Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Article note: On methods of academic librarian liaisons

Citation for the article:

Thull, James and Mary Anne Hansen, "Academic Library Liaison Programs in US Libraries: Methods and Benefits." New Library World 110.11/12 (2009): 529-540.

Read via Emerald.

This is another article discussing academic librarians and liaison work. This one looks a bit more at some of the theoretical foundations rather than just giving tips on technology use by liaisons like the previous article I read. As I stated in that previous article, the topic of liaison work for academic librarians is not one that is taught well in library schools, so reading in this area should be of interest to academic librarians. The Thull and Hansen article I read for this post provides a definition of liaison work and looks at some activities and practices for liaisons. I found this article particularly valuable because it includes a survey instrument for faculty; the tool is something I can modify and add to the survey I am currently working on for my liaison activities here.

The authors start with their literature review, where they look at the RUSA definitions for liaison work. They state that our clientele are faculty and students and that serving their needs is our primary goal. This is consistent with what we practice here, and I am sure other librarians will agree. The authors go on to mention that library users expect to find their information wherever they may be. Now, regardless of how unrealistic that expectation is or ill-informed like this guy who clearly does not understand how access to electronic scholarly sources really works. (and we could go into that topic some other time. And in the case of the guy, that he was a researcher and still does not get it is shameful), that expectation is there, and we have to address it. Folks think that everything is on Google and online. It does not matter that we know better. The fact is we have to educate others about the reality-- no, Google does not have everything. No, everything is not online. No, everything online is not free. In the end, we compete with Google and the Internet, and as the authors argue, our personal relationships with our departments may well be the best way to counter those unrealistic expectations while adding some value.

Some more notes from the article:

"Where libraries excel over Google is in providing reliable and authoritative sources of information" (531).
 Yes, we excel in providing added value, to borrow the business term. Anyone can run a Google search. Finding the good, reliable stuff is the real issue, and we are the ones who are masters at finding that good, reliable stuff (and we'll be happy to show you how to do it too).

A lot of the basic message in the article is for liaisons to be proactive. This includes being a marketer for the libraries. However, I tend to have a small problem with the idea given that it seems to let faculty off the hook. You see, if they don't hear from us, or rather choose to ignore us, then it must be our fault. While I certainly do believe in marketing, after all I work in outreach, there does come a moment when the faculty have to choose to get off their collective behinds and go to the library, or at the very least use the online resources effectively. And another thing articles like this often fail to mention in the rush to be optimistic is that there can be such a thing as too much marketing. As anyone who hates spam can attest, after a while, people will tune the messages out. The authors argue for being a library ambassador, which I certainly agree with since I do it every single day both as a liaison as the outreach librarian. Yes, we can and should be involved in things like faculty meetings, accreditation events, and other departmental events.

And sometimes you should go to some of those departmental events just for the fun of it. Our music librarian is a perfect example. The lady goes to every student concert and recital she can manage. It shows support for her students and faculty; it shows that the library, or at least some people in the library, have an interest in what the students do, and it shows that we can be interested in a way other than "pushing" what the library can do for you. I have always told her she should write a paper on some of her liaison work because she combines the actual marketing that many of these folks do with basic common sense. While a lot of these articles are big on using social software or technology, she still uses the personal touch, something I have advocated for before, and it works. She has strong departmental relationships with a combination of proactivity and genuine interest. Would that work for everybody? Maybe, maybe not, but I think that social angle is one to explore further. Or as she tells me when we get a small break to talk about what we do, "all that socializing we do is actually work. If only the powers that be would understand that."

