staff effectively, libraries need to establish comprehensive and structured hiring and training processes. The specifics of these processes are outside of this article’s focus. However, there are many resources in library scholarship and trade publications which can provide assistance in developing robust hiring and training procedures. ((For a brief list please see Richard McKay’s “Inspired Hiring: Tools for Success in Interviewing and Hiring Student Staff.” Library Administration & Management 20, no. 3, 2006: 128-134. See also the beginning of Nora Murphy’s “When the Resources Are Human:Managing Staff, Students, and Ourselves.” Journal of Archival Organization 7, no. 1-2, 66-73. See also David Baldwin, and Daniel Barkley’s Supervisors of Student Employees in Today’s Academic Libraries. Libraries Unlimited, 2007.))

As college and universities work to develop successful and well-rounded students, there is particular focus on deliberately linking the student’s learning in the classroom with their experience outside of it. One of the areas highlighted to help students realize success is that of on-campus employment. If  the academic library should be leading higher education change, academic librarians should be working to develop processes that incorporate student development as part of the broader learning experience. To an extent, libraries and librarians are already doing this. I have had two opportunities over the last year to teach an online Continuing Education Unit on student staff development. In those units I have interacted with librarians across the country who are actively thinking, working, and wrestling with the development and assessment of their student staff. The mutual benefit of these interactions came through the discussions and exchanges of meaningful and educational ways to improve how we are working with our student staff. As a profession we must be more deliberately active in our approach to these areas of student staff development and assessment. This article will argue for an integrated approach to student staff training that works to tie student staff development to other areas of students’ growth and development during their time as undergraduates. Examples from the library literature and my own library will be examined. In the conclusion I will provide what I think are some good beginning steps to this process of integration.


Many of the articles or books dealing with supervising student staff deal with development in one of two categories: professional staff development or developing student staff skills as related to library positions. ((For professional staff development see as example Elaine Z. Jennerich’s “The long-term view of library staff development.” College and Research Library News  67, no. 10. 2006: 612-614.)) Focus on both of these areas is essential and should continue. Typically “development training usually refers to long-term growth: training to improve performance…For student employees development training is usually limited to preparing them for supervisory duties within the department…” ((P. 170 Baldwin, David; Barkley, Daniel . Supervisors of Student Employees in Today’s Academic Libraries. Libraries Unlimited, 2007.)) There’s nothing wrong with this. It is part of our job as professional librarians to improve our libraries. But to view development solely in this light impoverishes the library’s potential  to challenge and grow its student staff. Developmental training should be intentionally designed with particular opportunities and planned tasks that allow student staff to practice and work on their own problem-solving, evaluatory, and critical thinking skills. Several examples of how I’ve tried to realize this in my library will be discussed below.


An essential part of development is regular assessment. “A library that recognizes the need for and benefits of assessment of performance and service presents rewarding opportunities for staff to become more engaged in their work and to identify more strongly with the library’s mission and goals.” ((P. 156. Oltmanns, Gail V. “Organization and Staff Renewal using Assessment.” Library Trends 53, No. 1, Summer 2004.)) The goal of assessment is simple: holding student staff accountable to the work they are supposed to be doing, with the expectation of a particular level of quality. In order for assessment to succeed, clearly communicated expectations and requirements must be in place to communicate what successful work in the library looks like. Much of the assessment writing on libraries focuses on how the library is performing within the institution. This focus does not necessarily include how specific subsets of the library staff are helping the library meet institutional goals.  “Student employment is an important service provided by libraries and it should be included in library assessment plans.” ((P. 560  Jacobson, Heather A., Shuyler, Kristen S. “Student perceptions of academic and social effects of working in a university library.” Reference Services Review 41, No. 3, 2013))  Some practical examples of assessment of student staff will be provided later in this article.

Development Requires Care

Practically speaking, how does the library become a place that provides space for students to exercise their skills in their roles in the library? As librarians we need to care about all of our staff, student or otherwise. Linus reaches an important truth in his response as it is much easier to care for mankind in the abstract then the messy day-to-day negotiations of human relationships. It is impossible to develop your student staff if you don’t care about them. Wendell Berry sums this up nicely, “I think that the ideal of loving your neighbor has to take on the possibility that he may be somebody you’re going to have great difficulty loving or liking or even tolerating.” ((P.10 Williamson, Bruce. The Plowboy Interview” in Grubbs, Morris Allen (Ed.) Conversations with Wendell Berry. University Press of Mississippi. 2007.)) This is not to say that there are not consequences for mistakes or that students should not ever be fired or released from library employment. Rather the library’s approach to its student staff should recognize that students are in process of maturation and growth. By employing them, the library has the opportunity to positively participate in those processes.

