06 July 2018

LIS student placements - a host institution perspective

This post was prompted by several recent Twitter threads relating to LIS student placements.

These threads raised some serious questions from a student perspective, in particular about the financial hardship placed on students and the impact on diversity in the library workforce that may arise from placements being more accessible for some students than others.

Threads also presented concerns from the enrolling institution perspective, where LIS educators must meet ALIA accreditation requirements, determine how best their program might prepare students from an employability perspective and promote the benefits that a work placement can provide, particularly for students with no or little paid work experience in libraries or other information settings.
The threads also provided insight into a third view: that of a host organisation of student placements.
It is this third view that I wanted to flesh out in a bit more detail. I took on the role of coordinating student placements at my place of work about six months ago. The activities described below are those that I have personally undertaken as part of this role. I do not know how reflective this is of other organisations, however my goal as the student placement coordinator in my library is to ensure that the placement is a positive experience for both the student and for all the library staff that will be involved.

I hope that by presenting this view students undertaking placements will gain a greater understanding of the effort put in by host organisations. I am not presenting this information to diminish any of the points raised by others above, and I hope that further debate about the value (or not) of placements might be generated by these discussions. However, I would like to make more visible the labour involved from the host organisation's perspective. Yes, there is a big difference in that I get paid for the time I spend undertaking these tasks, but it could be interesting for students to consider the costs of my labour as an investment that my organisation is making in the library profession and its newest professionals.

So, with that, here's a list of what is involved in managing a student placements program:

1. Maintain internal procedures.

At my place of work we currently have a high level principles document but no written procedures. As I work through the process of organising my first few placements, I am trying to combine these two into one new document, which will then need to be approved by library management.

2. Ensure website content about placements is up to date.

3. Maintain an internal spreadsheet of possible student projects, and regularly ask managers and team leaders to contribute to this.

4. Manage a storage area for documentation relating to student placements and ensuring that this is appropriately shared.

5. Maintain a web form for receiving placement inquiries.

6. Monitor inquiries coming in through this form and provide an initial response within a reasonable timeframe.

7. Set up an initial phone call or meeting with the student to discuss their goals for the placement.

I ask the student to provide a CV or link to their LinkedIn profile, which I review before this conversation, and check the list of small placement projects to see if there is a match in interests / skills.

As well as getting a feel for the student’s goals for the placement, we discuss practical details including potential dates, working hours / pattern (if less than full-time), campus location/s, and any special requirements that we should be aware of (e.g. equipment, special needs, flexibility required for caring arrangements etc).

This session often includes some informal mentoring, for example, providing advice on the CV that I have asked them to provide, discussing how the placement with us fits with other placements and study activities, and providing advice on other avenues for gaining entry level experience. Part of this conversation also involves discussing students' previous work experience / career pathways to help them to make connections between work they have done previously and the library sector.

8. Complete paperwork with with the enrolling institution once a placement has been mutually agreed.

This usually needs to be filled in, scanned and sent back. I need to review the enrolling institution's requirements to make sure we can meet them. I also need to check insurance documentation is consistent with our own policies.

9. Develop a draft program in consultation with other managers and team leaders.

This involves a range of activities:
  • Multiple emails and phone calls with other managers and team leaders to identify one or more appropriate supervisors and teams for the placement 
  • Check the library's various calendars for induction / overview sessions
  • Identify upcoming events and workshops  that the student can attend or help at 
  • Identify upcoming events and workshops provided at or by other organisations that our staff are attending and that the student can accompany them to 
  • Identify meetings that the student can attend as an observer or participant
  • Identify staff members who can provide a verbal overview of other areas that the student is interested in, demo tools and services, and possibly even offer a more extended shadowing opportunity
  • Schedule a workplace project (if possible) in consultation with the supervisor
  • Use a shared calendar to add slots for all the activities noted above, while ensurig the student has adequate time for documentation / reflection to enable them to complete their placement reporting.
I take into the account the following when designing a program:
  • The requirements of the enrolling institution - some require work at a professional level and define this in a particular way
  • Areas in which the student is being assessed, to ensure that we cover as many of these as possible
  • Providing an overview of as many aspects of the library’s work as possible, so that students are exposed to areas that may not be so well-covered in their courses (e.g. library systems)
  • The student's express interests, as well as any gaps that they may be wanting to fill 
  • Previous work/life experience and transferable skills the student has that can be applied usefully during their time with us
  • The operational requirements within the library's teams, including when their busy periods are, to ensure that our own work will not be overly disrupted.
Overall, I am aiming to give students a range of experiences, and in particular to offer them a chance to complete a mini-project or participate in more substantial activities that will enable them to tell stories in writing and verbally when addressing selection criteria and interview questions. 

