Friday, August 20, 2010

Article Note: On liaison activities for academic librarians

Citation for the article:

Kozel-Gains, Melissa A. and Richard A. Stoddart, "Experiments and Experiences in Liaison Activities: Lessons from New Librarians in Integrating Technology, Face-to-Face, and Follow-Up." Collection Management 34.2 (April 2009) :130-142.

Read via Interlibrary Loan. 

The article reviews some librarian liaison activities. It specifically looks at blogs, customized research pages, and the use of Library Thing for collection development. The article is mostly for new librarians who find themselves with liaison duties in academia, but librarians who are already working in academia will find benefit from the article as well. The authors cite RUSA's definition of liaison work as "the process by which librarians involve the library's clientele in the assessment and satisfaction of collection needs" (131). Let me put it in plain English. If you are an academic librarian, and your role includes working with faculty in a specific department, and if said role includes work in collection development for said department/subject area, and you also provide instruction specifically to meet those department's needs, you are a library liaison. In a university setting, odds are pretty good that if you are a reference and/or instruction librarian, that you will have some level of liaison duties. Let me use myself as an example. I am the subject librarian here for the School of Education, the Department of Psychology, and the Department of Social Sciences (specifically for areas in anthropology, criminal justice, public administration, geography, and political science). This means that I promote library services to those areas. I provide more specialized library instruction to their students (we are assuming instruction past the basic session they get the freshman year), and I gather faculty requests for materials as well as suggest and purchase materials on my own initiative for their areas (in the instances where we have money to do so). I also will do some instruction for faculty on specific resources at their request.

To be honest, liaison work is not something that is taught, or taught very well, in library school.
If I had to make a list of things that library schools should be teaching to potential academic librarians, how to do liaison work and build relationships with faculty and students would be an item on that list. By the way, it is an observation of mine that the smaller the campus, the more of a generalist you have to be. Large research universities usually have a liaison for one area, say psychology. In the smaller setting, you have to be able to wear multiple hats, and at times, you may end up doing liaison work in a subject area you feel you are not best qualified. I happen to be fortunate because my degree was a teaching degree, so it gives me background and knowledge for my subject areas. However, let me reassure my two readers that, at least in smaller settings, you can still thrive as the liaison to, say the School of Nursing, even if you don't have a nursing or science degree. You are a librarian. You know how find information, and more importantly, you know how to learn things. Over time, as you learn the resources in your area, you will develop the necessary familiarity and subject knowledge to do the work. In addition, do not be afraid to ask questions from your faculty. They are the subject experts. These subjects are their passion, what they have studied, and many of them will be happy to share their knowledge.

Let's make some notes then:

The authors reinforce that a good liaison has to be able to wear multiple hats, not only in terms of subject but also in terms of skills:

"A good liaison is a jack-of-all-trades incorporating people skills, designing Web pages, aiding faculty research, writing department or course-specific resource guides, providing face-to-face consultation, and informing and facilitating faculty in learning about new and emerging information technologies, such as those associated with Library/Web 2.0" (131).

We do need to have a good customer service ethic. However, in terms of the above, we may aide faculty with their research, but we do not do their research for them. That's what their research assistants are for (or what the faculty members themselves should be doing since they are the ones doing the writing). The point is that as the liaison you provide some support, show them how to use particular resources, and empower them to do their work. But we also do many other things, some of which are described in the quote above.

The authors first look at blogs directed at faculty. This means blogs created by the librarian specifically for faculty in a department. I would extrapolate to try to make the blog a broader resource for students in that subject area as well, but this is not really considered in the article. The focus, as described in the article, is that the blogs worked more as static Web sites listing resources and items of interest to the faculty. I would go with the more traditional vision of the blog as a tool that you update with some regularity. The overall blog design rational for the blogs the authors describe:

"These faculty blogs were designed to both promote resources and library information to faculty and allow feedback from faculty without overwhelming them with content. The blogs offered a place that faculty could visit at their convenience to catch up on library and collection-related information specific to their departments, as well as providing an online communications hub for faculty feedback" (132).

 A blog does have the advantage that it is something easy to set up. For a new librarian who has a  lot of things on his plate, the ability to set a blog up with ease is helpful. You can easily add some widgets, and you are ready to go.

The authors noted that the blogs were not getting much traffic from the faculty. To increase traffic, the authors consider that better promotion of the resource may be needed. They saw the blogs as experimental, so they did not link them on their library pages. I would link any blog I created in our library website and certainly in our LibGuides. The issue seems to be striking a balance between between having a general resource and one that is very specific to narrow research areas. I say that for a blog, any blog, it takes time to build a following. If the feedback from faculty who do see it is positive, I say that is a good thing and a reason to continue.

Second, the authors go on to discuss personalized web page development for faculty. I will not go much into this because here we use LibGuides to meet those needs. The authors mention using an RSS widget from Spring Widgets (note: link in article seems to be a dead link. Looks like there is a new link). Assessment is a challenge: how to keep track of who is using it, so on. LibGuides, which is a fee-based service, does provide some analytics in that area. Promotion at this point is important as well. Not only for some faculty, but if we can get faculty to promote the site to their students, graduate assistants, so on, then we will be doing better.

The authors then discuss use of a wiki to create/establish a liaison manual. The idea sounds nice in theory. The problem I usually have with wikis is that they are not terribly intuitive or user friendly. Now before some wiki fan out there jumps on me, take a moment and think of what you take for granted. Compared to using the interface here on Blogger (or Wordpress or Vox even, which I have used as well), a wiki editing interface is not very intuitive unless you have had time to practice in order to learn it. Our attempt in using a wiki during our usability testing work for the library website redesign was of mixed results at best. In the end, sharing a collaborative word document was a lot easier. However, I do want to note that the theory in using a wiki (or some other collaborative online tool) is pretty good. Two things from that section:

  • "Migrating the liaison manual to a wiki would allow content to be more dynamic and timely, therefore proving more directly useful to liaisons in their day-to-day activities" (136). 
  • "In essence, a wiki has the potential to tap into the collective institutional intelligence and expertise of multiple library staff to produce a more vibrant and timely document" (136). This deals with the idea of institutional memory, a topic I have pondered once or twice, and one that I do not think gets enough attention in our profession. 
The authors then go on to describe how they use Library Thing, which you can read in the article. It does require purchasing an institutional account and then giving access to various parties to make the collection development work. I am not too sure on the logistics, but I think people who use it already personally may find it more useful for their liaison duties.

At the end of the day though, and this is what I really liked about the article, is that face time is still crucial. You have to leave the office and meet people as well as follow up using tools like e-mail and blogs. Some notes on lessons to learn and consider:

  • "Technology may provide new tolls for outreach, but the quality of a face-to-face encounter with faculty often provides a lasting impression from which a liaison can draw feedback and build on for future encounters. Creating these opportunities is one of the primary responsibilities of a library liaison" (139). This is a very good reminder. 
  • "Follow-up is an essential component of liaison activities. Librarians must continually educate and periodically remind faculty of specialized library services and resources" (139). This also includes asking for feedback and assessing the tools regularly to make sure they meet faculty needs, to make sure they are useful as well as  usable.

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