STAFF RESOURCES

Liaison Relationships in Academic Libraries: New Roles and Opportunities

Introduction and Definitions

In May, 2002, Dr. Robert Sewell, the Associate University Librarian for Collection Management and Development at Rutgers University Libraries established a Working Group on Liaison Relationships. The charge to the group was to review the report of the 1991 Task Force on Liaison Relationships, determine what has changed in library liaison relations during the past 10 years, and recommend new approaches that will improve library liaison relationships at RUL.

Liaison relationships involve communicating with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. The subject selector has a different relationship with and different responsibilities towards each of these constituencies. Although undergraduates' information needs are usually relatively simple, they are often unfamiliar with and even daunted by research in a large research library. Therefore for many courses undergraduates need a general bibliographic instruction session to enable them to write a paper or complete the assignments. There are far fewer graduate students, but their information needs are generally much more sophisticated. In addition to general bibliographic instruction, they frequently require fairly extensive individual consultations. Effective relations with teaching faculty are fundamental. As with undergraduate and graduate students, we need to make known to them the services and resources available at the library and help them learn how to use those resources. Ideally however, relations with faculty should be more reciprocal in nature. We hope to rely upon them as our primary source of information regarding a department's library needs. This is critically important in terms of collection development.

The Task Force Report in 1991

"Fostering Effective Liaison Relationships in an Academic Library" set forth detailed and very constructive suggestions for developing productive relations with academic departments (see Appendix B). It offered sound advice regarding ways for selectors to become familiar with a department's curricular and research needs; for honing their subject expertise; and for working with their colleagues in the libraries to enhance liaisonships. In particular, the task force's report identified "channels" through which selectors can communicate effectively with their departments. These included departmental meetings, bibliographic instruction for classes, email, and newsletters.

All of the recommendations of the task force are still pertinent and useful. However, the environment in which selectors work has changed since the report was issued. Some of these changes require different emphases and present difficulties or opportunities in establishing effective relationships with departments. This is particularly true of digital technologies and channels of communication.

Changing Environments and New Roles and Strategies

It is important to recognize that the conditions that most directly effect the roles that selectors play are by no means new. Many of the developments outlined below are referred to, directly or indirectly, in the 1991 task force report. What has changed is the predominance of some of these trends. For sake of clarity and simplicity we have divided this discussion into three areas.

1) Changes in the academic community.
Scholarship is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. The neat boundaries set out in selectors' job descriptions do not necessarily reflect the ways that scholars teach and conduct their research. This means that selectors need to think more broadly in their collection development strategies and cooperate more closely with their colleagues in related disciplines.

At present scholarly communication is control largely by commercial publishers. Years ago this fact would not be matter of professional concern for selectors. However, for some time the inflation of periodical subscriptions has reached a crisis that seriously effects collection development. Libraries are in a unique position to combine their technical expertise with their contacts within the scholarly community to develop more open, nonprofit alternatives. This requires educating faculty about the crisis in scholarly publishing and enlisting their support in creating new channels of communication.

2) Budgetary concerns.
As a publicly funded institution, RUL has normally had to cope with relatively modest collection budgets. This situation has been exacerbated by the dramatic inflation in serials subscriptions referred to above. In recent years, however, two additional, related developments have further restricted the discretionary funds at our disposal. First, an increasing portion of the materials budget is spent on electronic resources across all three campuses. Second, our serial subscriptions are increasingly tied up in large, expensive electronic journal packages, so that we have less discretion in selecting individual journal subscriptions. Both of these involve a trade-off; we give up some control of our budgets to take advantages of economies of scale offered by digital technology.

Considering the size of Rutgers' student body and its geographic dispersal, these are for the most part cost-effective measures. Yet we have to explain these decisions made for the greatest good of the greatest number to faculty who are narrowly focused upon their particular scholarly interests. Further it becomes increasingly awkward to solicit requests for collection development from faculty when we have less and less money to satisfy them. All of this makes it increasingly important for selectors to communicate effectively with faculty, to make them aware of the constraints under which the Libraries operate. Essentially this is, for lack of a better term, a public relations function. Slim budgets also mean that selectors need to be ever more selective in spending the limited discretionary funds at their disposal.

3) The Digital Environment.
Technology has dramatically increased the amount of information available in the Libraries and greatly facilitated its communication. It therefore opens valuable opportunities for enhancing liaison relationships. At the same time, however, aspects of digital technology can also pose new challenges and require new skills of selectors. All of the technologies discussed below were available when the task force reported in 1991. Since that time they have become standard tools not just for librarians, but for students and faculty as well. Selectors need to broaden their perspective to understand how they are used by the people we serve.