Students in general are a pretty fascinating bunch. Cultivating care for your staff gives you the opportunity to get to know them at an individual level. Getting to know your staff requires spending consistent amounts of time with them, using that time (staff meetings, periodic evaluations, interactions during shifts) to learn more about their strengths and how students might bring those strengths to bear on their staff roles. For example, this past fall my library implemented LibGuides and was in the process of trying to figure out ways of highlighting the library’s curriculum manipulatives. ((Curriculum manipulatives are hands-on items that are focused on kindergarten through elementary age students to teach particular concepts. For example if you were teaching a class on currency or mathematics  you could check out out a bunch of cardboard coins. If you were teaching a class on counting, proportions or weight, you could check out brass weights, several different kinds of scales, etc.)) The morning shift supervisor at the time was a graduate student who had some experience with photography. We had talked about her various photo shoots and efforts to start a website, so her interest in photography was something we chatted about semi-regularly. I do not exactly remember how the idea came up, but through our conversation about how to best use LibGuides we came up with the idea of holding a photo-shoot for the curriculum manipulatives.  We improvised a backdrop and she artistically arranged the different elements of the manipulatives to highlight their usage. She then uploaded the images to the LibGuide, along with the item’s description, to allow library users to see exactly what the manipulatives look like. She and I had to work through some issues of communication and expectation together, but the end product turned out well. This type of project is meaningful and provided a significant contribution to the library. Caring about student staff is the first step to planning and allowing for meaningful work that contributes to the library’s ability to provide information resources to the campus community.

Development Requires Flexibility and Time

In addition to caring, flexibility and time are needed to avoid a Linus-like response to disliking people due to spending time with them. For example, I have found it to be extremely helpful to view student staff training as ongoing and not as a one-time or first semester approach. Training is an iterative process that may have to occur in the middle of whatever work that I’m doing requiring me to be flexible and responsive to student staff needs. “Training does not end with instructions. It must include the supervisor’s setting an example of the work ethic encouraged by the library culture, and of the sense of fair play, encompassing both positive and negative feedback, that each library promotes for its employees.” ((P. 83. Burrows, Janice H. “Training Student Workers in Academic Libraries: How and Why.” Journal of Library Administration 21, No.3/4, 1995.))  Without time to invest there will be no student staff development. There needs to be time to plan, time to prepare, and time to spend with your student staff as well as time to show that you care. This needs to be planned into your schedule. Otherwise, unplanned expenditures of time with your student staff are going to seem like interruptions and hassles. There should also be time given, within reason, for student staff to develop into their roles. Students are not sea monkeys where they hit the water and start swimming and growing. My library currently has student staff in their second or third year of library employment who had rough beginnings but are now some of the library’s most valued employees. A particular senior student, early in her library employment, often missed meetings, was flustered easily by patron questions, and lacked confidence in her library role. She was given time to develop in her library position and has taken on leadership roles within the library. I can confidently assign her complex tasks with basic instructions, being sure that she will proceed as far as she is able, attempt some problem-solving, and contact me with any questions. As she is majoring in communications, she took ownership of updating the student staff handbook, allowing her to utilize skills and knowledge gleaned from her major to benefit her library role.

Practically Applying Assessment

The library staff responsible for supervising students need to communicate a shared standard of what a successful staff member looks like. Assessment is an integral part of this communication process. There are two levels on which assessment should occur. Assessment serves to examine quality of the job performed as well as the individual performing it. One of the articles that was particularly helpful to the overhaul of my library’s student staff development process was the article Gone Fishing by Carol Anne Chouteau and Mary Heinzman, in which they narrate the process by which they wanted to motivate as well as assess student shelving. ((See Carol Anne Choutea; Mary Heinzman. “Gone Fishing; Using the FISH! Business Model to Motivate Student Workers”. Technical Services Quarterly 24, No. 3, 2007. Pp. 41-49.)) The authors used paper fish to help motivate, train, and track student staff as they shelved books. We derived our own approach from this article. Instead of fish, we use approximately 250 8” tall die-cut owls, cut out of bright yellow paper and laminated. These owls reside in a box at the circulation desk. When books are returned, the student staff member writes their initials on an owl with a dry erase marker and after shelving the book places an owl to the left of that book. I (or the library’s part-time staff member) will, throughout the day, review the stacks to pull the owls. We keep track of the total number of owls shelved as well as mistakes. As a result, the precision of student staff shelving has improved. This process also highlights any consistent shelving issues and allows us to meet directly with the student to address them. The student staff member and I can walk back to the shelf, examine the issue, and they can fix it. This provides direct evaluation and ownership of the shelving process and gives opportunity for praise and recognition of students who are doing exemplary work.

