They CAN and they SHOULD and it’s BOTH AND: The role of undergraduate peer mentors in the reference conversation

In Brief:

Academic libraries hire and train student employees to answer reference questions which can result in high-impact employment experiences for these students. By employing students in this role, opportunities are created for peer-to-peer learning and for a learning community to develop among the student employees. However, not everyone supports this practice. Some believe undergraduates lack the expertise to handle reference questions; others express a fear of “missing out” on consultations, assuming student employees will not make a referral. This article expands on Brett B. Bodemer’s 2014 article, “They CAN and They SHOULD: Undergraduates Providing Peer Reference and Instruction.” The author discusses why undergraduates can and should provide reference assistance and how in these situations, it’s both and. Undergraduates can receive help from both their peers and librarians; it’s not a dichotomy or either-or situation. This article reflects on the practice of peer-to-peer reference services, offers counters to critiques against this type of student employment, and provides insight on the opportunities available when librarians believe in both and.

By Hailley M. Fargo


We call them consultants. Navigators. Mentors. Assistants. Coaches. Educators. Leaders. These are some of the titles we give the students we employ in academic libraries; these titles convey a sense of expertise and leadership that our students bring to their positions. The way we name our student employees signal the ways we believe undergraduate students contribute to the library and the university’s mission through their work.

It is common for academic libraries to employ students and for some, the library may employ the highest number of students across campus. Our student employees help run, maintain, and support the library. Regardless of their role, student employees are a crucial cog in academic libraries. As student engagement experiences and high-impact practices continue to gain popularity as the “gem” of an undergraduate’s college journey, student employment in the library has great potential to provide students with the skills they need to succeed, academically and professionally. Librarianship has discussed how to set up meaningful student employee programs (see Guerrero & Corey, 2004; O’Kelly, Garrison, Merry, & Torreano, 2015; Becker-Redd, Lee, & Skelton, 2018). More recently, a group of librarians (Mitola, Rinto, & Pattni, 2018) looked at this literature to see how student employment in the library matched up with the characteristics of high-impact practices, as defined by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) and George Kuh (2008). If libraries can build student employment programs that use characteristics of high-impact practices, we have a chance to become leaders in this area of student engagement. As we think about how to build student employment opportunities, creating a peer-to-peer service becomes one option.

In reconsidering what student employment can look like in the libraries, we also are reconsidering what reference can look like in an academic library. We know that reference continues to change as we strive to find new and innovative ways to reach our users. Librarianship has devoted a fair amount of time and space in our scholarship to discuss the evolution of reference services. In the early 2000s, articles were written on the decline of reference questions asked in academic libraries, and there was a move towards shifting librarians off the reference desk, to allow librarians to focus on instruction, outreach, and liaison duties (Faix, 2014). The discussion around the future of reference went as far as author Scott Carlson (2007) saying reference desks will no longer exist by 2012. In 2018, reference desks still exist, and academic libraries have tried all sorts of ways to handle reference — one desk, no desk, many desks, desks with paraprofessional staff, desks with students, consultations models, and roving reference just to name a few. Based on the institution, size of staff, and funding, reference services can look different and often will evolve over time as the institution and staff change. Today, we still conduct reference conversations (( In this paper, I’ll use “reference conversation” instead of the traditional, reference interview. I believe that reference interview is limiting, especially in peer-to-peer spaces. Reference conversation is meant to more fully encompass and capture what happens when answering a reference question — a conversation ensues where both parties benefit and learn something new. )) with our users, but we are also thinking about how to staff these desks from different angles, including using undergraduates to provide foundational help during the research process.

In this article, I expand on Brett B. Bodemer’s 2014 article where he stated that, done correctly, undergraduates can and should provide reference services to their peers. Not only can and should undergraduates provide reference service in academic libraries, but in thinking about this opportunity, we have to understand how employing undergraduate students creates a both and situation in assisting users with research. In the reference landscape, undergraduates seeking reference help can receive this help from both their peers and librarians. Reference does not have to be a dichotomy or either-or situation with our students. Instead, we can view this as an opportunity to leverage peer-to-peer services, contribute to meaningful student employment experiences, extend our reach, and strengthen our reference services.

