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Many Hands Make for Better Work: Enhancing the Library with Entry-Level Workers

by Anthony Morris on November 8, 2018

Anthony Morris is a Technical Services Librarian at Utah Valley University’s Fulton Library in Orem (UT). Contact Anthony at anthony.morris@uvu.edu. Anthony is currently reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill and Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands.

My first library job was working as a page in a mid-sized public library. At that time pages had three main duties- check books in, shelve them, and shelf-read the shelves. There were odd jobs we’d occasionally do, but by-and-large those three tasks comprised the job. Years later, now with a master’s degree and in my first professional librarian position, I found myself in an academic library with a similar structure. Now called student aides, this entry level position had a core set of duties though this time they also included staffing the circulation desk and performing other additional duties. However, over the past three years, the Fulton Library at Utah Valley University has expanded the way it uses student workers with great success. Originally working almost entirely in the Circulation department, the student aides’ jobs were expanded first to include Technical Services, and following that success, to other departments as well. Looking back to my time at a public library, I believe many public libraries could profit from a similar expansion. How this evolved at Fulton Library may help you to integrate entry-level positions to new locations in your own library.

Fulton Library at Utah Valley University

Utah Valley University is a teaching institution of primarily undergraduate degrees with a large student population of approximately 33,000 FTE. Despite this, the Fulton Library has a small staff of fourteen librarians and thirty-three staff members. My position, the Technical Services librarian, oversees the Technical Services department, and supervises five staff members: one receiving manager, two catalogers, one processing manager, and one serials specialist. The librarians, especially the collection development librarian, have the responsibility for the content of the collection. Librarians select the materials to add to the collection, and purchasing is managed by the collection development department. At this point, the materials become the Technical Services department’s responsibility, as we add new and donated items and maintain the catalog. Technical Services staff oversees a collection of approximately 265,000 physical items, and, in the past year, we added about 10,000 items into the collection. A high number of donations are accepted to supplement library purchasing.

Structuring for Technical Services

Student workers had been managed in a variety of ways in the past at Fulton Library, but by the beginning of 2015 student workers at the library were all hired by the Circulation department. Other departments could request for students to work on projects, but most of the student’s duties would revolve around circulation tasks like staffing the circulation desk, shelving, stacks maintenance, and so on. In August 2015, the library moved to transfer supervision of two students from Circulation to Technical Services. An additional two students were hired, bringing the total to four. As compensation for transferring some of Circulation’s workers to Technical Services and as a more general realignment of our library, book processing was moved from Circulation into Technical Services. Book processing had been in Circulation since it required so much student time. However, as the library looked at its organization, processing made more sense as the tail end of the Technical Services, since it was the last step before books were ready to circulate.

The positions were structured to report directly to the Technical Services librarian. This had several advantages. First, the workload among Technical Services staff varies—sometimes they need several students working on a project, and sometimes they need only one. Beginning and ends of semester tend to make receiving busier, and quieter times in the summer is the perfect time for special projects in cataloging and serials. Reporting to the librarian gave the department the flexibility to assign tasks as needed. This also allowed all scheduling, coordination and other HR management to be overseen by the same person managing these tasks for the staff. Finally, this allowed the department to break up the less interesting tasks with more interesting ones, so that no one student was stuck solely with the undesirable ones.


It was found that there were tasks at nearly every step of the process that could use a student’s time (see table 1). Briefly, most print material goes through three major areas after it’s arrived from the vendor: receiving, cataloging, and processing. Print monographs go through several specialized staff members, and print serials go through similar steps but are managed by only one staff person.

Everything from when the books arrive (unpacking and checking for damage) up until they are ready to be shelved (processing, such as laminating or adding protective covers) has potential. Technical Services staff were required to make a list of tasks they would like a student to accomplish as well as a time estimate. Based on those estimates the Technical Services librarian created an hourly schedule, in which students were assigned to work with specific staff members each hour. Every semester this was reviewed. For about a year, four students working around twenty hours a week met the department’s needs, and in this last semester, three students suited better.