Assessment should also focus on the individual. If working in the library is to contribute to student development, then individual assessment is necessary to communicate that how a student can grow in character areas as well as in skills areas. In my library we have adopted a rubric-based approach taken from Linda Lemery’s article “Student Assistant Management: Using an Evaluation Rubric”. ((See Linda D. Lemery’s “Student Assistant Management: Using an Evaluation Rubric”. College & Undergraduate Libaries 15, No. 4, 2008. Pp. 451-462.)) The hardest aspect I’ve found in the rubric-based approach is to present it to the student staff in a way that they can retain the categories and expectations without causing the rubric to be perceived as onerous. The rubric is used to clearly state what is expected from the student staff and staff supervisors. ((For a particularly helpful article on rubric use and writing see Megan Oakleaf’s “Using Rubrics to Collect Evidence for Decision-Making: What do Librarians Need to Learn?” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 2, No. 3, 2007. Pp. 27-42.))

In order to set a baseline of expectations, I meet with each student at the beginning of the year to set goals for the year. We discuss the strengths that they bring to the library and some areas of growth that they can focus on for the upcoming year. We also meet at the end of the year to review their progress. At that point the possibility of continued library employment is also considered. We also conduct regular staff meetings, typically occurring once a month throughout the semester. This helps to keep staff on the same page and offers an opportunity to address any questions or staff-wide trainings that need to be accomplished. Student schedules can pose some difficulty. I will follow up directly with students who miss the meetings, using Doodle to help in the scheduling process.

In our staff meetings, because not all of the students work together, we play a modified version of Cranium, breaking up the students into teams. Having students hum, draw, or act while trying to beat the clock or the other teams has been one of the most helpful aspects of establishing the feeling of a team and sense of cohesion and unity. That being said, a recent reduction in my library from two professional librarians to one has added a layer of difficulty. There is less time to spend with student staff, the extent of training has suffered, and team meetings have been sporadically scheduled.

Example 1: Building Stacks

What does the application of integrated student development look like in real life? I have two examples that illustrate ways of helping student staff connect their learning outside of the library with the successful completion of library tasks. We recently updated the layout of our curriculum lab which required book shifting and stack adjustment. There are two particular staff who share two evening shifts during the week. I took this opportunity to hand the specific project of adjusting the stacks to these two student staff individuals. Before the stacks could be built, the shelves had to be emptied of books and removed. The two students did a good job of removing the books in such a way as to allow them to still be largely usable while they completed the stack adjustment project. Granted, they missed a few things in the shelf re-building process that we had to go back and fix together. I might have been able to bypass this but I wanted to give them an opportunity to practice some of the mechanical and problem-solving skills I had observed. I had a fair amount of confidence in their abilities but wanted to confirm that they could work together, problem-solve effectively, and inform me of any issues. Library employment should offer students the opportunity to experiment with solutions to various issues. The development process is not clear-cut or a step-by-step program to success. Evaluating and assessing are not in place just to tell the student staff whether or not they hitting the mark, but to also highlight accomplished work so that the value of that work can be recognized. “Student success is promoted by setting and holding students to standards that stretch them to perform at high levels, inside and outside the classroom.” ((P. 269 Kuh, George D., Jillian Kinzie, et al. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 2005.))

Example Two: Video Project

A second example of how a library can work to develop its student staff can be found in projects that are not explicitly related to library employment. This semester a student staff member and I are working together on a series of short videos featuring professors from around the school talking about books they enjoy. The video series was the student’s idea. We tossed the idea back and forth, developed a loose script, emailed a handful of professors and dove into the project. As the project continues, I contact the professors, the student staff member oversees the shooting and editing, and we collaborate together on the other details of the project. This takes time. Time I could be spending doing other library work. However, a project like this not only benefits the library but also gives this student a chance to hone his interests, abilities, and skills as a filmmaker to craft some great short videos. He is also working with our campus videographer in regards to light, graphics, and layout, so there is a level of interdepartmental interaction and support. I deliberately try to make sure I’m not taking over the project. As questions about direction, shot angles, time limits, etc. come up, I consciously make the effort to push those questions back to him so that he is responsible for the final decision.

The idea for this video series developed because this student works in the library. If he had not been hired, we would not have crossed paths. While the planning, shooting and editing of the videos are outside of his regular library employment, the library has provided a platform from which he can grow this particular skill set. Additionally, these videos will serve as helpful marketing tools for the library. Creating the videos has also been very fun. It has provided interaction with professors on another level, helping them to remember the value of the library for students in their classes and their particular discipline.


