I see that someone from Yale has set up a wiki to discuss library liaison programs. Very timely. I've noticed a significant increase in discussions on the topic over the past year. It came up a couple of times during the recent AAHSL/AAMC meeting, particularly during the Charting the Future Committee meeting, and it's likely to be one of the areas they're going to be looking into during the coming year.
By and large I'm pretty pleased with how our own liaison program is going, although we still have a very long way to go. Libraries have had liaison programs for many years, of course, but there's been a significant shift in how we look at them and what we expect from them. I see two significant phases -- there's the formal part, where the liaisons get to know the faculty and students of the school or college, and the students and faculty identify that person as their liaison. The liaison becomes a conduit for providing information about library services that are particularly relevant to those programs, and they funnel information that may be useful for collection development and program planning back to their colleagues in the library. In the past, that pretty much summed up the liaison experience.
But now we have to go much further. What I think of as the informal phase comes when the liaisons are having conversations that are NOT about library services, but about the real workings of the school -- the research that's being done, the curriculum changes, why this year's students seem so much better prepared than last year's or why in the world is the department chair pursuing that idiotic plan. It's the hallway conversations and the institutional gossip that we need in order to become intertwined enough with the real life of the school that we can be truly creative partners in developing critically important services. One of the very essential responsibilities of the liaisons is simply to listen and to observe. "Don't ask them what they want from the library," I tell the liaisons. "Get them to talk about their research, their courses, the work they do on a daily basis. That's how we'll find out what we really ought to be doing."
I heard Crit Stuart put it something like this: It used to be that you could sit at the reference desk and the life of the university would be right there. The students would bitch about the faculty, the faculty would bitch about the students and the chairs, the chairs would bitch about the faculty and the deans, and the deans would bitch about the president. And that's how you found out what was really going on.
The relationships that a good reference librarian had with the users of the library were a fundamental building block for library excellence in the pre-digital age. And we still have a critical need for those relationships, but we're not going to have them unless we are spending as much time as possible outside of the library. The library itself is just a tool. The core service is the librarian on the loose.