Yet, not all the techniques you try to market the library work. As I mentioned, at times, the faculty do have to choose to show up for things. For instance, we have attempted the open house approach for faculty at the beginning of the academic year. We put a lot of effort into the publicity of the event and making sure our librarians are present. Faculty just consistently chose to attend. They clearly conveyed their lack of interest by their absence, so we decided to discontinue the event in favor of seeing if we can catch faculty, especially the new ones, in their offices. I mention this because a lot of the literature on the topic of liaison work fails to state the obvious-- it is a two-way street (or at least it should be a two-way street). No one ever addresses when the faculty choose to ignore you outright on the basis of "as long as I can get my research done in my office online, what do I need the library for?" Yes, that does happen even if a lot of librarians do not talk about it. I am talking about the faculty that you only hear about when they call the reference desk furious because their favorite database suddenly went down (hey, technical hiccups happen). I am talking about the faculty who complain that their students cannot do research (uh, you did see the information I have sent you in various forms on library instruction? Did you get my e-mails or other marketing on research consultations? Oh, you say you don't read the library's e-mails--yes, I have actually gotten that reply once or twice). Like I often tell my students, the tools are there, you do have to choose to use them. The authors discuss the issue of not all patrons being swayed, or rather they sort of mention it in passing:

"That being said, it should be acknowledged that some potential patrons will not swayed. Academic librarians should strive to educate all potential library users about the array of services and resources offered while recognizing that not everyone will be convinced to tap into library resources" (535).
Was it really that hard to say that? This reminds me of the days when I was in teacher training to become a school teacher where I had to eventually learn the lesson that you teach as if you were reaching every student, but you have to know that you will not reach all of them; you will lose some of them; a good number of them will fail and drop. It is a given. This is not that much different. We can work with idealism but being aware of the reality.

A couple of quotes from the article that are good and I want to jot down:
  • "Being a marketer for the library essentially means selling the libraries resources and services to patrons and demonstrating why the libraries (sic) resources are better, showing them how librarians can help them and their students become better researchers through the reference and instruction services libraries offer" (532). Yes, and we have our work cut out for us. We have to show where we add that value. 
  • "Libraries can have the greatest available services and resources but if their patrons are not using them then they are for naught" (532). 
The authors also bring up the all-time faculty excuse for not having library instruction-- we can't give up class time for it. I will be blunt: that is male bovine excrement. If you as a faculty member think that your students learning information literacy and learning how to do good research for your class is important, then you can make the time to provide instruction for it. It's called good planning. I honestly don't think faculty should get a free pass on this one under the "I have no time" rubric. Make the time, or otherwise you have no standing to complain when your students turn "research" based on Wikipedia, especially if we offered you options for library instruction and/or research consultations. The authors do list some compromises in lieu of this situation, and I suppose that in the end some solution is better than no solution. But we all know what really should be done. In the meantime, we will continue as liaisons to be creative and try to get our students the services they need.

Another quote that caught my attention: "Perseverance is necessary; it takes time, patience, and tenacity to cultivate effective liaison relationships" (535). That is something I have always said, and it is something I wish certain library directors who want quick results and stuff for "statistical reports" would understand. You have to cultivate those relationships. That process can and does take time, especially if you have a brand new liaison librarian trying to learn their way around an academic community (and if it is a small school with small town mentalities, the time factor may well take longer--that could well be someone's article too).

The authors additionally offer some suggestions and tips for getting to know a liaison area better. This is specially useful for those who get an area they themselves may not know well. It should not be an issue for a good librarian to learn what it takes to serve a liaison area. After all, we are good generalists and more importantly, we know how to learn and how to find the information we need. A good librarian is always keeping up and seeking to increase their knowledge.

I thought this was a statement of the obvious: "Institutional support that facilitates training opportunities in outreach and instruction for librarians is one key component of the liaison program" (536). Your library administration as well as your campus administration has to support your liaison work. Information and knowledge grow and change over time, and one has to keep up. Just because you got your MLS, it does not mean you stop learning or that you have no need for further training. For the institutions, I say this is a form of putting your money where you mouth is. You want good liaisons, provide support and continuing education for them. Otherwise, you reap what you sow, or rather fail to sow.

The final part of the article discusses the survey the authors conducted, and there are some insights in that part of the article worth looking at. As I mentioned, the survey instrument itself is useful as well. In the end, you can't just go by anecdotal evidence. You have to investigate to find out what are the actual campus needs in relation to the library, then act accordingly.

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