It is important to recognize that just because new channels of communication have developed, all of the more traditional channels have not become obsolete. In particular, most departments have a library liaison or a library liaison committee. Selectors should continue to work closely with these key faculty members. Departments that do not have such a liaison or committee should be strongly urged to appoint one. Also, some selectors have experimented with establishing regular office hours in the departments they represent. This could potentially be a very effective channel of communication and a valuable service to faculty and students. Face to face contact remains critically important. Although digital technology has allowed us to do some things more things more efficiently, we should remember that it is simply a means. The end is effective communication.

The digital environment has dramatically effected the roles that librarians play. However, the efficiencies associated with it have not necessarily made our workdays any shorter. Selectors and other librarians have ever-greater demands placed on their time, as they strive to keep abreast of changes in the electronic frontier, while at the same time continuing to perform more traditional functions. Selectors need to manage their time with particular care in the digital environment.

Email-
Email has become a ubiquitous means of communication on campus and elsewhere. For the most part it has replaced certain of the other forms referred to in the task force's report, such as memos and correspondence. It should be selectors' primary channel of communication for routine messages from the library. It suits our purposes ideally; it is simple, fast, and, practically speaking, universally accessible. All of the departments have listservs, often one for faculty and another for graduate students. Some of them now have separate lists for undergraduates. As a member of a departmental listserv, a selector has the opportunity not only to inform users of new resources and services, but also to become aware of any needs or problems that students or faculty may be experiencing. Selectors should make every effort to be added to these lists. At times this can present problems, since some departments are reluctant to add people outside of their department. At the very least, most of the departmental listservs allow non-listmembers to post messages.

Email has become, to a certain extent, a victim of its success. So much junk mail clogs everyone's inbox that many faculty and students are predisposed to hit delete. Selectors must therefore use the departmental listservs purposefully. Messages should be brief, jargon-free, and of immediate practical value. Remember that we are communicating with very busy people and they simply cannot afford the time to read messages that are of no real use to them. The worst thing that could happen is that users start to regard library messages as junk mail. Also, we should bear in mind that there are still a few older faculty who use email very little or not at all. Selectors must try to identify these people and develop alternate channels of communication for them.

The World Wide Web-
Subject research guides and other web-based tools for library research are an excellent way to reach students and faculty. It goes without saying that the same care should go into preparing them as goes into the preparation of any other RUL publication and selectors should actively solicit assistance from their colleagues to assure that they are of the highest quality. Generally the Library's webmaster will handle the format of a guide, so the librarian need focus only on its content. In particular research guides are an effective supplement to bibliographic instruction. Students sometimes misplace paper handouts, but they can and often will visit a web page periodically during the course of a semester to find help on completing assignments. Well-designed, informative guides are a simple and very effective means of promoting the Libraries.

Users' increasing reliance on the web presents potential problems as well. With so much information available at the click of a mouse, students and faculty often need to be trained to search for relevant information in an efficient and productive manner. Sometimes students do not even understand where they need to search for articles. Librarians should make clear to them the differences between a bibliographic database and a web search engine. Moreover, much of the material retrieved by web search engines is of dubious reliability or authenticity. Librarians must teach them to evaluate web resources for use in various contexts. These are responsibilities that selectors share with bibliographic instruction coordinators.

Bibliographic Indexes on the Web-
As with the web generally, the proliferation of web-based indexes provides new opportunities for accessing information, but also poses new challenges for librarians. Here too the need for instruction is critical. With well over one hundred databases to choose from, faculty and students can be overwhelmed simply deciding where to start their research. Once they do begin searching in a particular index, they need to search in an informed manner. At a minimum, they should understand the logic of a keyword search, realizing its benefits and drawbacks. Ideally, they should be able to construct more sophisticated searches when appropriate. Again, selectors share responsibility for instruction with the bibliographic instruction coordinators. Generally speaking, instruction coordinators should aim to impart basic information literacy, and selectors should teach more sophisticated techniques geared towards finding information in their subject specialties. Effective bibliographic instruction is not only a critical goal of liaisonship, but it also generates goodwill that further enhances the liaison relationship.

In a sense, with successful bibliographic instruction selectors run the risk of becoming victims of our own success. The more students and faculty become familiar with searching productively in the digital environment, the less they need to rely upon a selector's expertise. In fact, when articles are available in fulltext, students and faculty need not come into the Libraries at all. Provided they are finding the resources they need, this is not necessarily negative, but it does mean that users have much less direct contact with selectors than they did before materials were available electronically. We therefore need to redouble our efforts to communicate with them through other channels. In particular, we should keep them apprised of new resources and new services that can enhance those resources, For example, faculty and graduate students should be made aware of indexes in their fields that provide a Strategic Dissemination of Information (SDI) service. Also, some of the time and energy that earlier would have been spent working directly with users can now be devoted to developing digital projects. Subject specialists can collaborate with digital librarians to create resources of use not only to Rutgers, but also to the scholarly community generally.

