Friday, May 11, 2012

Substitute Librarians

I am very fortunate to work in a library that has a budget for substitute librarians.  So, while I am going to complain a little bit, I do recognize that this is a luxury.  We use subs to cover vacations, meetings, illnesses, and even as extra help for special projects and programming.

I worked as a substitute librarian at another library in the past, and that was my introduction to the whole idea.  I loved subbing.  It was a way to experience a different kind of library and meet other librarians, all while getting paid.  At this stage in my career, I don't think I will sign up to be a sub again, but I am very glad I did it.

The main job of our subs is to cover any of our librarian service desks (youth, readers advisory, and reference). As I mentioned above, they are sometimes scheduled for programs or other projects, but the vast majority of the time, they are scheduled to cover the desks when a regular staff person is not available. (And I mean truly not available...not just off-desk. I'd rather give someone an extra hour of desk time than bring a sub in for an hour.)

I usually pencil out the desk schedules at least a week in advance, and sometimes two weeks ahead.  I can't easily do more than two weeks because the daily schedules change so much.  Meetings are added, forgotten programs are penciled in, and outside appointments are made.  People get sick, their children get sick, and their pets get sick.  Cars break down.  Things happen that upset the regular schedule that you can't plan ahead for.  So, I can usually do a week or two of the three-desk schedules and know when I'll need subs to fill in.  I usually send an email a week or two ahead, listing the available sub shifts. The first to respond gets the shifts they request.
That's where the problem begins.  I often do the schedules on Mondays for the next few weeks.  I get a lot of consecutive hours of off-desk time on Mondays, so I can concentrate on scheduling.  I email the subs on Mondays with the available shifts.  Then I wait.  Sometimes the shifts are snatched up in a matter of minutes.  More often, several days go by and either I've heard from one or two subs saying they aren't available or I haven't heard anything.  By the end of the week I start to worry that the next week's shifts won't be covered.  About half the time they aren't, and most of the shifts that ARE covered are by the same three or four people who have graciously agreed to come in after a full day at their regular job.
I have 16 names on the sub list.  About four of them are quite often available.  About four more are occasionally available (or maybe "willing" is a better word. I don't know if they're available or not.). The rest are rarely available/willing to sub.  Half of the list work just a couple of shifts per year.
I'd like to hear from other librarians who schedule substitutes:
1. How many hours/shifts per month/quarter/year/whatever do you require your subs to work?
Right now, we have a policy saying they have to work once every six months.  It does not specify how many hours.
2. How do you communicate updates and changes with them?  Are they included in regular staff training?
I include the subs in emails that document all changes. They have remote access to our staff intranet and can read blog posts that include updates.  (DO they read them?  They are included in any in-person staff training sessions that impact their abilities to work at our service desks.
3. How much unpaid "keeping up" do you require of your subs?  Are they supposed to read staff blogs, staff email accounts, posts, etc. regularly, even if they only work once every six months?
I encourage this to a point, but don't require anything that's unpaid.  It would be great if they did keep up with staff blog posts and emails sent to the sub email account.  As I said, they have remote access.  If they're going to get paid to cover a desk independently, they need to know what's going on and how procedures and policies have changed since they worked last.  However...I really don't feel right asking people to do work-related activities from home, unpaid.  That brings me back to the idea that if they subbed more often, they could do that reading and keeping up while they're being paid to cover the desks.
4. How far in advance do you schedule your subs? Do you have trouble getting shifts covered?
I understand that after an eight-hour day of working, you really don't want to spend another three or four subbing.  The other side (my side) of the coin is this: if each of the 16 subs worked one long day every two or three months, ALL of my desk shifts would be covered and no one would have to work a long day very often.

My questions for librarians who sub are:

1. Why do you sub?  To supplement your income?  To increase your experience and network for your resume?  For kicks?
As I said, I used to sub.  It was mostly to expand my experiences and network.  It was partially for kicks. My husband was working as an airline pilot at the time, so I  had about four days a week where I was going to be alone if I were at home, so I opted to work extra hours while he was away.

2. How often do you feel like you need to work in order to keep up with the changes the library makes to procedures and policies?  How many shifts do you need to work per year to make it a worthwhile arrangement for you?
When I was a sub, it seems like every time I came in, something had changed.  I would have said one shift per month was pushing it to keep up.  I also wouldn't have felt right putting "Substitute Librarian" on my resume if I subbed less than once per quarter at the very least.

3. Do you feel like you are a part of the regular staff, or are you  made to feel like outsiders?
I sure hope our subs feel like part of the team! 

I appreciate any input anyone can offer.  I have to find a way to have more available subs, but I also want it to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.  I feel like I have to offer enough sub shifts to give everyone a chance to work, but in the end, 90% of the shifts are covered by 25% of the sub pool.

(By the way...our subs make $16 per hour Monday through Saturday and $20 per hour on Sunday.  They are, with the exception of one, MLIS degreed librarians.  The exception is one semester away from graduating with an MLIS.)


  1. I used to sub at my previous library and it was a lot of fun. I was a regular PT employee at one branch but picked up the occasional shift at some of the others. I met a lot of people this way and made some friends that I still keep in touch with even though it's been 3 years since I moved to my new library (about 2 hours away).

    The extra money was really nice particularly around the holidays when people take so much time off. Your subs are paid quite well! I started my FT librarian job at I think $17 in 2009 and am now at $21, so I would say that is very comparable (and awesome money for a part-time job).

    Another bonus to working at a different branch was scoping out ideas for my own, like displays and toys they had in the kids' department. It was also interesting to see how each branch handled different patron situations. We were all following the same policies but applying them in slightly different ways.

