I have an old photo of myself taken during my college orientation a few weeks before classes started. Instead of attending social events, I was…in the library. There I am, standing on a kickstool, pulling a book off the shelf, so absorbed in what I’m doing that I’m not even looking at the camera.
A month later, I was back in the library as a student employee. I worked in circulation and ILL all four years. After I graduated, I invited the ILL staff to my wedding—which isn’t too strange given that my future spouse was also a student employee.
The library was a great place to work—flexible hours, great customer service experience, and staff who cared about students (plus tons of books to explore while shelving). I learned a lot, and it’s probably no surprise that I eventually got my MLIS and became a librarian.
The Value of Student Employees
Since my college days, student employees have become even more important to academic libraries. As librarians tackle more responsibilities with fewer funds, student employees fill in the gaps. While I mostly shelved and checked out books, today’s student employees are making exhibits, helping with digital projects, coordinating social media, and staffing the reference desk.
Some campuses hire hundreds of students—just to work in the library. But no matter how many students you employ, each helps keep the library running. In many libraries, students cover night and weekend shifts and are the first, and perhaps only, employees patrons interact with. In fact, other students may seek out their peers instead of talking with a librarian.1
Common Student Training Challenges
With so many students doing so many things, training becomes a serious issue. Some common challenges include:
- High Turnover: Student employees are…students. Which means they graduate. Which means they leave the library. Which means you have to train a whole new batch of students. Every. Single. Semester.
- Lack of Time: Supervisors are responsible for training, but they’re also responsible for all the other parts of their jobs. If you manage a department or service point, creating, delivering, tracking, and updating training is no small feat.
- Student Schedules: Administering training to students with varying work and class schedules can be a logistical nightmare. Libraries pay students for training time, offer flexible scheduling, and bribe them with food. And they still may not show up in enough numbers to make it worth staff time.
- Translating Training into Practice: Even if all student employees attend mandatory training, what happens the first time they’re alone at the desk? When facing on-the-job dilemmas, can they implement what they learned over pizza and icebreakers?
Tips for Engaging and Effective Student Training
Training challenges can seem overwhelming, but they don’t have to be. The strategies below can make training more effective, engaging, and impactful.
Treat Training as Learning
Liz Vine (2022) points out that while training and learning are often seen as different, training is learning for both the trainer and the trainee. Effective learning-oriented training sets student employees up for success, reduces turnover, and increases engagement in and ownership of their work.2 Developing learning outcomes—what you want student employees to know and do—is the first step in impactful training. Grounding outcomes in professional guidelines, like the RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers, provides an easy way to plan and scaffold training.
Make Training Matter
Whelen and Rex point out that a “greater depth of understanding is critical to students’ job satisfaction” and that they want to “understand and connect to how their work relates to the larger mission of the library.”3 Trust that students will learn more and do better if they have the big picture. For example, instead of just telling them to maintain patron privacy, training in library ethics helps them understand why it matters.
Provide Training Beyond the Immediate Job
For many students, library employment will be their first experience in the workforce. Training in diversity, equity, and inclusion; cultural competence; writing professional emails; and managing conflict may seem tangential to students' work. But they’re skills we expect from permanent employees and skills students need to succeed in their future jobs. Many colleges are interested in the employability of their graduates. Training students in such skills—which they’re not likely to get in the classroom—demonstrates the library’s value in preparing students for the 21st-century economy.
Tie Training to Academics
A student’s first and most important job on campus is to be a student. Thoughtful library training can enhance student learning inside and outside of the classroom. For example, many students—even those who work in the library—might not know all of the resources the library provides. eResource training during those slow hours on the desk can help students become familiar with library databases. The more they know about what the library offers and how to use it, the more prepared they’ll be to help at the desk. You’ll also equip them for classroom research and create library ambassadors to share resources with their peers and professors.
Make Training Consistent and Constant
Consistent and constant training addresses all of the major challenges facing supervisors: high turnover, limited time, tight schedules, and loss in translation. Online training, in particular, is a great way to address the differences in quality that can happen on campuses with multiple libraries, across multiple departments in the same library, and even across multiple teams in the same department. Online training accommodates messy student schedules and, when broken down into small chunks, can be assigned throughout the semester so students are always learning on the job. Plus, students can easily access online training anytime—providing just-in-time help and freeing up your schedule.
Implementing (Almost) Effortless Training
Ok, but how can you possibly offer training that: is based on learning outcomes, is consistent and constant, prepares students for their futures, and connects to the big picture and academics? The Niche Academy platform helps you easily create and update online training customized to your library. Our platform allows you to assign training to specific students and includes built-in assessment tools to track learning.
We also offer ready-made training on library ethics, library anxiety, trauma-informed services, copyright, and reference interview skills. Our tutorials on cultural competence, DEI basics, digital safety, newsletter development, sexual harassment, and how to write professional emails help students gain essential skills for any job. Finally, dozens of eResource tutorials assigned during slow hours let students learn more about how to use—and help patrons use—your databases.
Want to learn more? Request a demo, and we can show you how to make training easier for you and more effective for your students.
1 Surtees, L. (2019). Training to Learn: Developing an Interactive, Collaborative Circulation-Reference Training Program for Student Workers, 810.
2 Vine, L. (2020). Training matters: Student employment and learning in academic libraries. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.
3 Rex, J.A. & Whelan, J.L.A. (2019). The undergraduate that could: Crafting a collaborative student training program. College & Undergraduate Libraries 26(1), 10-34.