Academic Libraries and the Retention of New Employees: Three Fundamental Approaches by McKenzie Langford

When we hear the word “retention,” at least in the context of librarianship, our first thought will generally be of the student patrons for an academic library. This is an obvious connection, but for the time being, this post will shift gears and consider retention in terms of the professional librarians and library staff that run and operate academic libraries. Specifically, this examination will focus on new employees in particular. Aside from the focus on new employees in academic libraries, this will mostly be a general overview. That is, topics treated will be broad enough to maintain applicability across a range of different academic libraries, big or small, in a rural setting or urban setting, with special programs or a relatively “standard” curriculum. In looking to the relevant professional literature with this breadth of applicability in mind, three methods reveal themselves as the most ideal and cost-effective solutions to increasing the retention of new employees in academic libraries. These three methods are mentoring, introductory training workshops, and rotating positions. These methods each lend themselves to adaptation based on budgetary constrictions and overall mission. Not only are these practical ways of easing the transition for new employees (and therefore upping morale and motivation), they also stand to benefit the academic library itself and its parent institution by saving time and money.

Mentoring is a practical means of transitioning new employees into the library because it can be constructed as a formal or informal system and because it allows the library to take advantage of human resources (as opposed to contracting out a third party to come on-site for seminars or workshops). Essentially, mentoring allows for networking and relationship-building as a means of decreasing the amount of time it takes to learn the ropes and as a means of increasing employee morale. Networking and relationship-building can be particularly difficult for some minority employees, so mentoring also aids in the retention of a diverse workforce (Musser, 2001, p. 68). Ross (2013) notes that the “types or models of mentoring processes are often categorized as either informal or formal, as group/organizational, or as paired with either a peer or subordinate/superordinate relationship” (p. 415). Formal approaches to mentoring typically promote a structure that places a new employee with someone in a supervisory position, as opposed to a colleague at a similar level, a peer. Additionally, a formal approach might consist of an additional workshop. According to Ross (2013), “the literature supports informal mentoring processes as being more effective for academic libraries in general” (p. 415). The informal approach can be likened more so to a buddy system, whereby colleagues can teach new employees both the formal and informal policies and codes of conduct in the library.

Ross’s group/organizational approach to mentoring is probably best thought of in terms of workshops. Workshops can be held in-house or at an off campus site. They can be run by the upper tiers of library staff, or they can be held by a completely separate entity. While topical workshops as needed (new services, adoption of new technologies) are equally important, the workshops we here refer to might be best understood as orientations. This sort of training might go over general policy, the foundations of a variety of positions in the library if it is small and reference, circulation, etc. is spread among only a few people, protocol and procedure for liaison efforts with faculty, information on performing IL instruction, etc. What the training consists of is open-ended and up to the discretion of the library itself. Why new employees benefit from such introductory workshops is more interesting. Groves and Black (2010) emphasizes two main advantages. First, workshops, much like formal or informal mentoring, serve to aid in the building of relationships and making new employees comfortable in general. Second, and more importantly for the library, introductory workshops decrease the time lag between an employee starting his or her first day and reaching full capability in his or her position (p. 219). While a new employee with no training or mentoring whatsoever might take weeks to fully find their rhythm, those who undergo training will figure things out more quickly. This translates to a higher level of confidence and motivation for employees and less time (the new employee learning his or her responsibilities) and money (the new employee being paid while the “full workload” is not being done yet) for the library and college/university.

Although the advantages of mentoring and introductory workshops would seem to be as obvious for the library as they are for the employees, Munde (2000) holds that these are in fact not the most advantageous techniques for the library. The method that holds just as much potential for an easy transition for new employees but stands to benefit the academic library even more is adopting some form of job rotation throughout the library on every level that is possible (p. 174). Obviously the upper administration will be exempt. What are the advantages for the new employees? They get a better idea of the library’s operations as a whole. They have a larger context to put their activities in. If someone calls in sick and they are forced out of their normal area, they are not totally lost. And the advantages for the academic library? Within the context of a larger framework, employees are better able to understand and support the mission. If someone in reference calls in sick and someone in circulation has to step up, they’re not totally lost. Most of the advantages are the flip side of the advantages employees stand to gain. Perhaps the biggest benefit for the library in adopting a rotating schedule is preparing employees in such a way that what starts as a job might become a career, thus cutting down on efforts to recruit externally and time to train new employees all over again (Munde, 2000, p. 174).

The acclimation of new employees in academic libraries is more than an informal courtesy extended. Easing the transition means happier employees that are more capable of doing their jobs. It means context, relationships, and superior service. For the library, it means saved time, saved money, and more motivated employees. In the cases of those academic libraries taking advantage of rotating positions, it means a trans-departmental understanding of the library’s overall functions. The reasons to implement some kind of program, formal or informal, are numerous and clear. Methodologies are not limited to those detailed in this post, but these three in particular, mentoring, workshops, and rotation, were chosen because they can be tweaked and used across a spectrum of different academic library types and because if necessary, with a little creativity they can be employed on a tight budget. These are not meant to be end-all solutions to issues with new employees, but rather are meant to be starting points. From there, the library and its staff can decide what best meets their needs.


Groves, C. & Black, W. (2010). Making the best of the best: Strategies for effective retention. In M. Bushing, D. Theiss-White, & E. Pankl (Eds.), Recruitment, development, and retention of information professionals: Trends in human resources and knowledge management (pp. 218-236). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Munde, G. (2000). Beyond mentoring: Toward the rejuvenation of academic libraries. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 26(3), 171-175.

Musser, L.R. (2001). Effective retention strategies for diverse employees. Journal of Library Administration, 33(1/2), 63-72.

Ross, K.M. (2013). Purposeful mentoring in academic libraries. Journal of Library Administration, 53(7/8), 412-428.


One thought on “Academic Libraries and the Retention of New Employees: Three Fundamental Approaches by McKenzie Langford

  1. It was helpful to see the different forms of mentoring broken down. I can see how introductory workshops are such a practical way of building a new employee’s confidence. They can enrich the employee’s first days, and the first days are crucial. The discussion of job rotation especially got me thinking. I can imagine that there are some libraries with staff structured in a such a way that they need job rotation to function smoothly. But that is not to say job rotation makes does not make sense as a general practice. As librarians we always have to be aware of the broader context, the full range of services in the library. Nothing increases awareness like experience.


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