  2. I haven't ever subbed as a librarian and my library doesn't have subs, but I am considering it as an opportunity to try a different type of library. Of course, my current job has me swamped until July and perhaps afterwards too, so whether I'll ever make the time to do it is questionable.

  3. I am a Sub Librarian in Los Angeles. I do it because I am a stay-at-home mom and I like the flexible schedule and limited hours I get from subbing, while still getting experience in the field and a decent hourly rate. I work about 8 hours per week, but sometimes less if there are not many hours to go around. My system is hiring half-time Librarians right now, and after much consideration, I decided not to apply. I'd have a steady job, but I just can't handle that many after school and weekend hours away from my kids. So I hope to continue subbing for a few more years and hope they hire again in the future. I do feel like an outsider when I sub though, but hopefully I will get more shifts and the same few branches so that I can get to know the staff and patrons.

  4. I've been subbing in public libraries for seven years. I sub in two different suburban library systems, one consisting of 5 libraries, the other 41 libraries. At first I started subbing to see if I liked working in public libraries. I ended up loving it and decided to switch my career focus from academic libraries to public libraries. I love the work I do and the variety of people I meet and library locations I go to.

    I'm not even sure how many subs total there are in the two library systems I work. In both systems there is a mixture of subs like me, who rely on subbing as their primary source of income. These subs tend to have the most flexible schedules and are most willing to travel to different locations. There are also subs who for whom subbing is a supplemental form of income. These subs may already have a regular library job elsewhere (or something non-library related). There are also a few subs who were former library employees, and switched to subbing for various reasons (e.g. spend more time with kids or retired but still want to occasionally work in a library). The latter two groups tend to sub less frequently and have less flexible schedules.

    In both systems I work, there is a staff Intranet and a staff email account that subs are expected to read and keep up to date on. If there isn't enough time to do it at work, I read at home to keep up to date as needed.

    I work about 20 hours a week in the larger system and about 5 hours a week in the smaller system. Where I am employeed, there is a limit as to how often a sub can work- we have to stay under a certain number of hours, since we are not benefitted employees. This is the biggest drawback to subbing- unable to work full-time hours even though I'd like to.

    As far as keeping up with changes, if I'm subbing at a library that I haven't been to in several weeks or if I'm subbing at a branch for the first time, I'll email the head librarian there before my shift to ask if there are important changes I should keep up with. If that's not possible, I'll try to arrive at my shift early enough to have adequate time to get my questions answered before the shift starts and to learn where key things are located. Since I work at many different libraries, I keep a document of pertinent information for each library that I store in my Google Drive for easy access. I regularly add and update to these documents. Some libraries also have FAQ sheets or notebooks for subs which I find very helpful. Occasionally though, there will be times where I feel like I'm uninformed of some change that's been made or on some procedure or unique service of a certain library. There's so many ins-and-outs to working at each individual library branch that it becomes challenging to keep track of it all.

    Usually I'm made to feel very welcome at the library I'm subbing at. I'm lucky to have worked with some great librarians who have given me great insight into the profession. Sometimes, though, I still feel rather distanced from the regular staff. I sub at many different libraries so even though I get to know a great number of people, I may not get to know them as well as I would like. Where I work, subs do not attend staff meetings or serve on committees- which are good ways to get to know other staff. When regular employees are hired or decide to resign/retire, all the staff get informed but that's typically not the case with subs.

  5. I am a sub at a city library. I am part of a team of 3. We are benefited for 25 (up from 20) hours per week, although not guaranteed that many hours. The reality is I have worked an average of 30 hrs per week since I started doing this 4 yrs ago. So am being exploited mightly in terms of benefits. If we are ill during a shift for which we have been scheduled, we ought to be paid sick time, except we cannot claim sick time for hours that go over our contract. Since I almost always work over the contract, I do not get sick pay. Nearly 2/3 of the staff at this library are part time, and this place chronically and systemically has people work beyond contract, but does not pony up the benefits.

    I really like my job though: it gives me the opportunity to work all departments, and before I get too fed up with any of the demands (or patron types) of any of them, I find I am working in another one.

    We're generally kept reasonably well informed of what each department is doing, being on the e-mail list of each. While I occasionally have to tell people that I don't know something, or can't do something because I'm a sub, it's fairly infrequent.

    I don't have to participate in any stupid departmental politics, but I can see that most staff do not consider us 'real' librarians. I'd like to contribute more, I am motivated, but the reality is there is nothing on offer for our motivation, other than self satisfaction.

    We have an online scheduler, where shift vacancies can be posted and accepted or declined. We are, of course, on call, and can expect a phone call at any time asking if we can cover. One can manage this readily by choosing to answer the phone or not. In reality, unless I have another engagement/appointment, I always help out when cover is needed.

    We are paid a pathetic $20/hr, but this is the same payscale as any other Librarian I here.

    I think our library is somewhat unusual in having 3 longish-term subs who are (reasonably) happy staying a sub. There have been many opportunities for interviewing for vacant posts here over the years, and I've been tempted once or twice, mostly to formally increase my hours. I can't stomach going through another pointless and poorly conducted interview though. (are you seriously asking me, having witnessed my work here for 4 years, for an example of how I would deal with an irate patron??????)

    If there was one thing I wish the library would take on board about us, it would be to recognize what an incredibly useful resource we are. Not only do we make scheduling extremely easy, but we also have an overview of the library that no one else has. I'm always telling someone in one department that something is available in another, or that another department deals with this issue in this way. We provide terrific inter-departmental liaison. Guess I'll have to do some self-promotion along these lines.