Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Abby Flanigan, Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts at the University of Virginia.
Last January, I joined the University of Virginia Libraries as the Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts. This is my first professional position after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with my MSLS in May 2016, and I’ve found myself in an entirely new (to me) area of the profession: liaison librarianship. In graduate school, I heeded the advice I’ve seen echoed in every corner of the Internet about LIS programs, which is to get as much work experience as you can, and cobbled together a variety of internships in preservation, digital scholarship, cataloging, and reference services. Despite this list of jobs on my resume, I remember feeling instantly panicked when the first question in my interview was to describe my past experience as a liaison, because, of course, I didn’t have any. Luckily, I managed to collect myself and describe some other capacities in which I had worked with faculty, and ended up getting the job. Now that I’ve been here a few months I wanted to share some of my observations about what makes being a liaison both challenging and exciting as a new professional.
No two liaison positions look exactly alike. Because each academic department has different needs and histories with the library, each liaison I know works differently with their departments. Some are busy all semester teaching classes or doing research consultations with undergraduate students, while other collaborate on grants or do collection development for foreign-language sources. Similarly, liaisons are organized differently at many libraries, so it can also be difficult to directly compare positions or responsibilities with colleagues at peer institutions. At UVA, subject liaison responsibilities are decoupled from collection development, general reference, and first-year teaching responsibilities, so my day-to-day work looks very different than liaisons at other institutions whose responsibilities are split across a variety of areas. This was challenging when I first started because, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, my instinct was to model my strategy for engagement on my colleagues’, but it didn’t always transfer or apply.
This brings me to my second point: it takes time to be an effective liaison. Getting comfortable in any new position takes a while, of course, but the liaison model seems to benefit in particular from institutional knowledge. Part of the job is knowing faculty and students in the departments, including their research interests, information needs, and communication habits. Gathering this information can take many meetings, emails, and chance encounters; much of it is tacit knowledge that is built up over time and not necessarily passed on from a predecessor. Many liaisons also rely on the “ripple effect.” By working with a faculty member one semester, they may have more interest the next semester based on word-of-mouth between colleagues. This means that as a new liaison, I am working on laying groundwork for richer collaborations in the future. Building up relationships and projects is a longer process than I was expecting, but I think that’s a good thing because it means this is a job that I can grow into.
Finally, as I build these relationships, I’ve learned just how important communication skills are to this position. Being a liaison requires reaching out cold to people in your departments, and, more importantly, once you are meeting with them, articulating your role and value. It can be intimidating to present yourself as a resource to experts in their respective fields, especially without an advanced degree in the discipline for which you are a liaison, but over the past nine months, I’ve gotten more comfortable and confident doing so. In the beginning, I struggled to define exactly how I could help, and erred on the side of suggesting every possible way in which they might use the library’s resources. Now I try to reach out when I have a specific idea to suggest or information to communicate. After a few successful collaborations, I also have a clearer idea myself about what I bring to the table, so I’m able to more confidently offer my services.
“Liaison” is term which means very little to anyone outside of libraries (I know this from the blank stares I get from friends and family when I try to explain what I do) but can be a source of anxiety for people in them as we rethink and reorganize subject expertise in academic libraries. Being a good liaison or having a strong liaison program seems to be an ever-moving target. Stepping into a role of this nebulous nature as a new librarian can be stressful — it’s hard to know whether you’re doing it right! — but I’m learning to be more comfortable with figuring it out as I go.