Early last year, Kevin Garewal, the vice provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of the University of Rochester Libraries, looked at the student employee experience across the River Campus Libraries (RCL) and thought, “We can do better.” He wanted to give students an opportunity that would add value to their work and education.
“Our students are incredibly smart and creative,” says Garewal. “I felt like if we could give them the opportunities to contribute to our libraries, we would also be giving them a chance to develop professional skills they may not otherwise get. And our libraries will be better for it.”
He went to his desk and hit the Meliora button—figuratively. In actuality, he had a conversation with Kimberly Hoffman, interim assistant dean of engaged learning and research. The RCL’s Q&i team quickly became a focus of discussion.
Most university library systems have “help desks” or “service desks.” The RCL has Q&i.
Shorthand for “questions and information,” Q&i is where students, faculty, and staff on the River Campus go to check out materials, get help using resources, borrow equipment, and access many other library services.
As a relaxed, social environment, Q&i is a highly attractive work opportunity for undergraduate students, making it RCL’s biggest pool of student employees. But don’t mistake these for hollow positions. Despite the low-key setting, students go through a robust training process that ensures they are more than a body behind a desk. They are equipped to answer a wide range of patron questions and handle circulation processes. More experienced student employees may even assist with projects to support library operations or supervise spaces when full-time staff members are unavailable.
In consultation with Emily Clasper, the director of service strategies, Hoffman developed the framework for a program that would Meliora-fy the Q&i experience for student employees.
In the fall of 2022, the RCL initiated the Q&i Experiential Learning Program.
Experience on top of experience
Exclusively for Q&i student employees, the Q&i Experiential Learning Program is a yearlong commitment that supplements regular on-desk duties with off-desk activities designed to hone existing abilities and help develop new competencies. For students, the experience boils down to an extra three hours of paid work per week.
The program’s pilot season ran throughout the 2022–23 academic year and was effectively split into two phases. Phase one was the learning and information-gathering stage, which focused on expanding the students’ understanding of how the library serves its users. For example, students engaged in user experience exercises, such as simulated wayfinding and basic observation of user behavior. The second phase, beginning in the spring semester, required students to dig deeply into a particular area of interest and propose a project that would contribute to the RCL’s growth.
The program will undergo a full assessment in the coming months, but a cursory review would say, “Five stars. Would recommend.”
“It seemed to be pretty successful,” Hoffman says. “Students are really into it. I think they’ve learned much more about the library than they would have if they were only at the Q&i desk. And they’ve definitely grown—I can see it in their assessments and the way they thoughtfully approach problems.”
Giving students these expanded roles and empowering them to make suggestions have paid dividends that the RCL will see as soon as the coming fall.
Mostly refreshing projects
The program’s inaugural cohort consisted of four students, each presenting on their projects at the end of the spring semester. All but one of the projects were focused on the Physics-Optics-Astronomy (POA) Library, which isn’t much of a surprise given that all but one of the students works in POA.
Howard Ma ʼ24, who works in Rush Rhees Library and won the Dean’s Award for Student Employee of the Year (undergraduate), took on the challenge of making RCL’s sprawling network of spaces and resources more accessible to students regardless of how long they have been at Rochester. His project seeks to address this through the creation of a new role: Library Student Ambassador (LSA). Essentially peer guides, LSAs would ensure students get the most out of library resources by providing services such as peer-to-peer advising and residence hall visits.
Everyone else tackled issues within POA.
The POA projects are especially timely as the library will spend the summer undergoing a wall-to-wall refresh, scheduled for completion by the start of the fall semester.
“I’m always impressed by strong student presentations, and everyone in this program did a fantastic job, presenting really meaty, substantial content,” says Jeffery Jones, the section supervisor at POA. “The POA students were involved in refresh conversations, attended design meetings, and did a lot of research on their own. And they were instrumental in helping us flesh out some ideas.”
Here’s a closer look at how three students are contributing to making the POA Library ever better.
