Shelving the Status Quo: Improving the Student Employment Experience at Penfield Library

By Morgan Bond, Electronic Resources and Systems Librarian
State University of New York at Oswego,

Erin Kovalsky, Principal Law Librarian
New York State Unified Court System,


Zachary Vickery, University Archivist Librarian
State University of New York at Oswego


Student employment in academic libraries supports the overall student experience by both complementing traditional studies, and bolstering students’ sense of belonging. Three librarians at a regional comprehensive university worked to create and implement a Library Employment Program for college students in an effort to align with university and library missions, visions, and values. A critical examination of processes across four library units led to changes to the application process, onboarding materials, evaluative tools, and an increased focus on career preparation. Effectiveness of the changes were mixed; while positive results were observed with the adoption of a new recruitment platform and a more inclusive student employment handbook, new evaluative tools were difficult for student supervisors to use consistently, and students struggled with communicating transferable job skills. Creating a library-wide Student Employment Program offers opportunities to develop and utilize consistent practices for all student supervisors to follow, but generating buy-in can be difficult and time-consuming before demonstrable results are observed.

Student work at Penfield Library

SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library employs between twenty and thirty student assistants to work roughly 200 hours during the fall and spring semesters. Five library units (Access Services, Technical Services, Reference, Archives & Special Collections, and Resource Sharing) employ student assistants, with select students cross-trained to work in multiple units. Student assistants provide vital services in Penfield Library throughout the calendar year, including opening and closing duties, fulfilling interlibrary loan requests, and providing extended service hours at the Research Help Desk.

In 2020, three supervising librarians – Resource Sharing Librarian Morgan Bond, Access Services Librarian Erin Kovalsky, and University Archivist Librarian Zachary Vickery – began meeting regularly to discuss student employment and how to streamline the process of managing students across units. Some early issues identified were the inefficiency of the application process, inconsistencies in employment policies between library units, a lack of an incentive model to reward student employees over time, and inconsistent mentorship for future career opportunities.

Additionally, the authors identified concerns with student pay. Penfield Library has historically prioritized hiring students with Federal Work-Study awards. These awards are granted based on students’ expected family income, and are funded through the Financial Aid Office. The awards, while beneficial to both the students as well as the library, were a challenge to identify in a timely manner, and imposed limitations on supervisors’ ability to schedule hours or reward students with increases in pay.

In response to these concerns, the authors sought to research student employment in libraries and redesign the student employment experience into a cohesive Student Employment Program at Penfield Library.

Literature Review

Many students work part time during their years as undergraduate or graduate students, both on and off-campus. The experiences and skills learned during their college employment can directly impact academic success, career readiness, and other aspects of their lives.

A review of the literature exposes differing opinions on student employment. Some seem to feel it is necessary, though costly and laborious with little benefit to the library, while others feel it is a good opportunity for libraries to have a positive impact on student growth. The authors of this article belong to the latter school of thought. With this mindset, employers of student workers must acknowledge that this may be a student’s first job, and most likely their first time working or spending significant time in an academic library. Many students have not yet learned how to be a dependable employee; they need time to develop basic skills, not to mention skills specific to the library. Students are still developing in many aspects and the library can have a positive impact on their growth and maturation (McGinniss, 2014). In many cases, more time is spent with library staff than with an individual professor (Burke, 2011). It is important to recognize this time as beneficial beyond earning a paycheck. Employment during a student’s time at the university has been found to complement students’ studies by allowing them to acquire skills employers look for, such as: team work, written communication skills, critical thinking, and time management (Kuh, 2010).

Reframing student employment as a supporting aspect of their college studies, rather than a distraction or inconsequential activity, allows library staff to see this as an opportunity to support student growth. When students view their time spent training as a learning experience that contributes positively to their future career goals, it is important that the professional environment allows them to make mistakes and learn over time. Vine (2020) argues that training is learning, and supervisors of students must use a learner centered approach, including opportunities for reflection, rationale for completing tasks, and making connections with academic skills they’re learning.

