Running a Library Research Assistant Program

“[It] takes longer but the results are better.” ~ JFK

This year, I took over management of our library’s Research Assistant Program (RAP) after a successful inaugural year under my colleague’s direction. Having overseen 50 projects and 1,000 hours of assistant work since September, I am exhausted, proud, and still puzzled about how to handle some issues.

The RAP is intended to help faculty – especially those who do not want to hire and manage their own research assistants – with research projects but has also helped the RAs hone their research skills, add to their resumes, and develop productive relationships with both librarians and faculty members. By design, the program runs all projects through a single librarian to ensure quality, responsiveness, and timeliness. The librarian managing the program solicits research needs from the faculty (generally by group email), assigns projects to the research assistants, monitors progress, and reviews, edits, and puts the finishing touches on work product. In addition, the librarian facilitates the relationship between the RA and the faculty member by introducing them in person, arranging and attending meetings to discuss the project, and ensuring that all work is satisfactory.

This deep involvement of the librarian serves a number of purposes. Originally, some librarians wanted to ensure that the RAs represent the library appropriately, but we soon realized that the bigger danger was that the faculty members would ask far too much of the RAs and monopolize their time, all on the library’s budget. The librarian’s role quickly came to include establishing reasonable expectations in terms of time, scope, and the nature of the deliverables. For example, we had to rein in faculty members wanting full-fledged research memos on broad topics, pointing them towards briefly annotated bibliographies instead. Another step was to insist that all communication go through the librarian and not directly to the research assistant. This may seem Orwellian, but it has helped equalize the power differential between faculty and RAs.

This year, we hired a few recent graduates as well as students. One was waiting for a clerkship to start, another was waiting to take the bar, another has four young children, and the part-time, flexible schedule of our RAP was just what she needed. The fact that these graduates are not on campus, along with the growing popularity of the RAP, has caused some morphing in the program. The initial in-person meeting with the faculty member, RA, and librarian has vanished for the most part. This lessens some of the relationship-building that happened last year, but it has made it easier to control expectations and demands. The graduates are also able to put in more hours than the students (though we have to make sure they stay well under 30 hours!), and we have been able to do some larger scale projects.

From the production side, the RAP has been wildly successful. We typically do about 500 hours of work each semester and have accomplished nearly 100 research projects in less than two years with only one complaint as to a missed citation. Nonetheless, the program has had some unintended consequences. First of all, it has been somewhat overwhelming for the managing librarian. My colleague began the program and ran it single-handedly for the first year. I took over this year and, in all honesty, have been swamped with the amount of work it entails. I have gotten better at sharing the work throughout the year (clearly, I have some control issues), but it is still difficult to stay on top of each project, do all the checking/editing that is required, keep records so that we can track hours and work product, monitor the emails, and assign new projects.

Another unintended consequence is the effect on the liaison relationships between other librarians and their “assigned” faculty. The RAP was never intended to replace the librarian liaison assignments, but many faculty members seem to feel more at ease seeking help through the RAP than through their liaison. As a result, most research requests now come through the one librarian managing the RAP, and the other librarians are falling behind as to what “their faculty” are doing. This has caused feelings of “I’m not doing my job” and “I’m losing touch with my faculty.” We have a master list of RAP projects, but it has not been kept up-to-date (did I mention that the workload is overwhelming? I also suspect no one looked at even when it was up-to-date). I have tried to address this by cc’ing liaisons on some emails and asking other librarians if they would like to handle a request, but the results are not entirely satisfactory. Spreading work back out among the librarians undermines the RAP’s tight quality controls, single line of communication, and unified “look & feel.” It also makes progress, hours spent, final work product, and faculty satisfaction much harder to track.

All in all, the RAP has been a fantastic program, and the faculty are thrilled. We still have some internal kinks to iron out, but we will continue this program for the foreseeable future. Even with budget cuts in other areas, the RAP has become a priority for our dollars. We get a lot of bang for our buck both in terms of both faculty productivity and library/librarian value to the school.

If you have a library research assistant program, how does it operate? What successes have you had? What are the challenges?

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