ASSOCIATES (2012, November, v. 19, no. 2)


The Vital Role of Interviewing and Training Student Assistants

Ben Hogben
Access Services Manager
Ithaca College Library, NY

“Access Services departments within academic libraries depend on student assistants to complete both routine and on occasion more complex tasks, as well as aid in the workflow in many areas of the department.”
Tolppanen, B. and Derr, J., (2009)

Student assistants are essential to the day-to-day operations of our libraries; without them it would be a challenge to provide the services that we do. Hiring and training student assistants is not only a critical part of staffing, it is also an important part of their professional development; they will likely need a well-developed skill set after graduation to be competitive in today’s job market.

“The 2010 census data paints a bleak financial picture for recent graduates, and as the recession lingers, it’s clear that many of the students enrolled at your institution will be graduating into a very difficult market. There has rarely been a better time to conduct an aggressive rethinking of your on-campus employment opportunities.”
Fusch (2011)

Some libraries are an employer of choice, which means that they may have a few openings and many applicants. While other libraries may be assigned work study students; they may not have the option to interview and select the most qualified applicants. For the employer of choice, the interview process is an important part of selecting the best applicants for the position. For the library that relies on pre-assigned work-study students, training and assessment are important in giving student assistants the tools they need to succeed at your institution, and after graduation.

Successful Interviewing

Consider the following question:

“How was your day?”

The answer to this question might be “fine”, which may be the end of the conversation. If we begin that sentence using an open-ended question, we may get an entirely different response:

“Tell me about your day.”

They key to successful student interviewing is through the use of open ended questions. Let’s look at a few close-ended questions and ask them as open-ended questions:

*Have you ever supervised other volunteers/student assistants?
**Tell me about a time when you supervised volunteers/student assistants.

* Would your co-workers describe you as having initiative?
** Give us an example of when you used initiative to stay on task and complete a project

* How familiar are you with Microsoft Office?
** Give an example Microsoft programs that you have used

The goal is to link the applicant’s past experience, either through work or volunteering, with the position they are applying for. Some students are very comfortable working at a public desk answering questions and explaining policy, while others might be better suited in the stacks shelving books; we find this out through the interview process.

Ask your Human Resources department for a list of questions to avoid while interviewing student assistants; these typically involve physical disabilities, marital/religious status and asking one’s age. (Weiss, D.)


Link library positions to a specific skill-set, which can be assessed in their performance evaluations. Below is a list of skills and possible library positions that relate to each skill:

* Communication/Customer Service skills
**** Circulation/Reference Desk

* Initiative/attention to detail
**** Shelving/stacks maintenance

* Leadership/supervisory skills
**** Student Manager

* Technology (e.g. scanning, cropping, editing)
**** Interlibrary loan

Student assistants not only work for you to perform important tasks, they are also building a resume.

Training student assistants can be complex due to a number of factors such as distractions, use of ambiguous library terminology, learning styles and generational differences, however caution should be taken when making assumptions, without supporting information.

To some extent, we can be aware of library terminology, such as “charging a book” or “the folio section”. Before training begins, we may need to explain terminology that will be used in the training session and provide documentation that student assistants can refer to later if needed.

Learning Styles

Learning styles may include the following:

1. Visual
2. Auditory
3. Kinesthetic

Think of when you first learned to drive a car. You may have read a manual, had someone explain how the controls of the car operate, and then you went out on the road.

Effective training programs may involve eyes, ears and hands; show student assistants a task, explain what you are doing at the time, and then have them repeat the task. Throughout the training process, ask the student assistants why key steps are important, such as the need to present an ID when checking materials out.

When does student assistant training “officially” end? Some library student assistant positions involve an expansive skill-set. Think of the training topics for a typical circulation worker; charge, discharge, recalls, holds, renewing, fines, fees, security gate procedures, and many more.

In a web-based survey of Access Services Supervisors (Tolppanen and Derr, 2009), one of the respondents wrote:

“Because shifts are relatively short – 2 – 3 hours — it takes a long time to train student assistants. For us, it takes about 20 hours for a student assistant to be minimally competent at the front desk. Half the term is over by that time.”

Training can be interactive, between staff and student assistants, and it can also be autonomous, meaning that if student assistants have access to the proper resources, they can gain further knowledge about their positions after the initial training session. Consider using screen capture software, such as Jing, to make brief videos showing how to place holds, recalls, renewals and other simple circulation functions. Use methods to create, post and maintain circulation procedures such as a wiki, course management system (Angel or Sakai), or something as simple as a 3-ring binder. It’s important that student assistants have a way to access policy and procedure information when needed.


Student assistants are an important part of a library’s list of resources. They work at public service desks, provide policy information, work behind the scenes to process library materials, and provide other important roles. When possible, interviewing and selecting student assistants not only helps assign the best workers to library tasks; they also provide a framework for interview and selection techniques that may be used after the student finishes their college education.

After the student assistant is hired, having a comprehensive, on-going interactive and proactive training program can help ensure that the student assistants gain valuable experience; they help meet the goals of your library in serving the needs of your library community.


Fusch, D. (2011), Academic Impressions, (Accessed 11 November 2012).

Tolppanen, B. and Derr, J., (2009) A Survey of the Duties and Job Performance of Student
Assistants in Access Services. Journal of Access Services, 6:313–323.

Weiss, (2004) Fair, Square, and Legal: A Manager’s Guide to Safe Hiring, Managing, and Firing Practices. AMA.

Ben holds an Associate’s degree in Human Services, a BA in Gerontology, and Human Resources and Coaching Training Certificates from the American Management Association.