Library Working Environment: From the Perspective of Student Workers

Zheng Ye (Lan) Yang
Texas A&M University
United States
zyang@tamu.edu

ABSTRACT: Student workers are an indispensable component of library operations. They play an important role in delivering good library services to the patrons. Without student workers, the library would not function as effectively as it does. Literature search yields few papers addressing the topic of how student workers perceived their employment in the library. The author of this paper intends to fill the void in the literature by asking student workers in her interlibrary loan and document delivery department how they perceive their library jobs, the working environment, and the work ethic of staff and fellow students. The author would also like to find out how well students communicate with their supervisors, what training method is most preferred by student workers, what motivates students to do a good job, and what most often triggers their resignation from the library. Giving student workers an opportunity to voice their concerns/suggestions is a proactive way to lead the department to continue to serve successfully. Success and efficiency of a libraryís operations depend greatly on student workers.

I. Introduction

The Interlibrary Services Department (ILS) of the Texas A&M University Libraries is highly regarded by the entire campus community [1]. Library patrons are impressed by the speedy services they receive from ILS, which consists of borrowing, lending, and document delivery services. On the average, about 800 interlibrary loan and in-house document delivery requests are processed every working day. The turnaround time is within 24 hours for lending requests, under five business days generally for borrowing requests, and less than 72 hours for most in- house document delivery requests [2]. ILS includes ten full-time paraprofessional staff members, one part-time employee, and one professional librarian. In addition, we have 19 student workers whose combined working hours (264 hrs/wk) are equivalent to 6.5 full-time employees.

II. Literature Review

Student workers are an indispensable component of the library workforce. They play an important role in delivering good library services to patrons. Without student workers, the library would not function as effectively as it does. Literature search on student workers/student employees/student assistants and library/libraries yields hundreds of hits. The Journal of Library Administration edited by William K. Black devoted an entire issue to libraries and student assistants. This volume provided "a broad view of the role and importance of student assistants in our libraries, from the history of student workers, through recruitment, policy, and development matters, to role and career issues, the international perspective, and further resources on the topic." [3] Many papers illustrated the experiences of training the student workers to make them effective team players [4]. Baldwin detailed how to successfully manage student employees in the academic libraries [5]. Constantinou shared the experience of motivating student assistants [6]. Benefiel told the story of how Texas A&M University Library rewarded and recognized its student workers [7]. However, very few addressed the topic of how student workers perceived their employment in the library. Walker and Fliotsos did a survey of student workers at Winthrop University Libraries [8]. This was the only article retrieved from the literature search that was written from the studentsí perspective. Their findings suggested that while there were random complaints about supervisors and workload, students were, overall, satisfied with their duties.

III. Purpose of the Current Study

The author of this paper intends to conduct a similar but more in-depth survey by asking the student workers in her interlibrary loan and document delivery department how they perceive their library jobs, the working environment, and the work ethic of staff and students around them. The author would also like to find out how well students communicate with their supervisors, what training method is most preferred by the student workers, what motivates the students to do a good job, and what most often triggers their resignation from the library. Giving our student workers an opportunity to voice their concerns and suggestions is a proactive way to lead the department to continue its successful service. The author, who is the head of the department, can use the studentsí responses to get a sense of how the students regard their supervisors and staff members in the ILS. She can also use student workersí responses as a mirror to gauge their morale. Problems, if detected, can be dealt with immediately, rather than allowing them to affect the productivity of this highly demanding library department. It is our belief that the success and efficiency depend greatly on the student workers.

IV. Methodology Employed

The author distributed a survey (see Appendix) in the fall semester of 2005 to all nineteen student assistants currently employed in ILS. She reiterated to each student that the questionnaires should be answered honestly and anonymously and, once completed, should be left in the authorís mail box. The response rate was one hundred percent. Results were tabulated manually because of the size of the survey population.

V. Survey Findings

The following two tables illustrate the profile of the nineteen students in ILS.

Employment Duration Number of Student Workers % of Student Workers
Less than one year1052.6%
One year315.8%
Two years210.5%
Three years315.8%
Four years15.3%

Student Classification Number of Student Workers % of Student Workers
Freshman15.3%
Sophomore421.1%
Junior526.3%
Senior736.8%
Graduate210.5%

The ILS has a total of 264 hours per week of student help. Two student workers (30.5 hrs/wk) work in the borrowing unit, six (92.5 hrs/wk) in the lending unit, and eleven (141 hrs/wk) in document delivery. Only five students found the job in the ILS strictly through searching the website of Jobs for Aggies while the rest were recommended by friends who already worked in ILS.

All the student workers indicated that they were informed by their supervisors of the rules and expectations of the job when they were hired, and all of them affirmed that they had a clear understanding of the mission of ILS.

