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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Photo by geralt / CC BY

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.