Thursday, January 12, 2012

Becoming a Departmental Liaison, by Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Many academic librarians end up becoming the library liaison to one or more academic departments, including librarians who don’t normally work in public services. A good liaison is more than a contact for the academic department. Good liaisons integrate themselves ever so slightly into the academic departments and become a resource faculty choose to contact first about any library issues. I’ve been a liaison to various academic departments and groups throughout my career, and below is some general advice on how to become an effective liaison based upon my experience.

Get to Know Your Departments
Sometimes librarians liaise with so many departments that getting to know them all is difficult, but ideally the liaison librarian should know something about the academic subject in question and how the specific department functions. This knowledge can be gleaned from the department website, faculty CVs, formal interviews, or casual discussions. On my list of recommended DOs:
  • Learn faculty research interests
  • Study the curriculum
  • Analyze departmental strengths
  • Look at dissertations or theses if relevant
  • Talk to people

As you can see, there’s nothing difficult about this, but it requires active rather than passive librarianship. Passive liaisons wait for faculty to find their names and contact them. Active liaisons make their presence and capability known. However, there’s making yourself known and then there’s making a nuisance of yourself. Hence, my list of DON’Ts. Don’t:
  • Constantly send emails giving faculty “important” library news
  • Act as though you are their equal “partners”
  • Pester them

This goes against the grain of a lot of librarian discourse. Librarians often claim to be the partners of the teaching faculty in the education of the students. Well, sort of, but the teaching faculty don’t see it that way. Regardless, even if it’s true that librarians are equal partners with the teaching faculty, it’s pointless to act on that belief if the faculty don’t agree. The liaison must persuade the faculty members to trust them.

Things to Know about Faculty
To gain that trust, it’s important not to pester them, but you also must understand their work and how they feel about the library. Here are a few things I’ve learned about professors over the years:
  • They’re busy
  • They don’t care about your problems
  • They don’t care about library issues that don’t affect them
  • They don’t think the library is the center of the universe
  • They just want their stuff, as quickly as possible

To the idealistic new librarian, this might sound daunting or depressing, but it’s just the way the world is, so it’s best to accept it. However, there are a couple of other things it’s useful to know:

  • They’re around a lot longer than the students
  • If we show we can help them, they’ll direct students to us

Sometimes, liaisons are so eager to get to students that they forget who really holds the power. Students come and go, but professors remain for decades. If you want to integrate yourself more into the research lives of the students, cultivate the faculty and build relationships with them.

Building Relationships
Building relationships with departments takes some effort. I have some general advice, but how specifically to apply that advice will depend on the situation you find. Things you should do to start building relationships:
  • Get to know the department chair and administrator
  • Find out how things work
  • Cultivate the faculty who use the library most
  • Show you’re interested in and know something about their subject. (And if you don’t know something, learn something.)
  • Look for problems to solve
  • Solve the problems

Librarians like to gather information by searching databases, but this kind of “human intelligence” is best acquired in the field. If you get to know the department administrator and the chair of the department, it’s easier to find out how things work. It’s easier to cultivate the faculty who use the library the most if you know something about how scholars in the field work. For example, historians need different and more extensive library resources than analytic philosophers.

The final two suggestions are the most important, but the most difficult to specify out of context. The key is to remember that the faculty aren’t there to solve your problems, whatever they might be. You’re there to solve their problems, and the more problems you solve the greater a resource you’ll be and the more they’ll rely upon and trust you.

The problems vary. As an example, years ago I was the de facto tech support for a department chair because the department’s tech support wasn’t very reliable. Not my job? Not what I went to library school for? True. However, that support led to a very close relationship to the department in question. On another occasion, I ended up overseeing a private departmental library. That wasn’t part of my job description, but it built useful relationships I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to develop. The trick is finding problems to solve, but the good (or rather, bad) thing about libraries is that there’s almost always a problem that can be solved. If faculty have problems with the library and you solve those problems (important step!), then you’re on your way to success.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University. Read his Academic Librarian blog at

1 comment:

  1. Spot on, as usual, Wayne! I will particularly second the list of "don't's". I would add that attending department events (lecture series, staff meetings, etc.) on a regular basis should be a priority. I attend all our marketing sessions (I'm sure students love hearing about why they should come to our school, based on the wonderful library!) and over four+ years, it has paid hugely in terms of relationships and conversations. Almost every month, I have a conversation that goes like this: "Oh, I'm so glad to see you. I've been meaning to talk to you about my class/research/problem with a resource..." These are evening events mind you, but I wouldn't miss one now for anything.