An important aspect of a training program involving students is to provide opportunities for feedback. Feedback is provided in most courses, and instructors often include opportunities to improve assignments. Similarly, many employers provide or require periodic progress reports as a means to discuss employees’ performance and allow for improvement if necessary. Feedback and suggestions for improvement enables students both to grow personally and to contribute professionally to the institution. Taking the time to discuss issues with students can go a long way toward improving their performance and communication skills. As Burke and Lawrence (2011) state, “If the student employee is never told how to improve, they may never improve. The evaluation process also helps bridge communication. In many instances the student employee may have not done something wrong but just failed to communicate it effectively” (p. 101). Likewise, asking for feedback on training or work experiences can help improve the functionality of the program for other hires. It is with this in mind that the authors sought to incorporate better communication throughout all aspects of the Student Employment Program.

A new Library Student Employee Program

Why a “program?”

Inspiration for creating a Student Employment “Program” came through the work of a fellow librarian. In Atlanta, GA, in 2021, two of the authors attended the annual Access Services Conference, where Mechele Romanchock presented “Using Your Library Student Worker Program to Mentor for Job-Readiness.” In this talk, Romanchock spoke about the student employment program at Alfred University, located in Alfred, NY. Her presentation introduced the importance of thinking of student employment specifically as a “program,” because it allows the creative design, evaluation, and opportunities for change and growth over time as other programs would allow (Romanchock, 2021).

In preparation to design a Student Employment Program at Penfield Library, the authors sought to better understand student employment across campus. Some other campus departments hire significantly more students per semester than Penfield; which of their successful strategies could be utilized to improve the work experience in the library? The authors met with the SUNY Oswego Campus Fitness Center and Career Services. These meetings inspired several of the components of the final Student Employment Program, including an online application process and an improved evaluation process. With these project goals in mind, the authors rolled out updates to the program throughout the 2021-2022 academic year.

Federal Work-Study – a needs-based initiative

The U.S. Department of Educations’ Federal Work-Study Program provides funds to eligible employers for students with demonstrated financial need. Students are awarded a set amount of money for the academic year to work for an employer (typically the school they attend) or local nonprofit organizations (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).

Hourly wages must meet or exceed the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25. However, the State University of New York at Oswego adheres to the minimum wage for New York State, which is $15.00 as of January 1st, 2023. This is important to note as the allocation for an institution is not increased based on the student’s hourly wage, resulting in less cumulative hours paid by Federal Work-Study. If a student receives an award for $1500, for example, that amounts to roughly 207 hours of work at the federal minimum wage throughout the academic year. At the New York State minimum wage rate, that is reduced to only 100 hours of work. One hundred hours of work divided by 30 weeks in an academic year amounts to just over 3 hours of work per week. Three hours a week is clearly not a sufficient amount to generate a healthy paycheck, not to mention the inherent issues with providing adequate training and experience in such a short amount of time.

In order to combat this issue, when Work-Study students exceed the maximum amount awarded through financial aid, they are then paid through the library’s budget. Through this process, the student employees change from the status of Work-Study to Temporary Service. Other departments on campus avoid this issue by hiring only Temporary Service in order to pay students strictly from their departmental budget. However, doing so means that students with Work-Study awards are not prioritized for hiring.

In contrast, Penfield Library has historically made an effort to hire primarily Work-Study students. It obviously benefits the library to do so, by drawing less on the library’s budget. However, it also benefits the students themselves, as the Work-Study awards are issued based on need; students with Work-Study awards are typically economically disadvantaged based on the eligibility limits of the program, and truly require the funds in order to make ends meet. By allowing Work-Study students the first opportunities to apply and interview for positions at Penfield Library, the students most in need are provided equitable opportunities for student employment.

“Are you hiring?”

Prior to the implementation of the Library Student Employment Program, hiring students was a tedious and often drawn-out process. There was little transparency between the library units that were hiring; if a student asked to apply at the library, they were instructed to submit a generic application either online or in paper form, regardless if there were actually any open positions. Descriptions of positions and units were limited or nonexistent, which meant that applicants were not necessarily aware of the type of work they would be asked to complete (for example: public facing or more technical).

