Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

HCL Launches Students Substitute Pool

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Lindsey Milstein, '12, works at the Cabot Science Library Circulation Desk. Milstein is one of dozens of student workers who have volunteered for HCL's Student Employees Substitute Pool.

October 29, 2009 – If Harvard College Library patrons never become aware of the library’s new Student Employees Substitute Pool, the new program is working the way it was designed. Launched earlier this year, the substitute pool was created to fill Circulations Desk openings left when students call in sick or can’t work for other reasons.

Though similar student worker pools have long been maintained by individual libraries, workers in the new pool are available to Circulation supervisors in any HCL library, said Allen Bourque, Head of Collection Management and Circulation at Cabot Science Library, who runs the program.

“Libraries with smaller staffs also have extremely small pools of students who can fill in if someone is out,” Bourque said. “In extreme cases, if a student can’t work, a staff person has to stay just to keep the library open. This program increases the number of available students making it easier for supervisors to find someone to fill in.”

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The program is one of the innovative solutions HCL staff members have used to maintain the libraries’ high level of service, despite the challenging fiscal climate. The libraries in recent months also launched “Librarian On Call,” a coordinated reference service designed to ensure reference desks in Widener and Lamont libraries are covered on weekends, and made Ask Us Live, the instant-messaging tool which allows students, faculty and researchers to communicate directly with librarians, a permanent part of HCL’s research assistance offerings.

“Though the impetus for creating the student substitute pool predated the budget issues, it nevertheless has become more needed as a result of budget reductions,” Bourque said. “Normally, Cabot would carry two students on most shifts, partly as a way to protect us if someone couldn’t work, but we’re now down to one student on most shifts. This program will make it easier to ensure we have the staff we need to maintain the level of service library patrons expect.”

The program will only be open to student workers who have worked in Circulation for at least a year, or those who have been vetted by their supervisors, Bourque said. Once approved for the substitution pool, student workers will be added to an e-mail listserv administered by Susan Leavitt, Evening Supervisor at Cabot. Circulation supervisors with slots to fill post to the listserv, and students who are willing to work respond directly to the supervisor.

While classes are in session, students can work up to 20 hours each week. When classes are not in session, including reading and exam periods and summer and intersession, they can work up to 40 hours.

Though it’s barely more than a month old – the program launched at the beginning of the current term – the idea of a communal pool of substitute workers is drawing accolades from library staff. Earlier this fall, two shifts at Cabot were filled by students from Loeb Music, Bourque said, and the system worked smoothly.

At Harvard-Yenching Library, where the idea was extensively tested during the summer, Circulation Student Supervisor Nobu Abe said a pool of substitute student workers proved useful.

“We had a very good experience,” Nobu said. “We had several shifts which needed to be filled, and Allen was able to provide three students who came and helped. They all had experience with the Circulation Assistant position, so they required minimal training. It was very helpful to have them available.”