Training Student Reference Assistants in the Academic Art Library: Tips for New Supervisors

With an abundance of paraprofessional and professional positions in art librarianship requiring supervisory responsibilities, newly graduated librarians may find themselves navigating the confusing territory of “recent former student supervising students.” Especially in academic art libraries, professional and paraprofessional staff must be responsible for cataloging, reference, outreach, and collection development, and thus try to maximize their availability by calling upon student employees to staff the circulation desk. Student workers, especially undergraduates, are likely hired under the presumption that they will handle beginner-level tasks such as checking books out, shelving, and labeling. However, in my experience the opposite has been true. When a student is the first point of contact at the circulation desk of a library, they will inevitably be faced with reference questions – and if there is not a librarian in close proximity, they should be prepared to answer those questions appropriately.

While in graduate school I read an article detailing the impact of student reference assistants in music libraries, and it stayed with me as I supervised student employees in an academic performing arts library. In this article from the journal Notes, Beth Christensen, Mary Du Mont, and Alan Green undertake a survey of music library reference services and conclude that “…heavy reliance on student employees may have a negative effect on the overall success of answering reference questions in music libraries,” referring specifically to the high level of patron dissatisfaction associated with assistance received from student employees (2001, p. 47). Due to the many similarities between searching for music resources and searching for art resources (multimedia formats, complex metadata, foreign language resources, copyright roadblocks, and more), the same may be true for visual arts libraries. As a result, I have gathered a few of my thoughts on preparing student reference assistants–specifically undergraduate students–for success.

We have all been warned that the reference desk is a dying concept. As research librarians become more mobile, we find ourselves better suited to embedded environments like classrooms and lecture halls. But, no matter where we find ourselves, we will always need someone to be back in the library, staffing the circulation desk. That person is often a student. I currently work in an all-undergraduate school, which means that our circulation desk students are just starting to learn how to do their own academic research, yet we are entrusting them with the ability to answer reference questions from their peers. For a new supervisor managing front desk students, this can pose a challenge. We want to set our library up for success, and we want the face of our library to be someone with strong art subject knowledge. However, when the professional staff is limited and the expertise of subject librarians is maximized elsewhere, this is not always possible. This means entrusting students to conduct successful patron interactions and, when necessary, delegate. I have found that it is helpful to address student assistants at the beginning of their employment and advise them to seek out a librarian for any questions they do not feel comfortable answering. In my library we have even compiled a list of questions that students assistants should be able to answer and questions they should transfer to a supervisor. This type of list depends upon the policies of your institution, but I have found that having a clearly stated guide to which students can refer is helpful in encouraging an understanding of when to consult a librarian and when to be ambitious and try to answer a question on their own.

Knowing that many of your more ambitious students will still try to answer every question on their own, it is important to convey the complicated nature of searching for resources in the arts. Many of my students are discouraged that when they type a few keywords into the library catalog they do not immediately find the results that they expected. In order to provide student employees with the skills to correct their mistakes and the foresight to understand their own searching capabilities, it is beneficial to use each mistake as a teaching opportunity. If a student presents you with a list of failed search queries, take the time to show them why the query failed and how to improve their search strategies, rather than just doing the work for them. You may find that the next time they are faced with a difficult reference question, they will be more willing to come back to you for help, or if they are fast learners, they may figure out how to do it themselves. Allowing students the opportunity to develop a contextual understanding of how and why some search strategies work and others do not is crucial to success for a new researcher in the very complicated field of art librarianship.

Finally, prepare your students to be successful customer service representatives. Any student reference assistant should be able to provide a satisfactory response to any patron’s question, whether they know the answer or not. A trick that I learned while working as a library page in a public library is to instruct student employees that they are never allowed to say “no” to a patron. For example: If they search the catalog for a book title, and the title does not appear, instead of saying “No, we do not have that book,” they should think of a way to continue the conversation with the patron by offering them another solution such as “I do not see it in the catalog, but would you like me to ask the Librarian for help?” or “I do not think we own this book, but can I direct you to Interlibrary Loan?” There is no better resource for teaching your student employees this reference strategy than the American Library Association’s Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers (which I will link to below). If you have any student employees who have worked in retail or public service, they may already have a strong understanding of how to politely handle patron inquiries, but if they are new to this type of work, referring frequently to this guide may help to guide them along the way.

The challenge of working with student reference assistants is inevitable. Not only do student employees often have varying ranges of comfort conducting information searches, but even if we hire the perfect prospective art major to sit at our circulation desk, chances are that this student will be graduating in a few years, and we will need to search for someone new. When we find ourselves in the role of “supervisor,” it is our responsibility to assure not only that we maximize our time spent training student employees, but that we graduate students who know more about research and information retrieval and can act as mentors to their peers.

Christensen, B., Du Mont, M., & Green, A. (2001). Taking Note: Assessing the Performance of Reference Service in Academic Music Libraries: A Progress Report. Notes, 58(1), 39-54. Retrieved from


Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers. (2016, August 02). Retrieved from

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