The online applications were printed and added to a folder with the paper applications, which was stored in the Access Services office area. The location of the applications was meant to be convenient for Access Services staff, who hire the majority of student assistants, but this arrangement resulted in an overly complicated hiring process for other units. Student supervisors outside of Access Services reported frustration with not having easy access to the application folder; by the time they sought out applications, the pool had already been picked through. The only applications left in the folder were candidates who had incompatible schedules or did not have a Work-Study award. Staff members would waste time reaching out to these applicants only to find out that, more often than not, the students were not a good match for the library’s needs (for example if they were only available to work on weekends). As a result, smaller library units had difficulty hiring students in a timely and efficient manner.

Other issues were identified by library staff as well. Since students were applying on a rolling basis, even if the library was no longer hiring, Access Services staff fielded constant questions about the status of library jobs that they were not equipped to answer. This led to frustrated complaints from both students who wondered if/when they would be contacted about employment, and for service desk staff who lacked adequate answers to these questions.

Hiring with Handshake

In 2021, following the guidance of the Student Employment Office, the authors updated the employment application process. Supervisors created accounts in the online job platform Handshake to manage student employment opportunities. Handshake allows each library unit to post and collect applications separately. Each job can be toggled for Work-Study, Temporary Service, or either. When toggled for Work-Study, only students with a Federal Work-Study award are able to see the open position and apply. This helps units hiring a large number of students automatically identify the students that qualify. Larger units, like Access Services, will often post an opening twice: once for Work-Study, and once for Temporary Service. This allows them to prioritize those students with Work-Study, but the students without Work-Study can still be considered and hired for any remaining open positions.

The detailed job descriptions in Handshake allow a hiring supervisor to thoroughly explain their unit and the services they provide in the library. They can share job duties and expectations, available schedules, and rates of pay. Students then apply for positions that suit their interests, skills, and availability, rather than submit a generic application for the entire library. The job descriptions include specific job duties and expectations, however students are not expected to have prior library work experience and will not be disqualified for not possessing any of these skills.

The applications have a set period during which students are welcome to apply. Once the application period closes, the posting is no longer visible except to those who already applied. This is helpful throughout the library, as any staff member – whether or not they personally hire students – questioned about open positions can instruct the student to check Handshake; if there are positions posted, there are still remaining vacancies and the student can apply. If the student has already applied, they can view their application status through the original posting. Further, supervisors can elect to share their contact information with applicants, so that students applying for open positions can follow up with them directly. Hiring supervisors are also able to communicate with applicants through the system, such as when a position has been filled, reducing inquiries of “When will I hear from you?”

Penfield Library Student Employee Handbook

As part of the program design process, the authors reviewed an existing eight-page Student Employment Handbook. The Handbook had been pieced together by members of the Access Services unit, and contained information that was handed down through multiple supervisory teams over the course of many years. As to be expected, much of the information outlined was specific to Access Services, such as content regarding cash handling and patron interactions. If and when other unit supervisors shared the Handbook with their new student employees, it came with the caveat that a significant portion of the content did not apply to them.

Other content in the Handbook was out-of-date, repetitive, and in some instances at odds with the University’s and Library’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals. The language of student expectations in the handbook lacked warmth and consideration for our employees as people within our student community.

For example, the original Handbook addressed attire with this paragraph,

Dress appropriately for a professional work environment. Specifically, this refers to (but is not limited to) no crop tops, low necklines, hats, short shorts, or pajamas. No underwear should be showing. If in doubt about your clothing choice, ask your supervisor. If your supervisor determines your attire to be inappropriate, you may be sent home without pay.

The authors found this text to be problematic, as the dress code not only exhibits gender bias, but also suggests that the inappropriateness of attire could be subjectively determined differently by different supervisors.

