Liasion Bricolage: Making Do, Gaining Responsibilities and Burnout

My work dramatically changed when I dropped scholarly communication for liaison librarianship last Spring. It has not been a clean break. I was a functional specialist with liaison duties at Utah State and I find myself a liaison with functional duties at the University of Washington. In part because my former job gives me an area of expertise that is helpful to the departments I serve. This has made me think about the role of expertise in our climate of academic librarianship. What are we expected to know for faculty and students? What should a reference librarian know about specialties and how do we balance these different experiences?

The idea of the two roles of academic librarianship, split between functional and subject related expertise, is something explored in library literature since at least the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes, this is the introduction of “non-librarians” into library employment (Lihua and Guogang 2013) but more often this distinction has been brought up in the changing roles of subject librarians. Most fundamental to my understanding of my role as a humanities subject librarian has been the decreased emphasis on subject expertise as a requirement, as indicated in reports like Ithaka S+R’s Rethinking Liaison Programs for the Humanities from July 2017.

In this report, Cooper and Schonfeld comment that because of demand-driven acquisitions “the role of subject expertise is less needed for selection of general materials” as librarians have moved from a traditional “bibliographer” role into liaison positions (2). The transition from subject librarian to liaison librarian marks a departure from the subject expertise once necessary to build large reflective disciplinary collections into a sort of go-between between department and library. This isn’t to suggest that subject expertise is completely unnecessary for our positions only that it is less important in our most traditional role as collection managers. Cooper and Shonfeld suggest that having subject expertise is important for helping provide the services libraries are growing in specialized and research-oriented areas. An example is that knowing how a discipline does research is essential to meeting student and faculty expectations (2). Furthermore, this expertise can blend into more functional areas according to Cooper and Shonfeld such as “geospatial, statistical and data, digital humanities, and other forms of expertise, including undergraduate instruction and information literacy,” beyond the traditional expectations of reference librarianship (2).

In some ways, I believe that this meets our users where they need us; they need experience in digital humanities for example because of burgeoning scholarly interest in many humanities disciplines. But we also have to think about our ongoing budget constraints and “do more with less” attitudes, that have dominated libraries, and the public sector as a whole, following the economic slowdowns of 2001 and 2008. Gwen Evans, in a chapter on using student staff to do programming work, connects this to Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage (Evans 2011, 229). Levi-Strauss writes:

The Bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project…but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions of destructions. (Levi-Strauss 22)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1966, 22

Bricoleur has no real English equivalent but Levi-Strauss likens it to “handy man.” The connections between this and contemporary library field are clear. We make do with what we have and, when it comes to liaison positions, we have risen to meet the challenges without the means to hire staff to cover all the needs. Instead the transition away from traditional subject librarianship to liaison librarianship has opened reference librarians to a world of new technologies and responsibilities. In this case the “whatever is at hand” happens to be the liaison librarian positions we find at every academic library, as the library moves away from the PhD Librarian bibliographer. Undoubtedly, this leads to the doubling up of positions as institutions, especially those with large FTE but small budgets, combine positions beyond what might be possible for a single person to handle.

Unfortunately, I think that it is necessary in a lot of ways, as Cooper and Shonfeld state, to understand how research is being done in our fields is to be conversant in new technologies and research applications. Yet much of this is grounded in how we talk about librarianship and assess our success. When I was rolling these thoughts around in my brain, I was struck by my colleague Veronica Arellano Douglas’s post from last month on Efficiency and library assessment where she asks “when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives.” The same can be asked about specialties, when did the library become about how many specialties we can match each librarian to? What complicates this further is that ff the expectation is to do as Cooper and Shonfeld state and have a little expertise in all the potential skills needed in a subject area, where do the functional specialists in the library or around campus come in? In other words, at what point are we patching together our house as bricoleurs as opposed to building a new one as an engineer? Is such a system sustainable over long periods of time?

This is hyperbole because no one is asking librarians to be experts in everything, but it is not far from the expectations placed on us from either the doom-filled future or our own role in the academe. From my personal experience, I have seen that many of these bricoleur jobs fall onto younger professionals who struggle to keep up with all their tasks and responsibilities as well as balancing promotion and tenure (if their institutions have that). Young professional adept at balancing those different tools and constructions will invariably be asked to take on more projects with the same, and perhaps less, resources at their disposals until they can’t afford to take on anymore. Furthermore, the taking on of many more responsibilities has been used to combat perceptions of imposter syndrome. For myself I know that becoming an expert in digital humanities (whatever that might mean) gave me the gravitas to work closely with teaching faculty even though I felt clearly that I was not one of them. This could and does, if not checked, lead to burn out.

I have been frank with colleagues at both institutions and on Twitter about my own burnout and my steps to prevent burnout from happening again. As a new professional, three years feels like a lifetime but its relatively new in terms of a career, there is always pressure to be this bricoleur. Especially to make do with an increasing amount of responsibilities and expertise with little return in resources or time. How many of us are asked to drop something when picking up slack? Yet, I am confused as to whether or not this is our expected role in the future of being a liaison. Expectations from our departments range from pure collection development, to the teaching of library databases, to the teaching of research skills, to, finally, the teaching of subject specific knowledge. This last quarter I taught a session on writing program notes for performances which blurred the lines between research expertise and subject specific knowledge. This does not branch too far from my positional expectations, but it changes what I can do for my department. The same can be said about more functional types of library work. Without proper guidance, which I have been lucky to have thus far, liaison librarianship can easily go out of control with an investment in each student and faculty research direction. Where does being a liaison stop and where do the functional experts begin?

Being at an institution with a wealth of experts around the library and campus makes this decision a little more complicated. How often am I expected to bricolage my way through a liaison experience rather than pass users on to my more knowledgeable colleagues? For assessment purposes, I might want to do all that I can. This has been, and I believe will continue to be, unclear in many liaison programs. It is not a fault of individual liaison programs but rather, as noted in much of the literature, that the role of the liaison is changing, and we don’t quite know where it will end up. Along the way we might leave a lot of burned out liaisons in our wake.

Author: Dylan Burns

Dylan Burns is the liaison librarian for the Cinema and Media Studies Program and the School of Music at the University of Washington

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