Lessons Learned: Residence Hall Libraries

I'm in my third month of employment at Penn State. It has been a whirlwind of 90 days -- the weeks fly by and the weekends are nearly long enough for all the adventuring myself and my new friends would like to do. I feel settled even though I'm still adjusting to my Sunday-Thursday hours.

Now that I'm three months in, I've had a chance help undergraduates find information and to teach a few library instruction classes. I feel that I'm getting the experience I need as a new professional and the support I need to succeed. I'm also now starting to think about myself as a professional and the things I need to support my practice: a teaching philosophy, a teaching style in the classroom, and better articulating where my expertise lies. For me, part of understanding myself as a professional means reflecting on the experiences that shaped me. While I've written about the theoretical foundation of my practice, I haven't focused too much on my experiences.

I hope to send the next couple of weeks talking about the experiences that make me the community focused, student-orientated librarian I pride myself on being. In doing this, I hope that I can better understand myself as a librarian and perhaps you reader will take something from my experiences as well. Each post will start with some context on the situation and then around five takeaways that I think influence my thinking today. Enjoy!


First up -- my time as a supervisor in the residence hall libraries at the University of Illinois. These are libraries located in the residence halls with collections that mirror what a public library would carry. We ordered the newest fiction and nonfiction, movies, TV shows, CDs, video games, magazines, and then had special collections for the living learning communities and then other special topics (women's study, job and career, personal growth, mystery, science fiction/fantasy, etc).

 My awesome staff.

My awesome staff.

As supervisor, I was in charge of two libraries located in what is known as Urbana South. These two libraries sat in halls that were diverse, had strong living learning communities, and a really good sense of community. They reminded me of my own time in undergrad in a similar hall. I supervised 12 undergraduate clerks who ran the libraries all week. In addition to supervisor and collection development, I also collaborated with the housing staff to host programs and support events as well as hosted weekly office hours for students seeking research and reference help.

For me, this non-traditional academic library experience was crucial to develop ideas about how students seek help and how to better plug into what the students are doing on a day-to-day basis. I also took away lots from being embedded in university housing, including the idea of developing and fostering community within the first six weeks (when students are trying to find their place). My year in housing taught me so much and prepared me to really jump in once I got to Penn State. Here are my big takeaways:

Your staff has valuable things to say and contribute. Give them a chance to shine

As someone who went to small liberal arts college, I have no idea what it is like to go to a Big 10 school. In my first months on the job, I asked my staff lots of questions, trying to understand University of Illinois from their perspective. Additionally since many of my staff had worked in the libraries for 2-3 years, I also looked to them to tell me about the libraries and what has and hasn't worked in the past. My staff always had valuable things to say and usually once I got them talking and thinking, they would send emails with even more ideas we could put into action. I asked each of them to come up with a creative expression project and that allowed them to work on something to enhance the library that they were passionate about. I got sports brackets, movie recommendations, a lively Instagram account, outstanding bulletin boards, and great program ideas when I empowered my staff to be the leaders and contributors to our libraries. They taught me so much and made me a better supervisor because of their honesty and opinions.

Set high expectations and be patient

My supervisor required myself and my peers to create our own set of expectations for our clerks to follow. I've included the first part of my mine, because I think I was able to capture what I wanted from them as my clerks:

Our goal this year is to strengthen and enhance the services & programs at FAR & PAR libraries. This requires teamwork. The libraries will only work when we collaborate, help each other out, be on time for our shifts, & do the work that's expected of us. I as your supervisor, expect a professional attitude every time you work a shift. When you take your job seriously, the people around you sense that.
I expect you to be engaged with your library. This means collaborating on upcoming programs, helping to create displays, social media posts, bulletin boards, and most importantly, talking to students who use (or do not use) the library. Since many of you are residents in the halls you work at, I will rely on your insider information to inform how we build our collection and plan programming.
I also expect clear communication with each one of you. That means responding to emails, letting me know in advance (or as soon as possible) about conflicts and issues as well as successes and new ideas. I want to help in whatever way I can, but I can only help if you let me know.

Some might say that's a lot to ask an undergraduate employee but I knew that every one of them could meet those expectations. I was especially a stickler on communication, since I was not in the library constantly when things were happening. While it might of seemed like daunting expectations at the beginning of the year, by the end of the year, my team was operating well and in sync. By setting up a teamwork frame at the beginning and being patient while things like communication and collaboration improved, we were able to do great things, all in good time. 

Community building should be integral in what you do

The only way I could help the Urbana South community was knowing how the community operated and what their needs were. This meant having lots of conversations with my clerks, who had lived in these halls before as well as talking with paraprofessionals and other Urbana South residents. It also meant showing up for community events and eating dinner in the dining halls every once and a while. Community is built when you establish trust and show that you care about the people in the community. When you show that you are willing to help and willing to listen to their experiences, establishing yourself in a community becomes easier.

Think creatively about opportunities to collaborate
 The infamous award! From L to R: Caitlin, a good friend and Resident Director, and one of our RAs in FAR.

The infamous award! From L to R: Caitlin, a good friend and Resident Director, and one of our RAs in FAR.

I love collaboration so I was willing and ready to work with others to expand and promote the libraries' services. My best collaborations came with teaming up with resident assistants and Illinois' multicultural advocates to plan programming and integrate library services in their activity. For example, we planned an instruction session where we taught multicultural advocates (who often make bulletin boards with facts and stats) about how search results differ based on the search engine you use and library resources to find facts. And when Housing decided to do a soft launch of residential curriculum, I was able to lead a session with some resident assistants on how to write learning outcomes. Residential curriculum opened the door for a Blind Date with a Book collaboration, focusing on wrapping books related to personal growth. This program was voted best academic program by the housing association, which was a huge honor and proof that collaboration can yield results.

Consistency is important in developing relationships

No one will come seeking my help if they don't know where to find me. I devoted four hours each week to each library hosting Office Hours. I sat in the same space and used the time to get to know my clerks and the regulars who visited our libraries often. This allowed me to build relationships and learn more about what the students needed in that space. When you want to develop relationships, you have to commit yourself to showing up. Sure, my nightly office hours cut into my social time, but in the short time I had in this position, I needed to make sure people knew I was around and wanted to help them.


I do feel that my time in the residence hall libraries was extremely influential in the way I am a librarian today. I even keep a picture of my staff in my new office, as a reminder of how they shaped me in how I think about supervising and working with undergraduate students. I don't think I'll ever quite find a place like Urbana South, but I'm happy for the time I did get there. I'm curious if those reading this post have any thoughts on this topic or things they'd like to share about their practice or experiences.