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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F4HQ3WTN

[Board accepted]

Five Voices, Two Perspectives: Integrating Student Librarians into a Science and Engineering Library

Eugene Barsky
Science and Engineering Librarian

Aleteia Greenwood
Head, Science and Engineering Library

Samantha Sinanan
MLIS Candidate
School of Library, Archival and Information Studies

Lindsay Tripp
MLIS Candidate
School of Library, Archival and Information Studies

Lindsay Willson
MLIS Candidate
School of Library, Archival and Information Studies

University of British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia

Copyright 2010, Eugene Barsky, Aleteia Greenwood, Samantha Sinanan, Lindsay Tripp, and Lindsay Willson. Used with permission.


While there is an ample amount of literature on the topic of integrating new librarians into the workplace, there has been relatively little on the practice of integrating graduate library school students on the reference desk. Written by a team of librarians and library school students, this article brings together the unique perspectives of working professionals and students. Each year the Science and Engineering branch of University of British Columbia (UBC) Library hires a number of library school students as Student Librarians (SL). This creates a win-win situation whereby librarians are given release time to work on a multitude of tasks, while students are given the opportunity to gain valuable experience working in an academic library setting, learning from professional librarians and building a network. The article begins with insight and advice from supervising librarians, including what they look for in a potential new hire. The discussion then moves on to include reflections from the student librarians in the areas of reference, collection development and instruction.


Science & Engineering, UBC Library has hired library school students from UBC's School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (SLAIS) as Student Librarians (SLs) to work on the reference desk for approximately the past ten years. SLs are hired in order to give librarians release time so they can work on responsibilities such as collection development, teaching, outreach, and other liaison activities, as well as other initiatives that take them out of the office. Perhaps somewhat altruistically, we also believe it provides library school students with a view into their chosen profession by affording them an opportunity to do the sort of work they will be expected to perform as professionals. As time has passed, it has become necessary for our SLs to branch out beyond reference work. In ten years, the science and applied science student and faculty population has grown significantly, but our library team has not. With three librarians to serve a very large population of science and engineering faculty and students, we now use the SLs for collection development projects, updating online resources such as subject guides, and teaching curriculum specific undergraduate classes in engineering.

There have been many papers published in the library literature on the topic of hiring and integrating new librarians into libraries (Abram 2009; Cox 2007; Hart 2000; Khan 2003; Newman 2003; Schachter 2006; Schachter 2009; Stephenson & St. Clair 1996; Womack & Rupp-Serrano 2000; Wu 2003), and specifically into science and engineering academic libraries (Beck & Callison 2006; Mitchell 2004; Tchangalova 2009). It seems, however, that the practice of integrating graduate library school students on the reference desk has not been widely discussed in the literature.

In this paper, we offer our perspectives on what the supervising librarians look for in a potential hire, as well as the unique perspectives of three SLs who were trained for 20091, and have been working on our reference desk, on projects and teaching for the past six months. Working at our reference desk also offers an added challenge. We have a combined Science & Engineering, Art, Architecture and Planning reference desk. While this sort of situation is less rare than it used to be, it can be challenging for practiced librarians, and extra challenging for library school students. Our SLs are cross trained; it is expected that they can help any science, engineering, art, architecture or planning patron begin their research in the appropriate databases, or with finding the appropriate monographs, with the understanding that they are only the front line. They have five librarians (three in Science & Engineering, two in Art, Architecture and Planning) who they can, and should, refer patrons to as soon as they are out of their depth. All SLs on the combined reference desk answer all questions, but the Science & Engineering SLs' work also includes projects and teaching specific to engineering.

Supervisory Librarians' Perspectives:

Every year, as we plan to interview and hire from the new cohort of library school students, we remind ourselves that our applicants might lack hands-on library experience, practical reference skills and subject expertise. We understand that there is no substitute for such skills: they require time, effort and hard work. For these reasons, we generally seek the following characteristics and skills when selecting library school students for our science and engineering reference desk positions:

As supervisors, we consciously and conscientiously provide our library school students with structure, support and enough responsibilities and challenges, that they will acquire and develop skills that will stand them in good stead as they pursue their profession. Their work on the reference desk and on projects, and their experiences teaching, will introduce them to the world of academic librarianship, reveal the behind-the-scenes work that librarians and support staff do, and give them opportunities to grow professionally and successfully contribute to their work environment.

Some advice to library school students interested in working while pursuing their degree:

Student Perspectives:

As SLAIS students, we see postings for SL positions with the various branch and unit libraries on the UBC Vancouver campus. Every Spring, librarian representatives from units looking to hire SLs for the coming academic year give a presentation about their units, the kind of work their student librarians will do, and the qualities they look for in a new hire. This helps us understand expectations and encourages us to consider the areas of librarianship in which we would like to work. So why choose Science and Engineering Library? For these library students, the reasons were threefold:

Being placed in a supportive environment with professional librarians has allowed us to put skills learned in the classroom to practical use, begin building a professional network, and develop an appreciation for the fact that there are often many ways to meet an information need.