The use of language in the Handbook was changed to be more welcoming and inclusive. For example, text regarding the dress code was updated to reduce expectations for “professional” attire that may be cost-prohibitive for students who are already struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, the authors shifted focus away from the moral considerations of clothing choices, toward choices that support an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. The Handbook now reads,

At Penfield, we are casual and relaxed in our dress code. We expect good hygiene as you are working with the public. Student assistants may not wear the following while working:

    • Sunglasses
    • See-through clothing
    • Clothing that displays obscenity
    • No bare feet
    • Hoods must be down.

The authors also made changes to the language and procedures around termination. The previous procedures were structured in a way that three “strikes” against a student worker would be potential cause for termination. The policy stated:

1st is a verbal warning. Staff member giving warning will give an account of the situation that will be put in student’s file.
2nd is a written warning that is given to student and goes into student file.
3rd citation may result in termination.

The new Handbook procedures advise students and staff that if a student employee’s reviews indicate poor performance, they may not be re-hired the following semester. The updated policy allows supervisors to engage in coaching on professional etiquette, and reduces anxiety about infractions. The authors understand that our student employees are students first, and are often navigating a professional work environment for the first time. This process allows student employees the full semester to adapt and overcome any challenges. Exceptions are outlined for immediate dismissal based on certain situations.

The revised 15 page Handbook is designed for use by all units, ensuring that student assistants receive the same information and same expectations regardless of where they work in the library. It was expanded to include information intended to support student employees new to the library, such as descriptions of all library units and the services they provide, how the library collections are organized, customer service expectations, emergency procedures, and protocol for handling potentially abusive or dangerous patrons. Supervisors of students have specifically mentioned appreciation for the addition of language on handling difficult patron interactions, as these situations can occur anywhere in the library and are not limited to primarily patron-facing employees.

Finally, the Handbook had previously contained no mention of university offices located within the library building. While these offices are not affiliated with library operations, the library service desks often field questions about university office locations or services. The Handbook now includes descriptions of library building partners and their services, along with contact information.

Performance evaluations

Library unit supervisors have historically conducted student employee evaluations at the end of each semester, however there was little consistency in the methods utilized. Several versions of paper evaluations were in use until the spread of COVID-19, when working from home and minimal contact guidelines resulted in the need for an electronic form.

Zachary used the Access Services iteration of the paper form to create a digital version with minor modifications, namely radio button selections in five evaluative areas. The digital form was quickly adopted by other units to comply with pandemic distancing requirements. However, there were still issues with the form, as it was geared toward Access Services employees, who spend a significant amount of time on patron interactions. Other unit supervisors struggled to make use of the form as their student employees rarely engaged in public-facing work. The original form’s five evaluative areas – attendance/punctuality, dependability/accuracy, attitude, customer service, and overall rating – were not universal to student employment throughout the library; some units place far more emphasis in certain evaluative areas over others. Furthermore, the lack of description, examples, or a detailed rubric resulted in a wide range of interpretations among supervisors.

The authors worked closely with student supervisors to identify priorities for a new universal form, with the intention that all library units employing student assistants would use the same evaluation form and receive updates from the same source. Supervisors indicated that previously the entire evaluative process was overwhelmingly one-sided and did not invite students to be active participants; they surmised that guiding the evaluation process toward more discussion rather than grading would foster a stronger connection between the student employees and their work performance.

As a result of these discussions, the authors designed a new Student Employee Evaluation Form for supervisor use. Through Google Forms, the authors maintain a centralized edition of the Student Employee Evaluation Form and supervisors are directed to create derivative editions from this edition each semester. When changes are made to the original, those changes roll out consistently across units. Student supervisors in each unit collect and manage their own digital submissions via spreadsheet. Paper forms were completely eliminated from the evaluation process, aligning with the SUNY System-wide Print Resource Use Policy.

Updates to the form itself included expanding the evaluative areas from five to ten to encompass a wider range of skills and duties performed across units, with the inclusion of an “N/A” rating for cases where the student does not have those particular duties assigned. The new form features a space for voluntary student feedback to promote discussion regarding their personal experience of employment in the library. Finally, an optional step was added to the review process specifically for graduating students to reflect on their time in the library. This addition provides some prompts and encourages semi-guided contemplation and feedback on their experience of the program. The graduating student feedback helps unit supervisors develop the job duties, training materials, and job benefits toward greater satisfaction for other current and future student employees.

