Tales from an Unintentional Science Liaison

A blue strand of DNA on a black background

I’m sure this comes as a surprise to literally no one, but I have a B.A. in English Literature, which, along with History, is one of the most common, librarian backgrounds. Many of the librarians at my current workplace have a similar background to my own, though some librarians have second Master’s degrees in areas outside of librarianship. At my workplace, librarians are given collection development and liaison duties to different subject areas, and if you have a second Master’s degree in, say, Business Management, you’ll most likely be the liaison in that subject area. You’ll build relationships with faculty in that department, purchase materials related to that subject area, and teach information literacy to students taking classes in that subject. Librarians who have worked at the library for a while have obtained liaison duties in areas that fit their backgrounds or interests. As the newest librarian at my workplace, I was left with slim pickings, which is how I ended up as a liaison to biology and environmental science.

I have a tiny bit of background in environmental science from my work with both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management while getting my MLIS; however, it wasn’t the sciency stuff I was doing. I created online content and digital collections, which was super cool and in line with my library degree, but gave me no understanding of mechanical girdling and bark beetle fungi. As for biology, the last class I’d taken in that subject area was my freshman year of high school. Suffice it to say that these liaison subjects are not in my wheelhouse. Goodbye, Austen; hello, Darwin.

When I was first given biology and environmental science as liaison areas, I felt, and still do feel, that I would face some challenges establishing myself as the go-to person in these areas. For example, I was told that that library hadn’t done instruction in these subjects for a while, so it might be hard to get into classes. I had no idea how I was supposed to purchase books for biology because I wasn’t sure how to assess our current collection. Biology is basically every living thing ever, so it felt daunting to try and build a collection that encompassed all areas of life with such a limited budget. I also wasn’t sure how I’d connect to faculty with a PhD in areas I knew little about. At first I thought, maybe I’ll learn some stuff about plants so that I can contribute to a conversation. This turned out to be a bad idea because I can name about four houseplants while one faculty member was able to identify every type of grass on campus by sight. As Zoë recently talked about, the liaison imposter syndrome was real. How was I supposed to become a science liaison?

At the beginning of the semester, I decided to individually email all faculty members in my liaison area to introduce myself, let them know I would buy them stuff, and offer to come to their classes and talk to their students about research. This kind of worked. I got some responses thanking me, some requesting a particular book, and one or two who seemed interested in having me come to a class. I found the most luck in a new faculty group. Any faculty member who was new to campus was invited to a retreat and a learning community so that we could get to know the university and each other. There were three biology faculty in this group, and I was able to talk to and get to know them over the course of several days. They later invited me to their classes. Building in-person relationships was valuable to establishing myself as a liaison.

Building relationships with faculty is important to me, but I really wanted to support students and their information needs. I was initially concerned that students would balk at my un-scientific background and I felt most nervous about teaching a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences class at the beginning of the semester. I was to talk to them about scientific, primary literature, which I know a lot about, but I definitely felt out of my element talking to students who were working in medical fields and knew much more about bio-med than I did. It turns out, I didn’t need to worry. After teaching the class, multiple students scheduled consultations with me, not because they needed my limited knowledge about biology, but because they were still not confident they could identify primary, scientific literature; weren’t sure how to narrow down their topics; needed help with APA; or wanted help organizing their research.

What I learned from these consultations is that I don’t need to be an expert in biology to talk about research and information literacy to biology students (though I know our field is divided about who gets to be qualified for science librarianship). This was true for master’s students, and I had one memorable consultation with a student where we were trying to find information on receptors, and both outwardly cringed at a very jargon-heavy article title. We were instantly on the same page; neither of us wanted to click on that article because the title sucked and we had no idea what it was talking about. For the freshman biology courses I taught, I needed even less subject-specific knowledge because I know about as much about biology as freshmen do. What does a biology freshman need to know about research anyway? Probably the same as freshmen in other fields, which includes finding, identifying, understanding, and synthesizing sources into their own research (amongst other information skills).

I also realized that I know more about my liaison areas than I thought I did. For instance, I may not be able to describe every scientific fact driving climate change, but I am familiar with the conversations surrounding climate change, the change in terminology over time, the contentious and political nature of the subject, and that there is a scientific consensus that climate change is happening. I also know that genetics, CBD receptors, concussions, maternal mortality in the US, polio reemergence, cancer immunotherapy, antibiotic resistance, and renewable energy are hot topics right now as well. Guess what students are writing about? If I remain up-to-date on scientific news and understand the general conversations surrounding those topics, I’ll know what students care about researching. If I don’t know something about a subject, students have been really cool about sharing their own knowledge about a topic, and I get to learn something new.

Remaining up-to-date with student work and research trends is something that I can do on my own campus as well. I think it’s important for me to support student and faculty scholarship, especially in my liaison areas. I recently attended an event where students in science departments shared posters of the research they’d conducted over the semester. Biology faculty were there and several students I’d worked with over the semester were sharing their work. They were very excited to talk to me about their research and some students recognized me from classes or consultations. In fact, one of the biology faculty members introduced me to a student as the biology librarian, and the student responded, “I know. She talked to my class about primary research.” I’m considering everything about that interaction as a win.

Though I’m achieving small victories and growing my confidence that I can be a good liaison, most days, I feel a little anxious and unsure about what I’m doing. Collection development is still tricky, but luckily, I have colleagues that know this subject area fairly well and can help, and faculty in biology have made their own requests for materials. There’s also subject lists and all sorts of resources to help me figure out what materials to purchase. I still haven’t connected with every faculty member in my liaison area, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to. Despite the challenges, I’m enjoying science liaisonship more than I thought I would. I hope that my confidence continues to grow and I become even better at supporting the research needs of my institution.

Are you a subject liaison? What are your experiences with librarian liaison roles?

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