22 Dec 2016

Changing roles in changing times: the academic liaison librarian in flux

This post was initially published on The invisible Librarian blog.

I ventured out to Maynooth University Library two weeks ago for a full-day seminar, which explored the changing role of the subject librarian. The day was structured around two keynotes – the first one by Stephen Pinfield, Professor of Information Services Management, University of Sheffield; the second one by Rosie Jones, Director of Library Services, Open University – and, very interestingly, several practice synopses by representatives of various Irish academic libraries, as well as that of the OU Library.

Participants’ overall consensus on the day was that there is no consensus, whether here in Ireland or indeed the UK, over what constitutes “best practice” in the realm of library organisational structure and, crucially, the status of subject/liaison librarianship.

Given the fast-moving changes in today’s information environment, libraries are expected to stay ahead through re-envisioning  organisational structures and cultures and, arguably, moving away from static management of print and digital collections towards providing user-focused services.

Hoodless and Pinfield investigated this idea by trying to find out about the actual state of library organisational structures and management practices. They did this by means of conducting eleven semi-structured interviews with senior library managers from a range of different UK based higher education institutions. Their maximum variation sampling approach aimed to cover as broad a spectrum of perspectives and practices as possible.

Before highlighting the results of Hoodless’s and Pinfield’s study, it makes sense to identify the typical responsibilities of the traditional academic liaison librarian. They include, among other things, development, management and delivery of information literacy training for their constituent library users. Linking up with appropriate staff and students to maintain awareness of new research and teaching in their subject areas, as well as developing and fulfilling potential information needs. Liaison librarians also tend to manage information resources budgets pertaining to their allocated subject fields. 

Debbie Morrow contends that effective embeddedness is the key ingredient to successful liaison librarianship: “My responsibility became to explore and nurture relationships within my liaison departments, and per chance to become what Olivia Olivares has aptly described as “sufficiently embedded.”

An example of a classic, subject-based liaison support structure is UCC Library
Source: http://booleweb.ucc.ie/index.php?pageID=184
On the other hand, an example of radical change to the above approach is the University of Manchester Library. Manchester switched over from a previously subject-based support structure (Arts, Social Sciences, Business & Management, Engineering & Physical Sciences, Medical, Human & Life Sciences) to a functional support structure (Research Services, Teaching & Learning, Academic Engagement). Academic Engagement is now faculty based: Faculty of Science and Engineering, Faculty of Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, Biology and Health).

My workplace is wired up in a purely functional fashion.

Hoodless and Pinfield learnt through their inquiries that, increasingly, libraries are replacing subject-based teams for functional teams. However, views on this were divided along the lines of actual current or anticipated practice: libraries that will/have adopt(ed) the functional approach see this very much as the way forward; libraries that maintain, and intend to maintain into the future, the subject-based model were unconvinced of the efficacy of functional teams.

Essentially, the following opposing drivers for both, functional and subject-based, library structures were identified (see Hoodless and Pinfield, 2016, p.12):
Source: Hoodless and Pinfield, 2016, p.12
The day concluded with a lively discussion around different institutional organisational and cultural library practices.

Further reading on this subject:



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