The evaluative rubrics used by supervisors previously were not shared with students at the time of hiring; students generally learned of them at their first evaluation. As a result of this, student staff may not have been aware of their supervisors’ expectations. McGinniss (2014) writes, “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.” To avoid assumptions about satisfactory versus unsatisfactory performance and clearly communicate expectations, the authors encouraged student supervisors to provide the rubric and discuss it with students at the start of their employment to set them up for success.

There were a few obstacles that arose as a result of the new forms. Student supervisors reported difficulty with using Google Forms, specifically with editing responses instead of inadvertently editing the form itself. The authors assumed that all staff were familiar with Google Forms, which was not the case. Student supervisors ended up printing the completed forms so that students could sign them and have a copy for their own records, which unfortunately contradicted the efforts to reduce printing mentioned previously. Additionally, there were reports of printing issues due to the length of the form; printing resulted in multiple pages for each student, but this was resolved by creating a set of instructions to reduce the number of pages printed in the Fall of 2022.

One student supervisor shared an example where the new process and forms were helpful in addressing problematic behavior. The student was made aware of tardiness and attendance issues and the impact it had on the unit in her mid-term and final semester reviews for two consecutive semesters, and suggestions for improvement were provided. Discussions between the supervisor and supervisee were conducted each time to make sure the student understood the issue and had a chance to respond. The student unfortunately failed to improve, but was not surprised when they were informed they would not be rehired and it made the conversation less uncomfortable for both the supervisor and the student.

Creating more opportunities for conversation between student employees and supervisors is an important component of the program. Students may be struggling with other aspects of their college experience, and the evaluation discussions are an effective way for supervisors to suggest other resources or to make adjustments to the students’ schedule or duties. Students don’t always feel comfortable initiating this sort of dialog, but providing them with an opportunity to ask for help can facilitate these conversations and increase their chances of success. The supervisor’s feedback in the example provided above was that the process was helpful because it offered the opportunity to give clear feedback on multiple occasions.

Paying it forward: student employee benefits

As mentioned previously, library student employees are hired at the state’s minimum wage rate. In the past, this rate was non-negotiable, regardless of how many years the student employee developed their library proficiencies, or what shifts the student employee worked. Full-time civil service library staff earn yearly pay increases as well as shift bonuses for working evening and weekend schedules. The authors met with the Library Director regularly throughout the development of this program to discuss these discrepancies and to work toward equitable student employment practices that align with creating a more cohesive and collegial environment. They argued that implementing pay raises over time and offering higher pay for evening and weekend shifts would build value in the Student Employment Program, both in terms of rewarding student employees for their essential contributions to services at Penfield, as well as encouraging professional growth toward career opportunities after college. However, increased hourly wages result in a student’s Federal Work-Study Award being depleted at a faster rate, so additional support from the library’s budget was required in order to continue a student’s employment after their award is exhausted.

Staff in Access Services began with creating a Student Assistant Lead position. This position was designed to fill two needs: (1) to provide adequate oversight of the main circulation desk and the building as a whole during evening and weekend hours, when full-time staff are not present; and (2) to build a higher level of responsibility into the program for those students who show exceptional commitment to library services and dependability as a colleague.

Following the success of the Student Assistant Lead position, other library units incorporated parallel tiers to promote returning students ready for increased responsibility. The Student Assistant Leads help with supervision and training of new student workers, as well as more technical tasks specific to their unit. Lead positions encourage retention by giving the student employees a path through which to develop additional career skills, bolstering their resumes for future employment. Additionally, the Leads earn an increase in pay to compensate for the more challenging schedules and complex work assignments.

Developing tiers of pay for student assistants did not come without its own challenges. Since the majority of Penfield’s student employees are initially earning pay through their Federal Work-Study awards, the Financial Aid office indicated that no changes could be made to the hourly rate. As mentioned, the authors discussed this at length with the Library Director. Many campus offices avoid this hurdle altogether by hiring students as Temporary Service employees, which allows them to designate the rate of pay separate from the Federal Work-Study award. However, turning to this practice would undermine the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts of the Library Student Employment Program. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Penfield’s Library Director, staff in the Financial Aid Office opted to update their policies to allow campus offices to determine a suitable rate of pay for their student employees.


