Argue a point: It is not necessary for librarians to possess expertise in particular subject areas in order to adequately support research

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Subject specialists in academic libraries have been known by different names over the years: Liaison Librarian, Academic Librarian, and Faculty Librarian, to name a few.  Cataldo et al. state Liaison Librarians “focus their work in a particular subject area and provide services to clients in that discipline” and Feather and Sturges cited in Holland and Matthews define a Subject Librarian as a ‘librarian with special knowledge of, and responsibility for, a particular subject or subjects …’  

Whether or not Subject Librarians should have a formal qualification in the discipline they support has been debated for many decades.  Some universities, such as the University of Melbourne, Liverpool and Manchester John Rylands libraries, prefer a degree in both the research area and postgraduate degree in library studies.  What’s more, the University of Melbourne offers an annual professional cadetship program for two Masters of LIS graduates who also have subject degrees.  It is believed that recruiting librarians with a strong background knowledge in the related discipline will improve the university’s capacity for supporting high-level research.  But, is subject expertise necessary to provide satisfactory research support?

In a changing research landscape, Mary Auckland carried out a study into the role and skills required for Subject Librarians to support researchers today and the near future.  Subject Librarians and their managers from 22 RLUK member libraries were given a list of 32 skills and knowledge relevant to their field and asked to indicate their relative importance today and the next two to five years.  Of the 32 skills, “deep knowledge of their discipline/subject” was listed, but surprisingly, it was not considered to be essential.  According to the  results, only 24% thought it was essential now, 55% saw it as desirable, and 28% saw it essential in the next 2 to 5 years and 48% desirable.  The majority of respondents considered, other skills and knowledge as more important, including:

  • Excellent knowledge of bibliographic and other finding tools in the discipline/subject;
  • Excellent skills to design information literacy training (both face-to-face and online) to meet the identified needs of different types of researchers; and
  • Outstanding skills in information discovery, literature searching etc.

So, even those working in the field do not see expertise in the relevant subject area as necessary to carry out their role adequately.

Subject knowledge is important, but not to the extent of needing a formal qualification to meet client expectations.  At the University of Florida Health Science Center (HSC) colleges, which include dentistry, health professions and public health, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine, students and faculty were surveyed about the HSC Library’s Liaison Librarian Program.  The majority of respondents were satisfied with the program and their specific liaisons’ services.  In addition, they felt that having a subject background in the client’s field was “important” or “very important”.  This was despite the fact that only 2 of the total 10 Liaison Librarians possessed a tertiary qualification in the discipline they served.  The Liaison Librarians employed a variety of methods to develop subject knowledge, for example, on-the-job training, joining peak medical association mailing lists, and continuing education courses.  So, although subject background is perceived as valuable, in the actual service delivery, lack of formal qualification did not detract from client satisfaction.

The role of Subject Librarian is evolving along with the research environment.  A new set of skills and knowledge will be essential to negotiate the complex world of 21st century academic research.  There has been a “paradigm shift” away from the traditional reactive reference services, such as collection management and responding to reference queries, to proactive research support that positions Subject Librarians as partners in the research lifecycle.  Subject Librarians will need to be innovative and possess the soft skills to collaborate, advocate, and seek advice in this new era of data explosion and research dissemination.  A formal qualification in the discipline area will be secondary to expertise in data management, bibliometrics and open access practices.

As discussed, it is not necessary for Subject Librarians to have subject expertise in a subject area to provide adequate research support.  That is not to say that subject knowledge is not developed whilst in the position.  Furthermore, today’s research environment has changed so other skills and knowledge are considered more important than a deep knowledge of the subject area, such as use of bibliographic tools, literature search and data management. 


6 thoughts on “Argue a point: It is not necessary for librarians to possess expertise in particular subject areas in order to adequately support research”

  1. Great post Karen, I couldn’t agree more 🙂 I don’t really think it’s practical or necessary for librarians to have existing qualifications in the subjects they support (I do think it’s very useful in some areas, like medicine and law). Our specialisation is information management, and any subject specialisation is secondary to that.

    The wheel is turning again though, and there are more and more murmurings of the importance of subject-specific qualifications and knowledge. I’ve heard a lot lately about liaison librarians doing discipline-specific professional development, like going to conferences in their subject areas (http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1039&context=univ_lib_facpub) I think it’s a good compromise.

    1. Hi Katie. Thanks for your comment. I think that Liaison Librarians will need to be proactive and keep up to speed with developments of the discipline they’re working in by attending conferences and networking with others in the field. I agree that it is impractical to always have a librarian with a second degree in the discipline, plus as it states in the paper you provided the link for (wish I’d read it before writing my post – it’s great), there are new hybrid disciplines emerging, eg. Ethnomusicology and Media Ecology. Ability to adapt to change will be a big advantage. I think its exciting and am interested in this type of work 🙂

  2. Hi Karen,

    This was a really interesting post! I was particularly taken with the subject librarians’ opinions in the RLUK survey. Being able to effectively find the relevant information for the patron was clearly more important to them than knowing all the details behind the patron’s request.

    I think librarians, particularly special librarians, need to have some understanding of their user’s needs and what they are looking for but not to the extent of having formal training in the area. This would be time-consuming and likely costly to the librarian unless they were being reimbursed.

    1. Hi Chloe. According to the readings I found in this area, academics are not very forthcoming in collaborating with librarians. They appreciate a librarian that can speak the same language they do in their discipline but find the administrative side of things taxing on their time and do not see the point (http://bit.ly/2exHcHZ). So developing background knowledge is important but librarians should not have to jump hoops for researchers. As you say, it would be time-consuming and costly to the librarian to get a degree in the discipline. I was surprised to read that there are librarians doing this (certainly hope they are getting compensated). Instead, I think they’ll need the soft skills to be forthright and persuasive to convince researchers that a librarian is a valuable partner in the whole research cycle. Also, I think job titles that do not give the impression that the librarian is a subject expert would help.

  3. Thank you for the blog post Karen! It’s refreshing to read an article about this topic that doesn’t take on the cynical view that is reflected in library hiring practices; that is, that discipline expertise isn’t that important because we’re just going to move you all around to different disciplines as we need you anyway. And this is a trend across the board, not just in libraries. Working in retail, I’ve watched departments get more heavily condensed and staff are increasingly expected to take on workloads that might make them feel uncomfortable or out of their depth. The employees most willing to keep their jobs will learn to tread water and learn how to learn quickly. And frankly, as long as you’re being paid enough to do it, I don’t think it’s a major problem…

    1. Hi Bec. Like you, in my public-facing job, I experience being shifted to different areas outside my comfort zone to meet business needs. It is not easy, and I have to accept constructive feedback and impatience from clients until I get a hang of it. Training helps but it doesn’t cover everything. People ask for help when they can’t find the information readily themselves. In my opinion, an approachable network of experienced librarians is so important to build subject knowledge as a Subject Librarian.

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