One of the hardest parts of student staff development, in my mind, is transition. Student staff are eventually going to leave. They graduate, transfer, or find other employment. There needs to be mental preparation for this because, whether you realize it or not, you most likely have an expectation for the work that was done and now need to communicate that expectation to the individual who is going to fill the departed student’s staff shoes. For example, this fall my library had to hire for a maintenance position. This student staff member is responsible for emptying trash, filling the printers, changing light bulbs, etc. The student in that position and I work together to address the physical plant issues in the library. The previous student was fantastic. I relied on his responsibility and initiative. He was extremely consistent and followed through with each task. He graduated and thus a replacement needed to be hired. About two weeks into the semester there were tasks going unfinished and I realized that I had communicated the requirements of the job but not the expectations. I sat down with the new hire and he and I worked out a schedule and set expectations for how and when he was going to get his work done. It is very easy to expect new workers to simply be clones of previous excellent workers. Instead, student staff need to be held to an objective set of requirements that is clearly presented to them. This is why using a rubric-based approach is especially helpful, so that students are aware of our expectations.


I am not writing this article because I believe my library has the best student staff development approach. If you ever visited you would find a competent and effective staff but we are not without issues. Student staff development is not about creating a perfect student staff but rather helping students to develop an integrated, holistic view of their work and education, so that they are better equipped for whatever they end up doing post-college. However “…while the vision and potential of collaborative learning are enticing, the reality of implementation is much more challenging.” ((P. 101. Arum, Richard; Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 2011.)) Realizing student staff development as collaborating with student learning is hard work and there is no silver bullet to ensure success. However, I do believe that “supervising student staff is an amazing, exhausting and exhilarating experience.” ((P. 218. Scrogham, Eve; McGuire, Sara Punksy. “Orientation Training and Development” in Perozzi, Brian (Ed.) Enhancing Student Learning Through College Employment. Dog Ear Publishing. Bloomington, IN. 2009.)) I strive to operate with the assumption that my student staff are fantastic and I try to demonstrate that through my interactions with them, the tasks that are given, and the way that the hiring, training, developing and assessment processes are conducted.

This article is not meant to be merely illustrative of what one library is doing. As a profession we need to add the topic of student staff development to the conversations we are already having about the library’s future role in academia and public life. We need to recognize the value that student staff bring to their library positions. Recognizing that value will change how we talk about our student staff and how we talk with them. What are your student staff majoring in? What are they good at? What do they enjoy doing? How does what makes your student staff members interesting and unique contribute to the library’s impact on campus?  Let’s collectively evaluate our current student staff development processes to determine the level of integration with students’ learning outside of library employment.  If a library does not have concrete and evaluatory processes for student staff in place, those need to be established. We need to consider student staff development as something that not only improves our libraries but is significant in the holistic development of the library’s student staff. By making the effort to take these steps, we will realize the value of our student staff, the value of the work they do, and, ultimately, the value of the library.

Some of these conversations and discussion are already happening but on a limited scale. I understand that this can be a sensitive area for a librarian to discuss. In sharing what you are doing with your student staff you may feel as though you are stating “I have arrived and my student staff are flawless!” We should not wait for our student staff to reach perfection before we start sharing our processes and ideas with each other. The comment section of this article is a great place to start. I look forward to the discussion.

 My deep and sincere thanks to the eminently capable Lead Pipe editors-Erin, Ellie, Emily and Hugh-who gave copious insight and detailed feedback to direct and guide this article. My thanks as well to Josh Michael as external editor for his erudite input and our time together as colleagues.

Further Reading

Choutea, Carol Anne; Mary Heinzman. “Gone Fishing; Using the FISH! Business Model to Motivate Student Workers”. Technical Services Quarterly Vol. No. 3 2007. Pp. 41-49.

Jacobson, Heather A., Shuyler, Kristen S. “Student perceptions of academic and social effects of working in a university library”. Reference Services Review Vol. 41 No. 3, 2013.

Kuh, George D., Jillian Kinzie, et al. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 2005.

Lemery, Linda D. “Student Assistant Management: Using an Evaluation Rubric”. College & Undergraduate Libaries, Vol. 15 (4), 2008. Pp. 451-462.

Perozzi, Brett. Enhancing Student Learning Through College Employment Dog Ear Publishing. Bloomington, IN, 2009.

Slagell, Jeff; Langendorfer, Jeanne M. “Don’t Tread on Me: The Art of Supervising Student Assistants” The Serials Librarian
Vol. 44, Nos 3-4, 2003. Pp. 279-284.

2 Responses

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  2. Hannah Chapman

    This is a fantastic and thought provoking article. Having the experience of working at the campus library during my undergraduate career and now working in the access services department of another academic library, I can see the value in holding students to a higher standard. I am very grateful for my formative experiences during my undergraduate employment. How can we seek provide those meaningful experiences for student workers at large institutions, or to change the culture associated with being a student worker at a particular library?