Looking back on the design process and implementation of the Library Student Employment Program, the authors have identified areas for future improvement, including increasing student supervisor involvement as well as professional development opportunities for student employees.

Future improvement of the program will depend on regularly assessing which elements of the program are successful or require additional adjustments. To facilitate assessment, an annual review of the Student Handbook, job postings, and evaluation tools will be conducted by ad-hoc groups that include student supervisors to ensure the information and procedures are relevant and up to date. The ad-hoc groups will propose suggested changes for consideration by all supervisors at a scheduled meeting prior to the beginning of the fall semester. This review plan is being implemented to minimize requirements of supervisors’ time, yet still allow for (and encourage!) their involvement.

It should be noted that the time of year in which student employees are regularly hired and trained – the beginning of fall and spring semesters – is typically also the busiest and most stressful for supervisors who have multiple responsibilities to manage. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically exacerbated this issue, as staff vacancies contributed to overwhelming workloads. With little to no expendable time available, staff are understandably reluctant to take on additional work. Further involving the student supervisors in program improvements will need to be adequately motivated by the evidence of tangible benefits.

Throughout past meetings with student supervisors to discuss the many components of the program, the authors recognized a recurring discrepancy in the connections that supervisors develop with the students, varying from supportive mentor-mentee relationships to more informal relationships where student employees are seen merely as temporary assistance for menial tasks. These discrepancies are likely owed to the individual student employees’ variance in dependability and dedication to their work in general; supervisors are more or less likely to spend their time and energy engaging with student workers based on the students’ demonstrable appreciation for their time and energy. Supervisors are willing to support student employees who demonstrate interest and reliability, but are equally resistant to support student employees who are regularly tardy or absent with little regard for how this impacts library services.

This challenge has proven to be difficult to overcome. The authors hoped that development of the Student Employment Program would encourage greater involvement and dependability from student workers; if the rewards and benefits are great enough, it should motivate student workers to consistently build on their library proficiencies and collegiality. However, without complete buy-in from student supervisors, the rewards and benefits are not necessarily apparent enough to student employees to encourage greater participation. The situation presents a catch-22 in which neither party is fully committed; the supervisors who attempt to mentor absent students feel that their time is wasted, while the students who lack meaningful connection with their supervisors fail to reap the constructive benefits of their support.

To alleviate the catch-22 of student and supervisor buy-in to the program, the authors are considering soliciting feedback from graduated student assistants to support evaluation of the program and to help guide updates toward specific outcomes. Hearing about student successes post graduation, or their thoughts on how student employment might have been even more beneficial can help supervisors design a more meaningful work experience at Penfield Library. Ongoing evaluation and redesign is required to keep the program relevant and successful for both incoming student employees as well as their supervisors. While student employees are building their academic profile and planning future careers, library staff interactions with students can be invaluable, as students often spend more time with colleagues and supervisors than any individual professors (Burke, 2011).

Supporting stronger connections between student supervisors and student employees can be fostered through professional development opportunities specifically geared toward staff. Morgan and Zachary met with student supervisors in the fall of 2023 and identified various listservs, webinars, and online courses that staff could engage with. The authors feel strongly that professional development should be built into a regular work routine, which necessitates departmental discussion on how to incorporate such expectations into a busy daily schedule.

In the fall of 2022, the authors coordinated with Career Services to host an optional, paid resume workshop for student assistants. After a discussion with the Head of Career Services, it was identified that articulating transferable job skills gained in the library and other campus offices during their studies to prospective employers is a weakness for students. The session was intended to not only make students aware of how skills learned as a library student assistant could be applied to future positions, but also how to specifically describe their skills in relation to job postings. Low attendance was recorded for this event; only 5 out of 23 student assistants participated. The timing of the workshop may have been a factor, as it is difficult to plan around so many different class schedules. While the idea to host multiple job skills sessions never came to fruition, it is still a consideration for future workshops.

