Learning in Action: Designing Successful Graduate Student Work Experiences in Academic Libraries

ACRL announces the publication of Learning in Action: Designing Successful Graduate Student Work Experiences in Academic Libraries, edited by Arianne Hartsell-Gundy, Kim Duckett, and Sarah Morris. This thorough book provides practical, how-to guidance on creating and managing impactful graduate student work experiences for students and library staff.

Learn more about Learning in Action in this Introduction from the editors.

Origins of the Book

This book arose out of a sincere, practical question: How do you supervise a graduate student working in a library? And how do you do it not just adequately, but well? When the editors found themselves chatting about supervising students at a conference, that single practical question bloomed into many related questions, from philosophical (What is a valuable and meaningful work experience?) to pointed (How can libraries design more equitable positions for students?) to personal (How did I learn to be a manager?). With a bouquet of questions, we turned to our colleagues to hear if they had asked them too, and what they had found.

Over the past decades, the place of work experience in library and information science (LIS) education has been frequently explored. Some of this literature focuses on LIS education itself and how to meaningfully incorporate experiential workplace learning into the curriculum.[1] There have also been notable publications that have explored how to create well-designed paid and unpaid work experiences in particular academic library contexts such as reference and instruction, special collections, and technical services.[2] Other literature has tackled a range of different issues with a focus on how to make the experiences impactful for both the graduates and library staff they work with.[3] These articles are complemented by adjacent literature on topics such as designing and running postgraduate residency programs that provide useful ideas and strategies that can be applied to work experiences for graduate students.[4] When we explored this literature, much of which is cited by this book’s authors, we still found gaps and unconnected ideas. Through this book we set out to bring together a range of topics and perspectives from authors of diverse backgrounds and institutions into conversation and connection with one another—all with the focus on how to create and manage impactful programs as well as meaningful personal experiences for students as well as library staff in academic libraries.

We were grateful for the existing literature but we saw space where our questions were still resounding: How do institutions design structures that are equitable for training graduate students? How do you bridge critical gaps with temporary staff? How should a manager be? What does it look like to have an internship that acknowledges the whole person, their intersecting identities, and their needs? We wanted to see a book that had room and space for all of these questions and more.

Call and Response

In our initial proposal and call for participation, we asked for chapters “examining how academic librarians can best support interns, graduate assistants, and practicum and field experience students (both LIS and other fields).” Throughout the resulting chapters, you will see that the terminology for workplace learning varies a great deal, as institutions have different names and parameters for their student work experiences. We welcomed submissions with all variations of titles for their student positions; for more thinking on the significance of naming when creating positions, look to the piece titled “Internship: What’s in a Name?”

We solicited chapters focused on philosophical perspectives, practical strategies, reflective essays, or case studies—calling specifically for chapters related to preparing graduate students for professional roles, logistics and structures of student work experiences, ethical considerations, and managers’ and students’ perspectives. In our CFP we tried to parse out each of these sections broadly, strategically offering many examples and options to model the expansive mindset we were aiming for in this book. We had hoped that the cluster of questions related to graduate student practicums in libraries would resonate with our colleagues, but the number of responses we received far surpassed our hopes, a happy affirmation that other people in our communities were asking these questions. We received a large number of submissions from public and private colleges and universities across North America, as well as from special libraries, museums, and community colleges! After receiving these submissions, we were eager to include the valuable perspective pieces we received, but we realized that a chapter format might not suit their anecdotal structure, so we returned to these authors and asked if they would be willing to write smaller, pointed profiles instead.

Navigating This Book

Reading through submissions from our incredibly competitive pool refined our organizational structure, and we refashioned our book to be more nuanced and varied and, we hope, useful. We created the four sections, each of which has a succinct preface designed to highlight chapters’ themes and to put the authors in conversation with one another. If you’re unsure where to start, we recommend reading these prefaces and diving into the chapters that speak to your interests. While this book offers approaches and models more than tidy resolutions, we did design it to be rewarding to read linearly, and throughout the book we were intentional with our pairing of profiles and chapters. Here is some insight into our thinking:


In the first part, which we titled “Creating Access Pathways,” we feature authors who reckon with questions about whom we design these internships and practicums for, and whom they might exclude. These chapters offer insight into barriers that graduate students may encounter when applying for or participating in work experiences in libraries. Many of these structural challenges may resonate with you—funding, systemic racism, lack of local opportunities or resources—and these authors address them honestly and openly. These chapters also offer practical strategies for designing work experiences that acknowledge and mitigate these barriers, and we think this section is a great place to start reflecting on what we are really asking of our student workforce.

