When I started as a medical academic librarian four years ago, I have to admit that I was a little intimidated in the face of the list of departments I would serve as liaison librarian. It’s an access services & instruction position, which I felt prepared for… but what did I know about dermatology, or pathology, or… all the surgical specialties???
Of course, I have since learned that being a liaison librarian does not mean having to know the ins and outs of the department’s specialty area. I’ve also picked up several more liaison areas as we’ve needed to redistribute departments among the librarians for various reasons. I’m no longer concerned that I don’t know enough about nephrology or otolaryngology to be effective in serving those departments, but I have encountered other concerns along the way.
My husband is a resident in one of my liaison departments, which means I go to parties, golf, and have group chats with people in that department. Do they get too much of my attention? Realistically, they don’t come to me for any more or less research help than my other departments. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing favorites, though, if you have a department that’s easy to work with, or one where you have a personal relationship with someone. Sure, I have a photo of all the urology residents up on my office wall, but to be fair, they’re the only ones who offered one.
Neglecting Other Departments
I frequently worry that I’ve let general surgery – and its twelve subspecialties – fall by the wayside as far as my liaison duties go. The most important lesson I’ve learned about being a liaison is that each department has its own personality, needs, and ways of doing things. Surgery finds me when they need me. They are a behemoth of a department and interacting with them the same way as a smaller department would be difficult and ineffective. My shift to a primarily hands-off approach for surgery has taught me the important lesson to meet departments where they are and when they’re ready.
Each specialty rotates residents at different rates (urology residency is five years, ob/gyn is four, and nephrology is three, for example). Faculty and attendings also come and go, though not at nearly the same rate as residents and fellows. It’s hard, therefore, to determine how often I should try to be invited back after presenting to a department. In some areas, an annual visit is appropriate, to update everyone on what’s new and answer questions from newcomers. Others may prefer sending their new faculty to me one by one as they’re hired. Several like the idea of a yearly new residents’ orientation. Still others might rely on regular library offerings that are open to all, instead of scheduling department-specific sessions. Keeping track of all the preferences of nearly two dozen departments is difficult, but doable. (A good spreadsheet can solve a lot of problems.)
Names & Faces
I don’t have prosopagnosia (face blindness) but I’m really bad at remembering faces. (I’ve had a three-year reprieve where I could say, “Oh I didn’t recognize you with the mask!” and I think I can rely on the opposite, “Oh I didn’t recognize you without the mask!” for another year or so.) When I walk through the hospital, I run into people from my liaison departments, and I work very hard to recognize them and engage with them (even a quick “oh hey, how have you been!” lets them know I remember them, without slowing them down on their way to save a life… or get coffee, equally important). Bonus points when I’m quick enough to ask follow-up questions about research I know they’re working on – as simple as, “how’s that imaging project going?” – to show I really do remember them and care about their work.
I know, I started this post by saying you don’t have to know everything about a specialty to be their liaison librarian. But it’s helpful to make an effort to be aware of major developments in the areas you liaise to. When I was hired, my liaison departments were determined by what other librarians were willing to pass on to me to lighten their own load. It is, therefore, a bit of a “miscellaneous” pile. I have volunteered to pick up departments that make a little sense: when nephrology was available, I grabbed it because I already have urology, so I’m already keeping an eye on what’s big in kidney news. I still have a wide range of topics to be on top of, though. Saved searches or search alerts can be handy, if you check them every once in a while. Newsletters from professional organizations are also useful, although the email deluge is real, and I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to add to that problem. (There is no reason to try to read every article! Browsing the results is sufficient.) Even skimming through the emails you already get, like institutional newsletters, with your departments in mind, can be helpful. I get a little “ping!” in my head whenever I see something from any of my departments in the news, on the digital signage throughout the building, etc. I can tuck it away for later, like using the topic of a big research grant awarded to someone in dermatology as a sample search when demonstrating a resources the next time I talk to the dermatology department. You aren’t expected to know it all, though, so never be afraid to ask someone to tell you more about the topic you’re helping them search. In my experience, they usually love the chance to explain their research passions to someone who wants to hear about them.
While being liaison to all these departments is not nearly as scary as I originally thought it would be, it is still a lot to keep track of, while being very rewarding. I have learned a lot about things I never thought I would encounter; I’m even a co-author on an article in a digestive diseases journal. (I’m hanging on to that one for the next time I have to play Two Truths and a Lie.) I have met great people all over this College of Medicine and hospital system, just because they had a hard time finding an article in full text or needed to know a better search strategy for their literature search. Being a liaison librarian is great fun, a wild educational ride, and a really effective way to develop your search, instruction, and reference skills.