In the spring of 2023, Morgan and Zachary worked with library staff in Access Services to gain a preliminary understanding of what students believed they were gaining through their employment at Penfield Library, particularly related to professional development and communication skills. Intermittent discussion prompts were shared on a poster size presentation easel in the staff area, where student employees were encouraged to respond anonymously. The authors hoped for a high response rate in this location, as Access Services employs the highest number of student assistants within the library, and the area remains open and accessible to student assistants during scheduled working hours. Furthermore, the authors hoped the proximity of the prompt to their actual work stations would encourage students to make connections between what they learn while working at the library and how it is transferable or complementary to their studies and future employment.

The six prompts students were given are as follows:

  1. What surprised you about working at Penfield?
  2. What skills have you learned while working here?
  3. What are your future goals?
  4. How do you apply what you learn in your job to class or life?
  5. In one sentence, how do you describe what you do at the library to friends or family?
  6. What advice would you pass along to a student on their 1st day of working at the library?

Anecdotal feedback was positive; students enjoyed this activity and readily engaged with most of the prompts. The prompt which received the fewest number of responses: “In one sentence, how do you describe what you do at the library to friends or family?” provided the authors with insight into career readiness; the lack of answers suggests that students struggle with identifying what skills they are learning or developing while working in the library, and as a result are not able to articulate these skills to others. This is an area the authors would like to improve with additional career readiness workshops run by Career Services. Future question design for this activity may have direct focus on NACE Career Readiness Competencies (NACE, 2023), helping them to make connections between their employment with the library and future career readiness skills.

Creating a sense of inclusion and comfort are important qualities in an academic library, and the authors and student supervisors were pleased that some students can identify their role in these efforts. Though there were few responses to question #5, one student employee described the value of their work: “Interact and make [patrons] feel at home.” This particular student was able to articulate the impact of their attention to creating inclusivity within the library. Additional workshop and coaching opportunities can help student supervisors reinforce these impactful skills sought after by employers, and help students to draw connections between their library work, academic endeavors, and future aspirations. For the student employees, the workshops can help them to effectively communicate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Not only are students developing skills future employers value through experience, but a well-structured student employment program can also support universities’ retention and engagement efforts by contributing to students’ sense of belonging and connection with others on campus.

Building your own Library Student Employment Program

Building a Library Student Employment Program is a large undertaking, and while the authors experienced benefits as well as some disappointments with the overall success of the program, they generally agree that the time and effort was worthwhile. Should any readers feel inspired to start a similar program, we recommend these considerations for preparation:

1. Starting a program requires commitment

Form a core group or committee to create a plan for the program with a documented structure of who will take which actions and when. It is important to have an outline for implementation with clear instructions, so that changes to staffing do not create delays. Any staff member – whether seasoned or brand new – should be able to follow the program and implement the procedures consistently.

Consider creating a project manager type role for the program. If there is no space for a project manager type role, create roles for communication (scheduling meetings, distributing surveys, collecting feedback) and delegation (set goals, review timelines, work with communication person to complete things in a timely manner).

For example, while our core group of supervisors consisted of multiple members, the authors spearheaded the implementation of the program by meeting regularly, following a timeline to update or create various components of the program, and generating documentation to help others fully participate in the program (i.e. the Student Handbook, instructions on how to post jobs in Handshake, guidelines for student evaluations, etc.).

2. Designing a program requires time

The program at Penfield Library took a total of eight months from idea to implementation, plus additional time for evaluation. While the work itself may have been completed more quickly, schedules did not always line up for full participation. Meeting with constituent groups, such as library administration, campus offices, or student supervisors is time consuming, but a necessary investment, as these meetings can lead to considerations or solutions that might not be obvious otherwise.

Consider how and where students can be involved in the design of the program; some potential activities could include collecting anonymous feedback about official documents like a handbook or manual, creating space for answers to open-ended prompts related to professional development, or including student representation within the program design group. It may take a semester or two to collect this feedback, so plan for assessment of the data well into the future.