The next two sections can be read in tandem, self-evidently titled “Developing, Running, and Evolving Programs for LIS Students” and “Working with Graduate Students without an LIS Background: Mutual Opportunities for Growth.” Part II features chapters that describe programs that explicitly employ LIS graduate students. Some are case studies of thoughtful program components or revisions that support student education, and some include broader reflections based on data from campus- and field-wide surveys. These chapters zoom in to particulars but also zoom out to consider the future of training in our profession.

Part III features chapters discussing programs that offer positions in the library to students who are not expressly seeking a degree in library or information science. These chapters will be useful to any school that does not have a local information school (which is many of us, it turns out). These chapters and profiles consider what our libraries can gain from positioning themselves in relationship to other fields, on campus and broadly. The lessons in both of these sections touch on many more aspects than the source of student labor, and we invite you to read both of these sections, whether your student workers come from library programs or from other disciplines.

Our last part is titled “Centering the Person,” and it features generous and rigorous examinations of management philosophies and culture. The authors of these chapters are deeply interested in holistic approaches to supervising—building empathy, practicing advocacy, sharing authority. The voices in this section bring our book back to perhaps that first essential question, How do you supervise well?


Throughout the book you will notice shorter sections, which we call profiles, that are offset in gray. It was important to us, designing this book about graduate student work, to include a host of perspectives, including those of the graduate students themselves, recent graduates, and managers. We are thrilled to showcase their voices and reflections and to offer them as complements to the longer chapters. We intentionally paired profiles with chapters where we felt a resonance. Sometimes the connection is obvious, and sometimes it’s more oblique—life experiences don’t always fit neatly into categories. We feel there is great deal of wisdom in the anecdotal and personal, and we hope you enjoy these profiles as much as we do.


Any good librarian knows that a question can hold a thousand questions. The ambitious scope of this book and resounding interest from our authors show that there are many more questions to be asked. We hope that you find some practical inspiration here, a model or framework for creating meaningful graduate student work experiences at your institutions. And more than anything, we hope that you find in this book a community to ask those unsolved and newly opened questions with. As April Hathcock, one of our authors, said in a recent panel discussing parts of this book, graduate students are not future colleagues, they are our colleagues.[5]

    [1].  For example, J. Gordon Coleman Jr., “The Role of Practicum in Library Schools,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 30, no. 1 (Summer 1989): 19–27, https://doi.org/10.2307/40323496.

    [2].  Tanner D. Lewey and Hannah Moody-Goo, “Management: Designing a Meaningful Reference and Instruction Internship: The MLIS Student Perspective,” Reference and User Services Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2018): 238–41, https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.57.4.6699; Jennifer E. Nutefall, “Structuring a Successful Instruction Internship,” College and Undergraduate Libraries 19, no. 1 (2012): 80–94, https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2012.652550; Maggie Gallup Koop, “Internships in Special Collections: Experiential Pedagogy, Intentional Design, and High-Impact Practice.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 20, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 12–27, https://rbm.acrl.org/index.php/rbm/article/view/17769/19581; Melanie J. McGurr and Ione T. Damasco, “Improving the Practicum or Internship Experience in Cataloging,” Technical Services Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2010): 1–16.

    [3].  For example, Nora J. Bird and Michael A. Crumpton, eds., Short-Term Staff, Long-Term Benefits (Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2018).

    [4].  Lorelei Rutledge et al., Developing a Residency Program (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

     [5].  April Hathcock, in Sarah Morris et al., “A Prismatic and Strategic Exploration of EDI in Graduate Student Internships and Practicums” (presentation, Association of College and Research Libraries Conference, online, April 16, 2021).