Guest post by Roman S. Panchyshyn
Associate Professor, Catalog Librarian
Kent State University Libraries
An extensive body of literature is available on the topic of student employment and training in academic libraries. Some of this literature focuses directly on training students in technical services, and places a strong emphasis on training students for copy cataloging work. Many libraries have already used students very successfully to assist with cataloging workflows, and have taken advantage of students’ knowledge of foreign languages.
When projecting the evolution of technical services, I feel that economic and budgetary pressures will drive the emergence of what I refer to as the “student centered technical services” model. The traditional technical services functions, those taught to LIS schools graduates, include acquisitions, cataloging, serials control, electronic resource management, database maintenance, and bindery/labelling/repair. Many academic libraries already have students assisting with some of these processes, but much of the work is handled by full-time staff (professional and/or paraprofessional). However, with proper training and management, the bulk of this work can be performed by well-trained and competent students. The only exclusions to this may be work involving licensing and contract negotiations, and possibly some (but not all) original cataloging.
How would such a model work across all areas of technical services? It would start with strong leadership. There would still be a top-level administrative/professional position that would be responsible for the overall performance, efficiency, and direction of the department. But the most critical position would be that of a full-time student manager, staffed by a person having expert skills in hiring, training, coaching, mentoring and project management. This person’s primary responsibility would be the organization, training, and management of the student workforce.
The ideal student worker for selection would be an undergraduate that possesses skills the library needs (intelligence, foreign languages, technical are three examples) and that can be retained for a period of 3-4 years. Since this model is based on the elimination of many permanent positions, the more skilled and experienced students, 3rd and 4th year students will be performing the more complex tasks while the newer hires will perform the less complicated tasks. It will be the responsibility of the student manager to insure that the movement of student employees from lesser to greater skilled positions is constant and adequate to compensate for losses due to graduation. Graduate students with special skills (languages, library school internships) are also useful but may have a shorter window of employment.
What are some of the advantages of this model? For library administration, the elimination of many full-time positions will result in direct budget savings. There will need to be an increase in the student budget to provide compensation for the student employees, but the savings from the permanent positions will justify and cover this increase. Also, strategic and targeted hiring by the student manager will bring students with needed skills (language, technology) into the library workforce.
There are obvious advantages here for the students as well. Primarily, it provides employment and a source of revenue for the students, helping to pay their way through college or university. For international students, their job opportunities are often limited to working on campus, and the library may be their only source for employment. Students eligible for work-study will have some of their salary paid through Federal grants, not from the Library’s operating budget. While the jobs help to keep the students in school, this is also an opportunity for the students to learn about the library profession. This opportunity can be used as a recruiting tool for librarianship, especially when dealing with students from minorities and underrepresented populations. Also, supervisor recommendations from library positions will help students land permanent positions after graduation.
However, there are disadvantages to this model that have to be taken into consideration. The reduction of permanent staff may lead to the loss of institutional or historical knowledge in technical services. Student managers will face a constant cycle of hiring, training, evaluation, documentation and metrics. Somewhere in this model, time needs to be built in for research and evaluation of the workflows and training processes. For professionals in tenure-track positions, it may be problematic to find adequate personal research time.
I want to wrap up this post by saying that technical services managers, in the 21st century academic library, are the ones ultimately responsible for bringing into the library employees with the necessary skills to perform the changing and challenging work. Students with technical backgrounds can work with existing cataloging and acquisitions systems. Well-trained students can do original cataloging under supervision and contribute to cooperative cataloging projects. Students can also work effectively in peer groups, learning from and training each other. And there is one other long-term benefit. The creation of a large pool of former library employees and graduates can be used by the library development office as a potential source for library donations in the future.