Leopards Can Change Their Spots: Transforming Subject Librarians into Scholarly Communication Librarians

by Brian Quinn, Personal Librarian, Library Scholarly Communication Team Co-Chair

The traditional role of the subject liaison librarian is increasingly being called into question. Responsibilities that had been considered the core of liaison work such as reference, instruction, and collection development may no longer be sufficient to meet user needs. At the same time, liaisons themselves are feeling uneasy about their training and preparation for effectively working with faculty and students. This growing feeling of inadequacy is being fueled by perceptions that user needs are changing. The traditional practices of scholars are being supplanted by emerging technology and the rise of digital scholarship.

As scholars and researchers use new media to communicate in new ways, they are confronting issues in their work that require new forms of support from librarians. These issues include open access, copyright and fair use, data management, altmetrics, new models of publishing, author rights, digital repositories, and other developments. Librarians are being confronted with questions related to these issues that their training and experience have not prepared them for. At the same time, traditional liaison responsibilities are being eroded by discovery systems, online library guides, demand-driven acquisition, video instruction, and other technologies. Traditional liaison activities seem to be going away, but liaisons do not feel prepared to take on new roles.

Some libraries have been closely monitoring these developments, and have decided that the traditional liaison model is no longer adequate for meeting user needs. As a result, they have begun the process of realigning liaison roles and responsibilities to better meet the changing needs of their constituents. This process requires new ways of thinking, different ways of collaborating, an openness to experimentation, and to implementing new practices and procedures.

In this new model, the traditional emphasis on subject expertise has given way to a new focus on functional expertise. Librarians can focus on developing skills in functional areas like intellectual property rights, data management planning, publishing alternatives, and new ways of measuring scholarly significance. Librarians receive training and support in these areas as well as approval to make them a part of their formal responsibilities and give them priority over other kinds of work.

Academic libraries both large and small have already begun to transition from the traditional liaison model to the new model, experimenting with different approaches. A lot of planning and preparation goes into such a transition, with inevitable problems and pitfalls encountered along the way. It requires flexibility and an ability to adapt on the part of librarians to make it work. Old routines have to be changed,  new ones adopted, and new methods of assessment must be developed. Extensive training is involved. The potential rewards are considerable: providing an enhanced suite of services to users, empowering librarians with new skills and competencies, expanding and strengthening the embedded librarian model, and encouraging buy-in and ownership of scholarly communication issues by librarians.


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