Career Strategies for Librarians
Supervising Students: Sore Spots, Strategies, and Success
by Chrissie Anderson Peters
My first academic library position was over seven years ago in a small liberal arts college for women,
then called Hollins College (now Hollins University). This was years before I began pursuit of my Master’
s degree, and I was the evening circulation supervisor. This meant that I came in at 3:30 in the afternoon
and worked until midnight. Apart from one librarian who remained on duty Monday through Thursday
until 7:00, I interacted with most other staff members only minimally because most of them left at 4:00.
After 7:00, I was the only staff member on duty to manage the three-floor Fishburn Library – including
troubleshooting equipment, clearing copier jams, doing ILL and reserves, assisting patrons however
necessary – and supervising approximately 15-20 young ladies each semester.
My experiences with the student assistants (to whom I always referred as “my girls”), were phenomenal,
but getting from “go” to “great” had its moments and there were problems along the way. What all of us
learned from those instances, however, made the year with “my girls” a success. We learned to work
together to accomplish our duties and to handle the responsibilities set before us. We learned from
each other in many ways, and we capitalized on the concepts of teamwork, respect, and meeting
expectations – even when it was not always fun, fair, or easy.
Establishing What Is Expected
The stereotype of Hollins’ students included girls in pearls, wealthy young ladies in full equestrian
regalia riding horses, and snobby little socialites who might totally disregard someone with a
background like mine (lower-middle class, the only person in my family to ever graduate from college, far
from wealthy, etc.).
I vividly recall one student – we’ll call her Nikki – who came in to work the first evening wearing pearls
and a cashmere sweater and larger diamonds in her earrings than my mother had in her wedding ring.
Was I uncomfortable? You bet! She introduced herself to me and immediately launched into a fantastic
story about her roommate and the two Italian guys they had met in town the night before.
Rather than cut her off immediately, I let her talk for a few minutes, then sat down with her in my little
cubby and began a chat about expectations. What were hers for this work-study position? What were
mine as her supervisor?
She replied that, since it was a library, she figured it would be a great work-study job to have so she
could have time to study. She didn’t think that there would really be that much to it.
Rather than laugh in her face or use my “authority” to sock it to her or anything like that, I started
explaining what it took to work in a library – in general, and as a student worker.
Her eyes got big towards the end and she said, “Wow, that’s a lot of work!”
I smiled and agreed, “It can be. But we can also make it fun if we all work together and get things done.”
I tried to do the same interview scenario with all of my girls. Some of them “got it” more quickly than
others. Some of my girls came from family circumstances just as humble as my own. Some of them
were experiencing freedom for the very first time and were getting their first tastes of “the real world,”
often in ways that they didn’t necessarily enjoy – work-study (or may be even work and/or study) among
them. For some of them, this was a first job and they weren’t really sure of how to conduct themselves.
Putting the Patrons First
Another girl, whom we’ll call Ella, came in one evening after doing poorly on her first exam. She was
unhappy with the world. A student came to the Circ Desk to check out some books and Ella slammed
things around, mumbled under her breath, and generally was a poster child for what customer service is
NOT. I watched all of this from my little plexi-glassed cubby and called her aside once the transaction
had ended and the student had walked away.
“Bad day?” I asked.
Then she freely related the story of bombing the exam. I quietly asked if the young lady who had just
checked out had anything to do with her poor performance on the test.
“Well, no,” she stammered.
“Then why blame her for something that was your responsibility?” We discussed the scenario that had
just transpired and how each of us would have felt if someone had treated either of us that way.
Ella apologized to me – and a week or so later, when that student came back in, Ella apologized to her,
too. Not because I made her do it or even asked her to do it, but because we had talked about it and she
was mature enough to know wrong from right and to follow through and do the right thing.
When Roommates Rumble -- But Work Together, Too
I also had a couple of students who were roommates. We’ll call these two young ladies Emma and
How many people reading this article got along perfectly with their roommates 100% of the time? How
many of you wanted to be around your roommates 24 hours a day? Not only were Emma and Lesley
roommates, but they also signed up to work the same shift at the library (the fact that schedules are
created that first week of school when you know next to no one probably had a lot to do with that ill-fated
One night Emma, the even-tempered, “hippie wannabe” blonde, came in on time, went straight to her
shelving cart after a curt hello, and then disappeared onto the third floor.