3. Implementing a program requires flexibility

Consider that supervisors may not support all aspects of the program. Job application management systems like Handshake may provide a more equitable application experience for students, but approving users and coordinating supervisor roles may take additional time if system management occurs outside the library. Technology in general can be a barrier, especially when training to use new systems or to follow new methods is time-prohibitive.

Student supervisors also have different styles of management. Some may prefer informal evaluation tools over a standardized form, or may not have the time to request and reflect on student self evaluations in the middle of a semester. The authors recommend sharing all operational documents and forms created for a program with all student supervisors, regardless of buy-in level, to provide awareness of changes in the student employment experience. If there is not full buy-in among student supervisors, the working group may need to facilitate additional changes, provide options, involve library administration, or perhaps simply accept that some units will function on their own outside of the program.

4. Evaluating a program requires patience

Evaluation is what differentiates a program from an action. Program creators will best understand the status of a program by gathering feedback and analyzing the results against desired outcomes. The authors discovered challenges with initial plans for evaluation when staffing changes occurred, in particular the creation of new professional lines. New participants inevitably lead to more suggestions for improvement, as well as concerns with existing methods. Tackling and resolving issues at the point of identification is tempting, but is less efficient than having a clear plan for assessing the success of the various program elements and then addressing those elements systematically.

It can be a long process to effectively determine how changes to the program will improve the student and staff experience. As mentioned previously, not everyone’s experience of the program will be the same; student supervisors may love or struggle with different elements of the program. Likewise, a change that makes student supervisors happier may be totally undesirable for the student employees. It is important to gather as much data as possible before implementing changes that may not be holistically welcomed or appreciated.

It may be necessary to invest in additional education and professional development with attention to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, best practices for developing project management skills, and review tools to measure program success. This can help the working group create changes that align with university and library values, and can also help the program participants themselves understand how to contribute to the program more effectively.


Our library is increasingly relying on employing students to maintain essential functions, especially as full time staffing numbers decline, a trend many academic libraries are experiencing. This shift toward the increased role of students to maintain essential functions should not be approached lightly. Rather, a thought-out plan and program can make the work experience beneficial for both students and full-time library employees. Time spent working in campus libraries can and should support an institution’s focus on student growth and learning while providing an opportunity for libraries to directly impact students’ professional development.

We recommend that other libraries explore creating their own student employment program, with consideration to operational needs and alignment with the mission, vision, and values of their institution. A thorough review of official documents used by supervisors and students should be conducted to identify ways to support inclusivity and accessibility. Even if some components of the program are not successful, it is important to continue evolving the program with a focus on supporting student growth as entry-level professionals in a workplace. When components of the program are unsuccessful, supervisors should take the time to examine what factors caused it to be unsuccessful, and seek out feedback from library staff and student employees to improve the program.


Burke, K., & Lawrence, B. (2011). The accidental mentorship: Library managers’ roles in student employees’ academic professional lives. College & Research Libraries News, 72(2), 99-103. doi:

Kuh, G.D. (November 21, 2010). Maybe experience really can be the best teacher. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Melilli, A., Mitola, R. & Hunsaker, A. (2016). Contributing to the library student employee experience: Perceptions of a student development program. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 42(4), 430-437.

McGinniss, J. (2014). Working at learning: Developing an integrated approach to student staff development. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (n.d.) What is career readiness?

Pierard, C., Baca, O., & Schultz, A. (2022). Connecting student employment to student learning and post-graduation goals: Findings from a multi-semester study. Journal of Library Administration, 62(5), 633-655.

Romanchock, M. (2021). Using your library student worker program to mentor for job-readiness [Conference presentation]. Access Services Conference, Atlanta, GA, United States.

U.S. Department of Education. (2014, April). Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program. U. S. Department of Education.

Vine, L. (2020). Training matters: Student employment and learning in academic libraries. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Waltman, J. C. (2021). The library student employee as student: Using learning outcomes to develop an instructional approach to training. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 28(3/4), 332–345.


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