Overview and history of peer-to-peer services in academic libraries

Over time, we have asked our student employees to be the “face” of the library. This might mean they are the first employee users see when entering the building and help create first impressions for what the library can do (Brenza, Kowalsky, & Brush, 2015). Or, student employees might be involved with outreach initiatives and assist with marketing the library (Barnes, 2017). We ask students for their insight on advisory boards and help us steer the library in new directions. In asking our student employees to take on more responsibilities and help advocate and promote the library, we must ensure their experiences working in the library extend beyond directional and clerical duties. Peer-to-peer services have emerged as one way to empower our student employees in becoming stronger researchers, library users, and peer teachers.

A common way to view peer-to-peer services is through the peer-assisted learning (PAL) framework. PAL is a space in “which students can manage their own learning experiences by exploring, practicing, and questioning their understanding of issues and topics with a well-trained peer, untethered from the hierarchy inherent in formal instruction environments or in working with professional librarians and staff” (O’Kelly, Garrison, Merry, & Torreano, 2015). In thinking about this learning space, it is important to know that PAL is grounded in Lev Vygotsky’s concept of “zone of proximal development.” When a novice student researcher is working with a more experienced peer-mentor, both students “stretch” to meet each other in the middle. Both the peer-mentor and the learner benefit from the interaction because both are asked to learn something new in order to create new knowledge, together.

More broadly, scholars Topping and Ehly (2001) believe that PAL is a group of strategies that all carry these key values:

  • Those students that are helping their peers, also learn something in the interaction
  • This interaction always compliments, never supplements, professional teaching
  • Both the mentor and learner gain new knowledge through the interaction
  • All learners should have access to PAL
  • Peer mentors should be trained and assessed by professional teachers, who work with mentors throughout their time assisting learners

Academia has embraced PAL in a variety of ways, as seen through the various type of peer-mentor groups that exist on campuses. Some of these groups include writing tutors/consultants and tutors/mentors for a discipline or a class. Over time, libraries began building programs around the PAL framework. As Erin Rinto, John Watts, and Rosan Mitola say in their introduction to Peer-Assisted Learning in Academic Libraries, PAL gives “librarians…the chance to intentionally design and implement experiences that meet the criteria of these highly effective educational practices and create meaningful opportunities for students to learn from and with one another” (2017, p. 14). Many libraries have already embraced PAL, from the 14 case studies featured in Peer-Assisted Learning in Academic Libraries to other recently published case studies (Faix et. al, 2010; Wallis, 2017; Meyer & Torreano, 2017; Bianco & O’Hatnick, 2017). These case studies provide valuable insight into how to set up these programs, as well as the potential obstacles and benefits to consider.


Some colleagues worry about employing students in this peer-to-peer reference role. In this section, I expand on some of the common critiques given by librarians and library employees when considering or deploying a peer-to-peer model of reference support. In drawing out these critiques, I offer a counter to them, which could be used when advocating for our student employees in this model. The critiques I will explore are: the fear of “missing” out, quality assurance issues, and loss of professionalism when transferring some reference responsibilities to undergraduate students. These three critiques are interconnected and I will do my best to tease them out, while also including commentary on how peer-to-peer reference models can be setup to support the both and.

Fear of “missing” out

A top critique from librarians is concern over “missing out” on referrals and an opportunity to connect with an undergraduate student. This critique seems to come from a lack of trust or confidence in our student’s ability to answer research related questions and efficiently use library resources, but also some anxiety about being replaced with undergraduate students. Peer-to-peer services should never be created to be in lieu of, or to replace subject librarians. The role of peer-to-peer services is to complement subject librarians and also fill out the reference services landscape. By supporting and growing peer-to-peer services, we give our patrons another option for research support — a student employee who might have taken the class the student is seeking help in, a student employee who better understands the experience of being a student at the institution, or a student employee that can vouch for and recommend library services and support, like subject librarians. Sometimes that peer-to-peer recommendation goes farther than a faculty member or librarian suggesting to their students to set up an appointment or “use the library.”