Success in Technical Services

The Technical Services department found that students working for their department rather than on an as-needed basis has helped in many ways. The chief advantage has been that staff have been able to accomplish an astonishing amount of work. They can focus on the pieces of their jobs that require their expertise, and let students help out with the less complicated parts. The department saw an improved turnaround time for items coming through Technical Services. Some processes stuck in a backlog, such as book processing and cataloging donations, were improved. Thanks to both improved staff time and student time devoted to projects, staff were able to begin working on projects that had sat on the backburner for many years. Projects such as redoing the children’s collection call numbers or remaking labels that badly needed replacement became open possibilities.

This also allowed the students to really excel in the tasks they’d been given. In the previous system of students borrowed from Circulation as needed for projects, students would usually only get to work on Technical Services projects for brief periods. Each time they’d have to be trained and usually did not work on the project long enough to master it. Hiring aides within the department allows them to be trained well, and staff can also follow through to make sure they’ve mastered the task. The department has seen an increase in work quality, followed by an increase in speed as well. These and related factors improved the department’s average total turnaround time for new and donated items by a few weeks.

This had unforeseen advantages as well. Technical Services staff do not often get to interact with the student population. By their own admission, many of them are happiest working at behind-the-scenes types of tasks. However, getting to know a few students and hear about their lives makes the staff think more about how their duties will affect the students on campus. Discussions about how backroom tasks can best help students have become more common, and the staff can get immediate feedback from students when they are making decisions.

The students also get a unique library experience. Those interested in library science are given a variety of tasks to provide as varied an experience as possible. They can participate in the entire Technical Services process. Many of the tasks, especially cataloging, tend to be skills that most potential library students quickly learn that they love, or really don’t. Either way, they get a better idea of what areas of librarianship they might want to pursue.

Sometimes projects can be tuned to fit with student’s needs. For example, one student in the elementary education program was able to spend time working on the call numbers in our children’s section, giving her valuable time among the books she’d be using in her future career. Though UVU does not have a library science program, sometimes students enrolled in nearby programs want an internship or practicum, and the library tries accommodating them wherever possible. Since none of the universities in Utah offer library degrees, library students in the area depend on these and similar programs to obtain academic library experience.

The students also became library champions in their own right. Some have brought friends and classmates into the library who needed help with their research or writing for their assignments and introduced them to the librarians they knew. Others spoke with their professors and encouraged them to ask a librarian to come do a research session in their classes, so that all the class members could learn about the library’s resources. In many cases the librarians can have open interactions that include both students and faculty and talk about how we can best meet their needs. Some of the librarians’ best relationships with faculty began as introductions from student workers.

All of these advantages are open to public libraries as well. How many budding librarians would have gained experience and knowledge from working in more departments in my public library? How many entry level staff would become greater library champions if they had the chance to see how the library works? How many new ideas would come from a wider pool of individuals who get to see how the library functions? How many shelvers could do so much more, given the opportunity?

Spreading the Success

The success in Technical Services encouraged the library to look in other areas as well. Patron Services, Collection Development, and the Executive Research Service all now independently utilize student workers (see table 2). They work in the library’s ILL office, help librarians with research projects, and more. Every time we open the door to having students help us, we find more areas where they can meaningfully contribute.

Part of this process has been a growing curiosity about how other academic libraries utilize their students. As part of an informal survey to UVU’s formal peers and the Utah State Higher Education (USHE) schools, we asked whether the institutions utilize students in their Technical Services, and if so, what duties they perform. Although this was a small survey of limited scope, the breadth of answers was surprising. There were many tasks that Fulton library can consider that it does not currently implement. These include: helping in the mailroom, updating inventory, processing discarded materials, troubleshooting resource access issues, tracking serials changes, book retrieval and delivery services, and repairing and cleaning damaged DVDs and CDs. The library is looking to see if any of these new ideas can be implemented. Since many public libraries struggle with having enough hands to accomplish all the goals before them, reconsidering what their entry level positions can do may open a new world for everyone.

Entry-level staff are an integral part of many academic and public libraries. While they are frequently the first faces patrons see in the library as they staff desks and shelf books, too often we miss the many valuable things they can bring to a library, and the valuable things we can do for them. Fulton Library has seen many improvements in Technical Services, and I believe it has been a benefit to students as well. The library is continuing to look for new places to include students, and it’s made for a healthier, happier library. Although not all libraries have the same access to a student population, most use similar entry level positions, and rethinking about how and what the positions can work on can be beneficial. If we are intentional about what we can have them accomplish, and what we can help them master, we can help each other become stronger and better.

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