As student librarians in the Science & Engineering Library we are involved in the three primary activities of academic librarianship--reference, collection development, and instruction. We discuss each of these here in brief:


For us, as new student librarians, shared shifts on the reference desk with librarians and experienced paraprofessionals are extremely formative learning experiences. Each library system has unique organizational idiosyncrasies, and each discipline a unique set of resources. Working together on the desk is a chance for us to:

In a 2004 forum for Science and Technology librarians on developing core competencies, Anne Zeidman-Karpinski advised those new to the field that, "you will make mistakes when dealing with your supervisor(s)" (Mitchell 2004). From personal experience, this is true. We have found that the key is to follow the old adage and learn from your mistakes, and as Zeidman-Karpinski says, "get over them and move on" (Mitchell 2004).

Through the course of our education we are told that, to be a good reference librarian, one does not need to have a degree--advanced or otherwise--in a given subject area; as professionals we should be able to apply the same techniques and search methodologies to any subject area. Time, experience, and familiarity with subject specific resources will equip us with the tools and knowledge needed to retrieve information efficiently. Overcoming the initial fear of the unknown, however, can still be a challenge.

One of the most important lessons we have learned, and one that our supervisors have pushed from the beginning, is always to ask questions. We are not going to wake up one day and simply know the job, but are instead on a journey in which learning is an ongoing and key component. Instead of being intimidated by Science and Engineering terminology and complex resources, we took this as an opportunity to deepen our knowledge about new subject areas and build confidence in our abilities to assist students with subject specific research needs.

Collection development

The collection management courses we have taken have provided us with a theoretical basis for collection management activities; however as with any skill, practical application is an important milestone on the road to expertise. The Science & Engineering Library involves its SLs in collection development activities; this is important because, as Johnson (2009) says, knowledge of collection development policy and procedures is a "competenc[y] that new librarians should bring to their first job." Assisting with collection management activities has provided us the following advantages:

In addition to familiarizing us with specific subject areas within Science and Engineering, the collections projects have introduced us to some of the more practical matters librarians face on the job, and have given us first-hand experience with acquisitions mechanisms. We have also learned that in practice, collection development relies heavily on budget, which is in turn determined by an institution's size and a specific political climate. These are aspects of collection development we are not always exposed to in our courses, or at least not at such a granular level.


The opportunity to lead bibliographic instruction sessions has allowed us to develop instructional competencies, an increasingly important aspect of academic librarianship (Kemp 2006). Representing the Science & Engineering Library at curriculum-specific, live-search presentations has: increased our knowledge of the student body we work with; facilitated communication when we meet students from our instructional sessions at the reference desk; and, helped familiarize us with Science and Engineering subject areas and subject specific resources.

Along with the many benefits of instruction came a unique set of challenges for each of us. The databases and terminology used in the presentations were new to us all but, for some, teaching was not. Our supervisor kindly took steps to "level the playing field" and ensure that our first instructional experiences as SLs went as smoothly as possible; other librarians in supervisory roles may consider similar methods:

This nurturing approach might require more time and energy of librarians initially but, in our case, dispelled any qualms we harboured about venturing into the Engineering classroom. In the end we feel that it has saved our supervisors time, allowing them to 'pass the torch' to us with confidence and fully capitalize on the release time the SL position is intended to create.

Some advice for library students interested in pursing positions in Science and Engineering

We have found that the opportunity to work as student librarians is an invaluable experience and an integral aspect of preparing for a job as an information professional. The experience has built our confidence and solidified our classroom learning as well as strengthened our résumés. While we learn valuable theory at library school, practice and hands on experience is invaluable. We conclude with a few words of advice to library students considering a position in science and engineering:


In conclusion, UBC Library's Science and Engineering division is an example of how student librarians can be effectively incorporated into the workplace in a way that benefits both students and their supervisors. For supervisors, having student librarians assist with reference, collection development, and instructional activities provides release time needed to engage in other duties. Taking the time to train and mentor student librarians constitutes a contribution to the profession, by attracting promising future librarians to Science and Engineering--a field they might not have considered otherwise. For students, participating in such activities reinforces theory gained in the classroom, and presents a new and challenging arena for learning. This article, a collaborative effort by three library students and their supervisors, in itself demonstrates how mentorship can lead to unanticipated and extremely fortuitous experiences.

1 At UBC Library, just before the beginning of Term 1, Librarians and support staff provide a full-time, week long training programme that all upcoming student librarians must participate in. Sessions cover general knowledge of the circulation module, health and safety training, multidisciplinary databases that can be used for all subjects. Student librarians also attend sessions where they learn about subject resources specific to the Library they will work in.


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