We also know that librarians are “missing out” on reference conversations on a regular basis. In work done by Project Information Literacy, students who encounter obstacles throughout the research process are more likely to seek help from their peers, instead of a librarian (Head & Eisenberg, 2010). In this situation, having well-trained peer leaders can be instrumental in bridging this gap and helping students find and understand the information they need. In addition, undergraduate students do not always run on a “traditional” 9-5, Monday-Friday schedule. Student learning happens when they are situated to put what they have learned into practice — the “right” time to be situated happens at all hours of the day (Bell, 2000). Libraries, in employing students to provide reference at various times throughout the day, help these situated learners by meeting students when they are ready to learn.

Previous experience as an evening reference & instruction librarian confirmed that students need help finding information at a variety of times, and usually not during “daylight” hours (Fargo, 2017). Librarians are not always available when students need help finding information. Instead of these students fending for themselves, having peer-to-peer reference support, outside of the 9-5 schedule, allows for our students to still receive high-quality help. Again, the both and situation arises — perhaps a student will receive after-hours help from their peer and due to a positive interaction from this situation, they might be more likely to seek out a subject librarian for help on their next research project. Or, even if this satisfied student seeks out their peer again, the well-trained peer mentor will know when it is appropriate to pass this student along to the subject librarian for more extensive research help. In order to make these situations happen, we have to spend time training our student employees and helping them locate that sweet spot for a referral. Without this intentionality, we fall into the second critique — a decline in quality.

Decline in quality

Related to fear of missing out, some suggest that there is a decline in the quality of service provided by peers during a reference conversation. One way to ease this fear is to provide extensive, in-depth, and continual training for our student employees in peer-to-peer roles. In almost every article written about building a PAL program or training students to provide reference help, the authors discuss the importance of good training. Rinto, Watts, and Mitola (2017) mention this in their introduction saying “…it is essential that students are well-prepared for the demands of their position and are able to deliver high-quality learning experiences to their peers” (p. 10). Without well-planned and continual training for student employees, quality of interactions will undoubtedly suffer. From personal experience in building a peer-to-peer reference program, along with best practices mentioned in the literature, it takes about 15-20 hours of on-boarding, paired with regular staff meetings to share ideas, talk through previous reference conversations, and bring in library colleagues from various departments to provide additional training. As we train our students, we should do our best to use real-life reference examples, attempting to get as close as we can to an actual peer-to-peer interaction. When we fabricate examples, including fictional database names or articles, we signal to students that we do not take their role in the reference landscape seriously and this can lead to a decrease in quality of service. If we believe that our student employees are collaborators and part of our community, then we should use examples that we have seen previously.

Another way to ensure quality of service is to create a set of learning outcomes for the peer-to-peer program, which helps inform training and assessment. The assessment piece can be a way to quell concerns about quality of service and also garner buy-in from colleagues. Having a clear, internal communication plan about what success looks like for this program can also help get colleagues excited. At Penn State, our Peer Research Consultants (PRCs) took a “final” test after their initial onboarding. This “test” asked them to answer a reference question with a supervisor sitting in on the conversation. The PRCs were graded on a rubric that used the program’s learning outcomes to guide evaluation. Beyond onboarding, staff meetings, and a “final” test, many programs also ask student employees to reflect on a regular basis, such as after a reference conversation in order to help the student better understand their role helping their peers (Courtney & Otto, 2017). These reflections also provide insight to the supervisors about the types of questions being asked and any challenges their student employees might be facing.

In creating the training program for peer-to-peer services, coordinators should think strategically about how to communicate with other librarians and staff. This communication could include learning outcomes, training outlines, and assessment. Providing clear documentation can help ease fear around quality of work while also inviting colleagues to participate in training the student employees. These colleagues could be guest speakers at staff meetings or could drop in to introduce themselves to the student employees. Having an open dialogue with librarians, staff, and student employees creates an environment where everyone’s voice is heard and ensures quality service can be provided by all parties.

