Structured Interviews Reveal That Reference and Liaison Librarians—as Engaged, Proactive Partners—are Vital to the Academic Enterprise
A Review of:
Johnson, A.M. (2020). Reference and liaison librarians: Endangered species or “vital partners?” Views of academic library administrators. Journal of Library Administration, 60(7), 784-799. https://doi.org/10.1080/01930826.2020.1786979
Objectives – To investigate the current state and prospects of reference and liaison librarianship.
Design – Structured interviews consisted of 10 questions that lasted between 30 and 75 minutes.
Setting – Fourteen medium-sized, urban universities geographically spread across the United States of America.
Subjects – Fifteen library administrators with at least 10 years of experience.
Methods – The author contacted academic library leaders from 17 benchmark institutions and head librarians from other R1 institutions whose libraries were members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) or whose campus size and characteristics mirrored the author’s institution in that they were medium-sized urban universities. The study examined five primary questions and included an appendix with the 16-item survey instrument. The structured interviews included 10 questions about the current state and prospects of reference and liaison librarianship, along with questions related to demographics. The author transcribed the interviews and removed all identifying information. Since the interviews were structured and thus thematically similar, coding software was not used. The author compiled and analyzed the responses to the questions.
Main Results – The concepts of connecting, discovering, listening, and partnering were inherent in the definition of being a liaison librarian. In general, the library administrators, all of whom had been in the profession for 10 years or more, felt that liaison librarians should be active in furthering scholarly activities in such areas as grant-writing, generating scholarship, or data curation. There was an emphasis on outreach, being proactive, and engaging with faculty, which raised an important question for administrators: Is this skill set too broad for any one person, and if so, how can the library profession collaborate to draw upon each other’s strengths? There was a consensus that while the work of reference and liaison librarians is vital to the academic enterprise, this work need not be situated at a central reference desk. Rather, librarians would be physically embedded or electronically linked to students and faculty, helping them to formulate answerable questions, locate high-quality, evidence-based information in specialized databases, or provide support in such areas as open educational resource development, augmented reality, or scholarly communications.
Conclusion – In the view of current library administrators, being a reference and liaison librarian means partnering proactively with students and faculty to ensure a deep understanding of their teaching, learning, and research needs while also maintaining a thorough knowledge of the libraries’ collections and resources. To accomplish this, the librarian must be visible to their constituencies, tell memorable, authentic stories of what they have to offer, and build lasting relationships. Reference and liaison librarians require traditional knowledge of library functions and systems and teaching skills and possess qualities such as collaboration, communication, and flexibility. Overall, library leaders believe that liaison librarians will continue to be vital partners and that without a central reference desk, there will be a deeper integration within the academic enterprise.
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