The majority (84.2%) of students were not in favor of having a Handbook of Studentís Rules, sixteen of the students stated that they would not read the handbook, and only three (15.8%) were interested in having one.

All but one (94.7%) of the students acknowledged that their supervisors did continue to check with them periodically to make sure that they understood the work process. However, six (31.6%) students did not think supervisorsí follow-ups were helpful in their performance, nor did they feel the follow-ups make much difference in the way they performed their jobs.

Sixteen (84.2%) stated that they learned the job through their supervisorsí thorough training while three (15.8%) didnít think that their supervisor trained them thoroughly but learned the job through self training, try and error, and/or asked others.

Fewer than half (47.4%) of the students would like to have a student training manual as a reference guide that details the step-by-step process of the work. Ten (52.6%) didnít think it was necessary to have such a guide.

Ten students (52.6%) liked the idea of having a library tour as part of their training to gain an overall knowledge of the TAMU Librariesí operation, but nine (47.4%) didnít believe that this would be helpful in doing their jobs. All six lending students turned down this option, but both borrowing students who serve at the ILS service counter would like this opportunity.

Only one student (5.3%) deemed that the daily job assignment was too much while the rest (94.7%) all regarded their job assignments as adequate.

When reporting to work, nine (47.4%) student workers preferred to be assigned to a specific task (e.g., given x number of pull slips for floor searching and scanning, or given x number of requests for ordering). Of those nine, eight worked for in-house document delivery and one was from lending. Five (26.3%) students preferred to decide how many requests that they could process each day. Of those five, three were lending students, one was from document delivery, and one was from borrowing. Another five students (26.3%), two from lending, two from document delivery, and one from borrowing, preferred to meet with their supervisors and decide what they would be expected to do each day.

Fifteen students (78.9%) felt that they worked as hard as their fellow student workers, three (15.8%) considered themselves worked harder than their fellow students, and one (5.3%) modestly recognized that his peers worked harder than he did.

Eleven students (57.9%) perceived that they worked as hard as their supervisors while eight (42.1%) regarded their supervisors as working harder than they did.

None of the students felt that they worked harder than the staff members in ILS. Fourteen students (73.7%) believed that staff members worked as hard as they did, and another five (26.3%) judged that staff members worked harder.

Only two students (10.5%) didnít feel that their supervisor kept them informed about any changes in the procedures, workflow, or tips.

Thirteen students (68.4%) felt free to voice their frustrations or concerns to their supervisors while six felt intimidated by their supervisors.

When asked if they could freely voice their frustrations or concerns to other staff members of ILS, seventeen (89.5%) agreed while two (10.5%) still didnít feel comfortable in doing so.

Two students (10.5%) indicated that their supervisor did not treat them with respect, but all nineteen students concurred that other staff members in the ILS treated them respectfully.

Regarding receiving feedbacks from supervisors, the majority (sixteen students, 84.2%) preferred that it be done in private, two students (10.5%) preferred via email, and one (5.3%) preferred that notes, announcements or tips be posted in a central location for everyone to read. The majority of students (fourteen, 73.7%) would rather have timely feedbacks if their work did not meet expectations than be evaluated by their supervisors at the end of each semester.

A little over half (ten students, 52.6%) liked the idea of having a meeting with all ILS students at the beginning of each semester so as to be better informed about expectations, rules and regulations, but nine (47.4%) didnít think that necessary.

As to what motivated them most to do a good job, seven students (36.8%) believed, "I made a commitment, and I would like to carry it through." Six students (31.6%) thought, "a sense of accomplishment in a job well done." Three students (15.8%) felt, "everyone works hard in the ILS, and I want to contribute, too." Two students (10.5%) chose, "I feel appreciated." And one student (5.3%) selected, "my supervisor sets a role model for me."

Fifteen students (79.0%) agreed that they were fairly rewarded with pay raises based on their performance, two (10.5%) disagreed, and another two (10.5%) had not yet received raises.

In regard to the primary reason students chose this job, eight (42.0%) responded "learning to balance my time between work and studies," four (21.1%) chose "purely to earn money," another four (21.1%) selected "training myself to be a responsible person," and three (15.8%) indicated "gaining some work experience."

More than three fourths (16) of our student employees were happy working in the ILS. Three (15.8%) indicated that they were somewhat happy. None chose "I am not happy working in the ILS, but I need to earn money."

Other than school pressure, lack of time for school work, or to find a job more relevant to the studentís field of study, "the pay is too low" (chosen by eight students, 42.1%) was the trigger which would prompt most of our students to quit the library job, followed by "the job is too boring" (three, 15.8%), "I am not treated well" (three, 15.8%); "the job is too tiring" (two, 10.5%), "I donít get along with my supervisor" (two, 10.5%), and "the working atmosphere is not good" (one, 5.3%). None chose "the work distribution is not fair" or "I donít like the people."

