Diamonds and Guitars
The Beauty of Alabama

Librarians On The Loose

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.



I absolutely agree about asking our customers what they're up to and how, rather than continuing the 'needs assessment' and continual survey-stream approach that has become so tired and worn out by this hyperfluxing moment in time. Only by finding out where our users are will we be able to 'go there' and meet them, rather than continuing to expect them to come to us and speak our language.

I still paraphrase Connie Schardt from years ago: the single (most important) service point is wherever and whenever the customer needs information. That's clear enough from all of our declining gate counts and student complaints about 'this is the third time I've been to this BI session in the library...'

A big question I still have is what we do with those informal data we get from conversations, compared against what we get from LibQUAL and such. If the latter says 'customers like having a librarian on the reference desk', and the former says 'I don't physically go into the library anymore', then we have to ask ourselves many more questions before we get any decent answers.

Ed the Librarian

I agree that we need to be outside the library, spending time in the departments that we are liaisons for. This is why I've tried to sit in on classes at the Engineering college where I am a liaison whenever I can. I think the faculty out there are not sure what to make of me. This is both good and bad. Part of the difficulty of having informal conversations with faculty is that they do not see us (in many cases) as colleagues and thus are not necessarily prepared to share the "real news" with us. Even though we see ourselves as colleagues to them, I don't think they (the disciplinary faculty) see it this way. There's the rub.

This moving outside the library thing is also why we need to think outside our own library websites. We can't just sit here in our offices and expect that people will find our websites and use them. We need to make it easier for them to take our library's web content (databases and WestCat, subject guides) and not just bookmark it but move it completely to their desktop, their palm pilots, their cell phones.

I think the idea that our content should be chained to our website is archaic already and a real problem.

T Scott

Building those collegial relationships and developing that setting of trust takes time -- lots of time. And Ed is right that in many places the faculty don't always see us as full colleagues, so the challenge can be great. But I know that here, the more we get out, and the more we show what we can do, the more we are slowly shifting those perceptions.


It seems to me that you are describing basic sales techniques. What makes a good sales person? The best sales people are the people who don't sell what they happen tp have; they sell what the customer wants. How do you do that? You listen to what the customer says and watch what they do. Maybe you need to teach a few sales skills in library school.

Another way to look at this. The most successful companies aren't the companies that sell what they make. The best companies are the companies that look for a need and then fulfill it. Needs can be identfied by market research; but no market research project ever identfied ipod. You have to use your imagination. You have to be prepared to take risks, try new ideas. But never own an idea, if something doesn't work dump it and move on to the next idea.

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