Lesley, the fiery-tempered, loudly opinionated brunette stomped in about 20 minutes late, offered no
explanation, slammed her book truck into the book truck elevator, and started toward the first floor. As
she started to walk towards the steps to shelve books, I asked her to come over to my cubby for a few
minutes. I asked why she was late.
“Because I’m mad. Emma is so impossible!” she nearly shouted. “She is such a slob and never
straightens up and–-”
I stopped her and said, “I’m presuming that you and Emma are having roommate troubles—”
She cut me off with, “Oh, yeah, you bet we are!”
I held up my hand to show that I expected silence so I could finish. “But you’re at work right now, Lesley.
And you’re 20 minutes late for your job. With no explanation, you just stomped in and started slamming
“Yeah, well, I’m mad!”
I asked her how she thought it made me feel to have someone show up 20 minutes late with no
explanation. “There are times when your personal life can’t help but interfere with your job, Lesley,” I
said. “The fact that you think that your roommate is a slob isn’t cause for it. If you have an ill family
member or there’s something major going on at home and you’re far away and feel like there’s nothing
that you can do to help, or if you’re sick … those are times when it might be more understandable if you
can’t keep your personal life from interfering with your job.”
Then she accused me of taking Emma’s side of their argument. I said, “Emma arrived to work on time,
Lesley. I knew that something was on her mind because I didn’t get my usual friendly, ‘Hey, chick, how’s
it going?’ from her, but she said absolutely nothing about your argument. She came in and got to work.”
Then Lesley thought I might be mad at her because she was late. I explained that I was disappointed
and hoped it didn’t become a habit – and that, whenever possible, if she was running more than 5
minutes late for whatever reason, I would really appreciate a phone call to let me know so I could plan
accordingly. After all, my work getting done on time frequently depended on my girls to be there and get
their work done; if their shelving didn’t get done because they weren’t there, it fell to me to see that it was
Towards the end of the evening, the girls both ended up back on the second floor at the Circulation Desk
at the same time. They left speaking – rigidly, but speaking.
Their disagreements continued, however, and escalated until one evening, Lesley blew up at Emma in
the library during her work shift. I escorted Lesley outside and told her that her behavior was
unacceptable – in any workplace at any time. I also told her that I was incredibly close to requesting that
she be fired. That seemed to be a wake-up call. “You can’t fire me, Chrissie!” she said. “I have to have
this job or I can’t pay for college!”
I replied that I could appreciate that because I had four or five work-study jobs when I’d been in college,
but that she was not going to continue to make scenes like the one she had just created. She sat down
and started crying. Emma had been her best friend in high school, she explained. And things just
seemed to be changing. Everyone liked Emma and Lesley felt like an outsider. Even though I was her
supervisor, I listened to her, because I remembered what it felt like to feel totally alone and lost that first
semester of college.
Then we went back inside and, as it was a quiet evening at the Circ Desk, I called Emma over, too, and
the three of us talked about the work situation. I proposed that one of them – it was their choice, not
mine – change her work schedule at the library. I gave them a list with the other student assistants’
names and numbers on it and told them to work that out before their shifts ended that evening. Lesley
After a couple of weeks, Emma came to me after work one evening and said, “You wouldn’t believe what
a difference it has made for Lesley and me not to have to see each other at work and to have a little more
time to ourselves away from each other!” Of course it had made a difference. By working a different shift
at the library, Lesley was being exposed to people she didn’t know, so she was beginning to make
some friends unrelated to Emma; her sense of independence was strengthening and therefore her
reliance on being Emma’s “best friend” was waning. They could still be friends – they could still be
roommates. But they didn’t have to see each other at work, too. Additionally, Emma had time when
Lesley wasn’t there watching her every move in their apartment to clean up her space and not be so
much of a slob.