The Survey

After careful review of the task force report of 1991, the working group decided to conduct a library liaison survey among RUL selectors. The purposes of the survey were to assess the techniques that the selectors use in their liaison relationships with the faculty, to find out what methods they think work most effectively, and to solicit their views on changes that have taken place during the past 10 years. The survey instrument and a tabulated results of the survey are attached as Appendix A.

There were 41 respondents to the survey. Two selectors did not fill out the survey, but sent written comments to the working group. Of the 41 respondents, 11 selectors included comments with their response.

Survey Findings

The results of the survey clearly indicate that the majority of the selectors consider e-mail and face- to-face contact the most effective channels of communication with academic departments and faculties. BI sessions/research workshops, e-mail and face-to-face contact are the best channels to communicate with students. Informing patrons of new services and new online or print materials available at the library were ranked as the most important liaison services to faculty members. Bibliographic instruction and research consultations are the most important services to students. Some traditional liaison methods are no longer considered effective or useful, such as: newsletters, campus mail, formal presentations to faculty, office hours, communicating through a departmental secretary, and using research consultation forms.

Understandably, with new technologies affecting the library field tremendously, the majority of the selectors see an increasing need for liaison work and bibliographic instruction.

Surprisingly, only 11 selectors reported that there is a library committee in the school or department they serve. This shows that most of the selectors communicate with faculty and students through direct contact rather than an official departmental channel.

From 13 written responses, it is clear that the selectors at Rutgers treat liaison work very seriously. Several of them described at length their liaison work and shared their best practices. A number of them noted that it is very helpful to become familiar with the research interests of their faculty. This gives them another 'in' as a liaison, and enables them to anticipate their library needs. Others stressed that we should understand teaching faculty's workload and priorities; most of time library issues are not on top of their list. Gaining faculty's trust as their professional peer may take years of effort, and requires demonstrating your subject expertise and information retrieval skills, taking a personal interest in their scholarly endeavors as well as sound communication skills. Some selectors suggested analyzing trends in instruction with departments to anticipate collection development needs. One respondent touched upon an occasionally troublesome aspect of liaison relationships: how to deal with the "absent mind professor". Her response pointed out that some faculty members live in a very circumscribed, narrowly focused world. Their lack of social skills or sociability can make it difficult to establish a productive working relationship. Bearing the faculty member's limitations in mind can help librarians find the patience needed to gain their trust. A number of selectors encouraged us to show an interest in faculty's scholarly activities, to attend their seminars, lectures, and presentations, and to comment on their publications. One comment reads: "most faculty filter out newsletters, broadcasts, announcements, and all that other institutional stuff. We have to go and get them-they are not going to come to us, for the most part."

Some selectors shared the liaison techniques that work best for them. In particular they noted personal, telephone, small "news-notes" emails, notes congratulating faculty for their research grants, awards, fellowships or important publications, attending faculty open lectures, creating web pages or virtual collections for the subject areas.

Along with these constructive comments, there were some concerns from the selectors about certain aspects of liaison work:

Recommendations

Based on the above findings, the working group offers the following recommendations for selectors to consider in establishing and maintaining effective liaison relationships:

1. Continue following the recommendations suggested in the report of the Task Force on Liaison Relationships in 1991 (see Appendix B).

2. Work with academic schools and departments to establish formal liaison channels, such as: faculty library committees or library liaison faculty members;

3. Use effective liaison channels such as BI sessions/research workshops, e-mail, and face-to-face contact to communicate with faculty and students.

4. Avoid communication that is generic, that is not focused on the actual information needs of students and faculty. Avoid mass mailings and material that promotes the Libraries' generally rather than specific resources and services.

5. Participate the Communications Campaign to Promote Libraries Resources & Services of RUL to help spread library announcements through academic listervs.

Conclusion

Developing effective liaison relationships is more an art than a science. It requires creativity, and the time and patience to cultivate personal relationships. It requires tailoring our liaison activities to fit our own personalities and the needs and cultures of the departments we serve. Selectors should never forget the importance of the human touch. Sometimes the simplest, most down-to-earth efforts can have the most lasting effects. We should strive to make the Libraries' somewhat intimidating bureaucracy and vast array of resources as accessible and humane as possible. This is the selector's most essential task, but all librarians and staff should share in it.

Appendix A [PDF]

Appendix B: Fostering Effective Liaison Relationships In An Academic Library

Appendix C: Library Liaison Survey Questionnaire and Results [PDF]



 
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