Another important element of training is deciding what a referral process will look like. Referrals can be sticky to handle and each library makes decisions about how a peer mentor/leader will make a referral. At Michigan State University, their Peer Research Assistants do not have a formal referral mechanism but are encouraged to share subject librarian information with the students they are helping (Marcyk & Oberdick, 2017); Hope College spends a good chunk of their training defining what a referred question will look like, and positioned the reference desk near the office of librarians that would handle the referrals (Hronchek & Bishop, 2017). Regardless of the process, there should be clear communication over what a referral will look like so that all parties know the expectations. The procedure for referrals will inevitably change over time and future iterations will be able to accommodate what is learned through trial and error.

Finally, in thinking about quality of service, there is something to be said around expertise. Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders. They know how to be a student at your institution and this expertise should be celebrated the same way we value subject and functional expertise. Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful. Lee Burdette Williams (2011) said it best,

There is no aspect of the collegiate experience…that cannot benefit from the involvement of a peer who explains, in language often more accessible, a difficult concept. A peer can talk with students…in ways even the knowledgeable professionals cannot. A peer will use communication tools, media, and language that may seem foreign to those of us even a decade older (p. 99).

As we create the training for our students, we need to make sure we are preparing them to succeed in their position. In this preparation, we also trust our students to rise to the occasion in providing the best service they can to their peers. Through professionalizing their role, we can show them their expertise is valued and this trust can help ensure quality of their service to all users. Often, our peer mentors will teach us as librarians about new ways we can discuss the research process to our students. As we think about ways to professionalize the students’ role in the library, the final critique we arrive at is the loss of professionalism for our jobs as librarians.

Loss of professionalism

When deciding to implement a peer-to-peer service in the libraries, some might discuss their anxieties or fears around a loss of professionalism if this service model shift occurs. If undergraduate students are able to handle reference questions, outsiders might assume that librarians are no longer needed, or you do not need as many librarians to staff a library. This is an incorrect assumption, as having a peer-to-peer service requires the dedication, time, and resources of one or more librarians to assist with hiring, training, supervision, and evaluation of the peer mentors. As Lee Burdette Williams states, “Peer educators should never be seen as a stopgap measure to save money. They cannot replace competently and committed professionals who have spent years learning and re-learning their craft, any more than teaching assistants can replace competent and committed faculty” (2011, p. 98). Competent and committed professionals are needed to help build and maintain this program and train students to do their best work. Not only does it take a large amount of time to build a program, but sustaining a peer-reference program requires a considerable amount of time from the coordinator(s) of the program. Our student employees should not be duplicating the efforts made by librarians; their role is to extend our reference landscape and set up our both and situation. By extending hours of available help and raising awareness about library resources through the student perspective, our users are in a better position to receive help from both their peers and librarians.

In some ways, being asked to create a peer-to-peer model of reference support is a way to utilize and leverage our expertise around providing reference services. Alison Faix (2014) says that “peer reference itself can be seen as another form of teaching, on where librarians first teach the reference student assistants, who then go on to help other students in their roles as peer information literacy tutors” (p. 307-8). Just like we know the benefits of undergraduates being asked to articulate a process and lead their peer to new knowledge (zone of proximal development), we ourselves are challenged to do something similar when building a new peer-to-peer service. In creating a peer-to-peer program, we are helping to build a community of practice for a wide range of library employees. This new community gives everyone involved the chance to talk about reference, the research process, and their practice of providing support in the library. In some cases, our student employees might challenge or push us to rethink how we answer reference questions and together, we will reach new knowledge and insight. For example, many of the ways I think about providing reference and supporting students in providing reference came from a community of practice between the student employees and myself working in my library. We need this community of practice and by collaborating and having dialogue with our student employees, we are strengthening our reference landscape. All of this work helps support a student-centered library and ensure our students are getting the help they need.

In thinking about professionalism and peer-to-peer reference programs, this reference landscape might be impacted by issues around labor and neoliberalism in higher education. For libraries that are a part of a union, there might be stipulations or requirements for what is allowed to be done by librarians versus student assistants. By asking students to perform reference responsibilities, some might see this as a way of deprofessionalizing the field and breaking the expected rules around who gets to do and be paid for what type of labor. In these situations, it can be helpful to return to the idea of both and, and be intentional about how labor is divided and valued. It is important to be critical and conscientious of these ideas when considering peer-to-peer reference programs; there are not a one-size fits all model for this. Luckily, much of the current literature on these programs are published as case studies, which can examine an institutional and library context, and show how they built a program within that context.