Remember What It's Like to Be a Student: Some Strategies for Success
I think the biggest key to the success I had with my girls, though, was developing a good working
relationship through hard work. They didn’t goof off because I didn’t goof off. I believe in setting an
example and have a very strong work ethic. I knew that many of the girls who worked during the day shift
didn’t work as hard as we did. Emma – calm, laid-back Emma – came in one night when there were five
book trucks waiting to be shelved. “Man, this is totally unfair!” she announced. “We don’t leave five
trucks of stuff for them to come in to in the morning! Why do we have to do all the work? Why can’t we sit
around and goof off like they do?”
“Because I respect you,” I replied.
She did a double take.
I repeated, “Because I respect you. I work hard and expect you guys to work hard. And because we all
work hard, you’re all going to be ready when other opportunities present themselves – whether it’s work-
study, a summer job, an internship – whatever. And you’ll make better professional impressions and be
proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
She looked at me with that “You’ve been smoking something” look, but she went to shelve books without
An hour or so later, after whipping through two book trucks, she came downstairs for a break. She sat
down and looked at me and said, “You really do care about us, don’t you? I mean, it’s not like we’re just
here to shelve books and check people out so you don’t have to do it. You really want us to do well in
life. Like when we leave this campus. And you put up with a lot of stuff from us to teach us things that a
lot of people in your position wouldn’t care if we ever got or not. You don’t just look at us like a bunch of
kids. You respect us and you make us work hard because you like us – not because getting all these
books shelved at night makes you look good, but because it teaches us to be responsible and to do our
jobs.” She paused and shook her head with a smile. “You’re too cool to be a real adult, Chrissie!”
What she had said was true (except possibly the part about me being cool). We probably could have slid
by and not gotten as much done as we did. But doing so would have only hurt us in the long run. Sure, I
wanted to be “cool,” but I also wanted to be someone that they knew they could rely on. If I hadn’t set the
example that I did, that couldn’t have happened. I worked hard, so they worked hard. If someone had a
big exam coming up, I had no problems with her asking her shift-partner to shelve more that evening so
she could study more by staying at the Circ Desk. But when her shift-partner needed the favor returned,
she knew that I expected it to be a two-way street. And if we finished all of our work, we could play a little
and have some fun.
I don’t think for a moment that Emma was the only one who “got” what I was all about in my relationship
with my girls. Nikki got it – she shelved as quickly as she could on Monday evenings so she could come
back downstairs and tell me about the hot guys she had met that weekend or the expensive sports cars
that they rode around in -- not because she was bragging, but because this was part of her lifestyle and
she was excited and wanted to share her excitement with me. Ella volunteered her story the second
semester to help train new assistants in how not to treat people who came into the library for help.
Lesley and Emma signed up for the same time slot the second semester and kept me rolling with their
good humor – they even talked the other girls into agreeing that all of them should teach me to use the
Internet before Summer Break since I didn’t know how to do even basic searches and always relied on
them to help patrons with that task. (They also taught me the proper way to shoot rubber bands, late one
night when no one else was in the building).
We all taught each other. We all learned from each other. We did so as a team, though. We did so
through good and bad, with faltering on both sides along the way. It was never a perfect scenario, but
that kept it interesting for all of us. It made us better workers, better people, and in the end, that’s what
college and first jobs should help us do.
About the Author:
Chrissie Anderson Peters is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where she was a distance
education student. A member of the Tennessee Library Association, the Virginia Library Association,
ALSC, NMRT, and YALSA, she is a Librarian for Northeast State Community College in Blountville, TN.
Her community involvement includes active participation with the Sullivan County Imagination Library
program, as well as recent activities with People United for Animals (PUFA), a local animal advocacy
group. Her passions include writing, music, reading, traveling, her "children" (the feline kind -- Mel, Reid,
Xander, Willow, Ella, Lance, and Mariel), and spending as much time as possible with her husband
Russell, who makes her life a joy each day. Chrissie's recent "big thrills" include having a chapter
included in Priscilla Shontz's The Librarian's Career Guidebook (Scarecrow, 2004), as well as lending
some research assistance and being mentioned by name in Sharyn McCrumb's latest novel, St. Dale
Article published February 2005
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