All our nineteen students would recommend a friend to work in the ILS if there were a vacancy.

When asked if they would consider working in a library after graduation, only two (10.5%) gave a positive "yes," seven (36.9%) firmly discarded the option, and ten (52.6%) thought "maybe".

Many students added suggestions, comments or wish list that would help improve the workflow in ILS.

One wrote, "I am leaving after this semester, but if I were to stay, a student training manual would be great to refer to if needed. I recommend giving one to every new employee."

One added, "It would be good to have a follow-up work fair for those that have left for a while because there could be new additions to the operations."

One commented, "Although the work is sometimes repetitive, the people here are wonderful!! I really do not expect much more from ILS. I am appreciative of how all staff members help in every way and how they truly take time to meet your needs and answer your questions. It is a very relaxing atmosphere."

One thus expressed, "Thank you for all the wonderful experiences."

One was happy that "Everything as of now works smoothly and I am content with that."

VI. Conclusion

The author shared the survey results with her staff members. All were pleased to know that, in general, student workers at the Interlibrary Services of the Texas A&M University Libraries feel very positive about the work environment. They perceive that everyone in the department works hard to achieve the mission of the TAMU Libraries which is to provide superior service and expedite requests from the patrons. Student workers and their supervisors maintain good working relationships. Low pay is considered to be the number one trigger to force student workers to quit the library job. Based on the survey responses, we will have a general meeting with the student workers to reiterate the departmentís policies, work processes, studentsí responsibilities and our expectations at the beginning of each semester. Students will also be encouraged to contribute ideas regarding workflow and work load. We will require our student workers to attend a walking tour of the library so that they can provide minimum assistance to and proper referral for the patrons, if needed. Supervisors will compile a working manual for our students. We will continue to give our student workers raises based on their performance once every two semesters. Respect and appreciation go both ways, only when we treat our students well can we hope to retain them for as long as possible with good performance and high productivity. The in-house document delivery unit will continue to assign x number of stack slips to the student workers based on the number of hours they work on a given day. We estimate that each student can complete 12-15 requests within one hour, including floor searching and scanning. We believe that this is the best way to control how many documents we are able to supply everyday. Two students indicated they had some difficulty communicating with one supervisor. The author coached the supervisor and offered some suggestions as how to communicate in a sensitive way.

One of the student workers added at the end of the questionnaire that "Thank you for taking the time to listen to student workersí opinions on the work environment. I believe this is truly a positive step in the right direction! Thank you for always making us feel respected and appreciated!" This statement echoed Walker and Fliotsosí "Conducting a survey or discussing issues in small groups can open channels of communication between students and supervisors and promote a more positive working atmosphere." [8]

Reference

[1]. Yang, Zheng Y. (, 2004). "Customer Satisfaction with Interlibrary Loan Service Ė deliverEdocs: A Case Study." Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Information Supply, 14(4), 79-94.

[2]. Yang, Zheng Y. (2006). "Improving Turnaround Time for Document Delivery of Material Owned But not on the Shelf: A Case Study from an Academic Library." Journal of Academic Librarianship, (to be printed in March, 2006)

[3]. Black, William K. (Ed.). (1995). "Libraries and Student Assistants: Critical Links." Journal of Library Administration, 21(3/4).

[4]. Poole, Erik; Grieco, Frank; & Derck, Heather. (2001). "Training library student assistants: Bloomsburg University's interactive instructional program." College & Research Libraries News, 62(5), 537-8; Neuhaus, C. (2001). "Flexibility and feedback: a new approach to ongoing training for reference student assistants." Reference Services Review, 29(1), 53-64; Borin, J. (2001). "Training, supervising, and evaluating student information assistants [at California State University, San Marcos]." The Reference Librarian, 72, 195-206.

[5]. Baldwin, D. A., et al. (2000). Effective management of student employment: organizing for student employment in academic libraries. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited. 334.

[6]. Constantinou, C. (1998 )."Recruiting, training and motivating student assistants in academic libraries." Catholic Library World, 69(2), 20-3.

[7]. Benefiel, C. R., et al. (1993). "Recognizing and rewarding excellence: a scholarship program for student workers; how Texas A&M University library honors outstanding staffers and encourages careers in librarianship." American Libraries, 24, 812-14.

[8]. Walker, L., & Fliotsos, Ann. (1992). "Student assistants and their expectations [50 work-study students surveyed at Winthrop University]." The Southeastern Librarian, 42, 69-71.


Submitted to CLIEJ on 22 August 2006.
Copyright © 2006 Zheng Ye (Lan) Yang

Yang, Zheng Ye. (2006). "Library Working Environment: From the Perspective of Student Workers." Chinese Librarianship: an International Electronic Journal, 22. URL: http://www.iclc.us/cliej/cl22yang.htm