At the same time, academic libraries are faced with shrinking budgets and unfilled staff lines, fewer librarians for increasing enrollments, and new strategic positions that ask librarians to step outside of the traditional library setting to do their jobs. All of this contributes to less time to spend on a reference desk answering questions that may or may not fully utilize the skills librarians bring to that desk. It is in these situations that leveraging student labor in a meaningful way — through intentional and continual training that provides transferable skills, frequent interactions with library staff, and regular feedback to ensure success — can be a way to deal with these pressures within higher education. However, when implementing this, we should make sure the core motivation to creating these student services extends beyond labor and is centered on the benefits the library can provide through employment to our peer mentors. The experience, skills, and learning that can happen with our peer mentors should drive us forward because those are the experiences the library should be advocating and supporting.

Conclusion and next steps

To take action in supporting a peer-assisted learning approach, we have to be intentional about how we create, train, and assess student employees. This intentionality can help us move away from student employment in the library being transactional and instead, become a transferable experience (Mitola, Rinto, & Pattni, 2018). To make this transformation, we must take our student employees seriously and see them as collaborators and one piece of the larger reference conversation landscape. In viewing this larger landscape, we have to remember that students can help us reach more of our patrons and these situations will always be both and.

To create these meaningful employment opportunities, we must commit time to set up the training, provide the necessary scaffolding to give our students the skills they need to participate in a reference conversation and communicate our progress with all our colleagues, who might be removed from the day-to-day work of our student employees. What can drive us forward is knowing that if we are able to take the characteristics of high-impact practices — time that the student has to devote to their job, regular interactions with faculty and peers, space to receive formal and informal feedback, opportunities to establish connections to the campus and broader communities, diversity integrated all training, and projects that provide transferable skills to those who participate (Kuh, 2008) — and embed these characteristics in our employment opportunities, we can be leaders at our institutions. Well-constructed library employment can be a way for our students to not only learn more about the library, but also increase their own research skills (Allen, 2014; McCoy, 2011), gain transferable skills, experiences around leadership, time management, and working with others towards a common goal (Charles, Lotts, & Todorinova, 2017; Melilli, Mitola, & Hunsaker, 2016; & Beltman & Schaeben, 2012). Coordinators should think strategically about what long-term assessment can look like for their program in order to be able to document and share how student employees use these skills in positions after the library.

As with most new programs, building a peer-reference service means that you will inevitably get some pushback from someone. This pushback comes from a variety of places, including some of the fears and anxieties mentioned earlier. It is important to address these concerns in order to cultivate buy-in and create an environment where student employees can thrive in the library. At the same time, these concerns, sometimes from a vocal minority, can cause coordinators to lose momentum on these programs. Throughout the process, coordinators should be strategic about what assessment to put into place and collecting reflections from their student employees as the program evolves. Some of the most powerful and meaningful justification for these programs can come from the students themselves (Fargo, Salvati, & Sanchez Tejada, 2018).

Patricia Iannuzzi said in her forward to Peer-Assisted Learning in Academic Libraries, “Peer learning experiences provide a pathway for libraries to expand their teaching and learning mission…” (2017, p. xii). We have the opportunity to open up these pathways, reach our users, and prepare our student employees for their future careers. We need to take our student employees seriously and understand not only their role as peer mentors but also their role in helping us to make the library a better place.

Thank you to Annie Pho, Denisse Solis, and Rosan Mitola for their feedback, insight, and help in writing this article. Additional thanks to Chelsea Heinbach who is always a great sounding board in talking through new ideas (and the proposal for this article). Finally, I’d like to thank all the student employees I’ve had the chance to work with at the University of Illinois and at Penn State, especially the original Peer Research Consultants (Jackie, Sarah, Vik, Luz, and Kelly) — your enthusiasm, big ideas, and spunk is what makes me jazzed about advocating for meaningful student employment experiences and helps me to know that I’m on the right track.


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