Jacqueline Moon ʼ23 | Sound Mitigation Strategies for POA
Library spaces are no longer exclusively “no-talking” zones. Modern libraries have transformed to include learning commons (e.g., Evans Lam Square) and multipurpose rooms (e.g., Barbara J. Burger iZone). In its current state, POA is unable to create designated spaces, which can cause sound from a collaborative area to carry into the cubicle spaces where students may be trying to engage in quiet study. POA’s social nature is another factor to be considered. Put simply, POA has a volume problem.
Use POA’s refresh to eliminate the “corridor-style” layout, which allows sound to move freely from one end to the other without sacrificing the openness that nurtures a sense of community. This sound-controlled environment could be achieved with better sectioned-off areas, glass walls, and furniture that helps absorb sound.
Plans for the POA refresh, which include a quiet study area, will address the overly open layout Moon describes. Although there won’t be glass walls, the quiet study area will be partitioned off to create the desired sound barrier. As of this writing, the selection of furniture is POA’s next significant refresh milestone. Soft seating and other sound-dampening furniture align with plans for the library’s aesthetic.
“It was a pretty good experience overall. I think it added to the conversation [around the refresh], especially the research I did with more frequent patrons of POA. A common theme was the need for some kind of wall or divider, and I talked to Jeff [Jones] about it. He didn’t know how feasible it was, but he would talk to the designers about it.
“I think I got lucky with my project choice because I was able to sit in on those meetings with Jeff and the designers. I got to see the initial blueprints that were presented and offer critiques that informed the new design, which looks a lot better.” —Jacqueline Moon
MJ Keller ʼ25 | TA/TI Usage of POA
It is common to see a teaching assistant (TA) or teaching intern (TI) holding office hours in POA, which is more a product of necessity than preference. (Office hours are required for all physics courses.) Most of the furniture in POA caters to individual study and collaborative work, neither of which is suitable for the one-on-one and small-group interactions typical of TA/TI office hours.
During the refresh, create a dedicated TA/TI space with small tables and easily accessible whiteboards.
Current plans for POA’s refresh include two TA/TI desks that would accommodate three to four people, located between collaborative and quiet zones.
“I love POA. The fact that it's a social and educational hub makes it an incredibly valuable resource. I’m super excited about the refresh. I love POA as it currently is, but I also think it deserves some attention.
“I really enjoyed this experience. It definitely helps that I was doing this at the same time as the POA refresh because I could say, ‘This specific need isn’t being met. Let’s meet it.’” —MJ Keller
LeeAnn Chu ʼ23 | TA/TI Data Centralization
Two questions most POA staff members often hear are “Where is the TA for [CLASS]?” and “When will [TA] be here?” It’s the result of the underlying issue: there is no central communication around scheduling for TAs, TIs, or Society of Physics Students tutors.
Because there are budgetary, time, and technological factors to be weighed and measured, a range of viable options was presented:
- High-tech—Create a website that lists all the TA/TI/tutor names with their classes, when they’re available, and where they will be.
- Mid-tech—Use a social messaging platform such as Discord to communicate and share schedules.
- Low-tech—Maintain a scheduling system on whiteboards in POA, giving patrons a place to look for this information.
Chu went through several iterations of a solution between mid- and high-tech, working with the undergraduate coordinator for physics and astronomy. They developed a template, but because it was put together around finals time, it is unclear whether it will be successful.
“I don’t have the details on how well that’s gone,” says Jones. “Since LeeAnn is graduating, we’re hoping this is something someone else can run with or improve. The really cool thing about what she was trying to do is that it isn’t dependent on students being in the library to find the information.”
“The decision-making and having a voice—being able to make suggestions—made me feel part of the library more. I think my favorite part was working with my cohort. I really enjoyed listening to their ideas and brainstorming together.
“I was undecided when I came to Rochester, and one of the things that drew me to physics was that it was a community of people really helping each other. So, it’s kind of poetic that as a senior, I’m in a position to give back to the community that welcomed me when I was just a baby first-year.” —LeeAnn Chu ∎
For more information on the Q&i Experiential Learning Program, contact Kimberly Hoffman, and to learn more about the Physics-Optics-Astronomy Library refresh, contact STEM librarian Ben Mitchell. If you are interested in supporting River Campus Library programs or future refresh projects, contact Pam Jackson.