10. Request a visitor account to be created by Human Resources.

11. Request access to required central systems and services (e.g. email, calendar, internet, shared storage. This is an IT process that cannot be done until the visitor identity step mentioned above is completed.

12. Organise any additional access to any specialist library systems and services that the student needs for their program.

13. Request security card access from Security and a temporary name badge from the library's Business Support Officer.

14. Ensure an appropriate workstation is available and set-up at the location/s the student will be working.

15. Send the student a welcome email.

A few days before the placement I provide basic information required for Day 1, including confirmation of start date and time; arrival point and contact person (usually me); parking / public transport / campus maps

16. Write an internal staff blog post providing basic details of who / where / when so that staff are aware that the placement is happening.

17. Provide an induction / overview session to cover:
  • Organisational Chart
  • Library strategic and operational plans
  • Pointers to key documentation such as the University's strategic documents
  • Privacy and confidentiality requirements
  • Acceptable use of IT
  • Getting the most out of your placement (be involved, ask questions, etc.)
  • Overview of  schedule
  • Handover to supervisor
18. Arrange for someone to provide a campus tour for orientation purposes. Also check access cards are working and show food / coffee outlets.

19. Ensure an appropriate Health and Safety induction.

An initial tour should include a discussion of evacuation procedures for the workspace the student will spend most time at.

Depending on the duration of the placement, the student may also need to complete Health and Safety Induction, Fire Safety and Manual Tasks and Office Ergonomics online modules on commencement of the placement and this should be built into the program.

20. Midway checkin.

Halfway through a longer placement I have a meeting with the student. This enables the student and I to check in that the goals of the placement are being met and to 're-set' if expectations are not being met.

There may still be time to re-shuffle later parts of the program to focus on areas that the student wants to explore in more detail.

21. Coordinate production of the final report

This is an extensive exercise, as I seek and then collate feedback from all the staff who have interacted with the student during their time with us.

The most recent placement report I completed required a score and comments against 17 performance criteria. I received feedback from ten staff members other than myself and had to condense and summarise this as part of the report writing process.

After discussing a draft of the report with students at the debrief (see below), I need to send this the enrolling institution's placements coordinator or to the student as required.

22. Hold a debrief session.

On the last day of the placement, I have a debrief session with the student.

Generally I will have provided them a day earlier with a draft written report so that we can discuss the assessment that I will submit.

I sometimes provide additional verbal feedback to the student that might help them in their future career (including encouragement to participate in professional events such as those organised by ALIA), and provide them with an opportunity to ask any final questions.

I also seek feedback about how the placement went from their perspective to find out if there are ways we can improve how we plan and manage these.

23. Act as a referee.

As part of supervising a student placement, placement coordinators and supervisors may offer to be listed as a student's referee when they are applying for work.

This means being available for phone calls of up to half an hour, usually at short notice and sometimes years after the placement has taken place.

Last week I gave a phone interview for a placement student who was with my team over two years ago. I did this happily, even though the person had not given me a courtesy heads-up that they were still using me as a referee for their applications. (Top tip: your referees will be able to provide you with a better reference if you let them know what jobs you are applying for and who might be calling them.)