Being a Liaison Librarian: Lessons Learned

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.

Playing Favorites

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.

Timing

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.

Content Knowledge

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.

New Year, New Weed

I think a lot of us have New Year’s resolutions or goal-setting on our minds as we start the spring semester, but this time of the year has me thinking more about our fiscal year goals. Heading into January means that we’re wrapping up the second quarter, and we can evaluate how the collection is measuring up to goals that were set before I started. The best way for me to determine progress is by looking at the data, and the most effective way to share that with my colleagues is through data storytelling. I’m still growing my data literacy, but narratives (the storytelling part) I can do.

One of the action items for our strategic plan is to incorporate new tools for assessment. I recently found out about Dossiers from BLUECloud Analytics, a SirsiDynix tool that is powered by Microstrategy to pull data and create visualizations. Using knowledge I gained from a Learning Analytics course at Mizzou during my MLIS, plus from consulting books like Storytelling with Data, Data Science for Librarians, and Data Visualization: A Guide to Visual Storytelling for Libraries, I crafted a brief presentation as an update to the annual collection report. Honestly, compared to other programs like Tableau, this Dossier was tough to make. Although, between creating it and writing this post, they have upgraded their system to include new features that I would have loved to use. I spent a lot of time figuring out the system, making the visualizations, and creating a visually appealing template. Besides finding out how extra I am, I think my colleagues had an easier time understanding the data, and gained a better understanding of where we stand. This is a small start towards incorporating data storytelling into our work culture.

Page of BLUECloud Analytics Dossier from ERAU

The biggest takeaway from this project was that deselection of materials had a largely positive impact on the age of the collection, greater than just adding brand new materials could. It’s like trying to mix a grey paint; you’re going to need to dump a whole lot of white onto your black paint to get it to lighten up. It’s so much more effective if you take all the old, unused stuff away first. Committing to keeping up with how we are progressing towards our goals is the only way I would have found out that the time invested by liaison librarians into collection development has been paying off – and more importantly, just how much of an impact their actions made. I think it is so much more valuable to see that quantitative comparison in the data than to simply say “good job.”

There is an IMLS project coming out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for a “Data Storytelling Toolkit for Librarians” that I am really excited to learn more about. With a resource like that, we can all learn more on how to gain insights from our data, and especially how to share our impact with our stakeholders, whether they be internal or external. When people ask me what the most beneficial classes during my MLIS were, I always list Learning Analytics among them. We live in a data culture, and in my first year as an academic librarian, I am definitely seeing how it is starting to seep into my everyday work.

Let’s Talk About Quiet Quitting: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives 

This post comes from a guest poster, Alejandro Marquez. Alejandro is a Collection Development Librarian at the Auraria Library which serves the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver. 

I recently attended a diversity committee where we talked about the state of the university. We talked about our workload, compensation, lack of mental health services for students, and diversity trainings. After the meeting was over, I received an email from one of the new members of the group. It read, “does this meeting always hurt the soul so much? Like I’ve heard nothing but facts and everyone here seems so amazing and talented and brilliant, but everyone sounds so beat down.” This response could easily describe the comments that I hear from library workers when I read the listservs or attend conferences. Library workers are known for going above and beyond expectations by staying late to help a student find a resource, answering emails at 11PM, or doing the job of coworkers who have left the building. They not only give of their time but also a piece of themselves. They work on library activities, complete campus service, serve on professional organizations, and assist students and faculty. A lot of a person’s library identity is emotionally and psychologically intertwined with their work. 

The pandemic changed the face of libraries and heightened the already present difficulties of many institutions that never fully financially recovered from the housing recession. Some of the issues that people might be facing include increasing workload, inadequate staffing, time pressures, flat budgets, burnout, wages haven’t kept up with inflation, and lack of professional growth opportunities. Anecdotally, one library has a designated decompression room and they encourage workers to utilize it with no questions asked. There is a recognition that even mildly difficult interactions can compound over time and create secondary trauma. 

Quiet quitting is the latest workplace buzzword. It describes individuals who go against a culture of going above and beyond what a job requires. They are still doing the work but they don’t work outside of their job descriptions. The quitting part is a misnomer. Individuals aren’t quitting their jobs, rather they are setting clear boundaries. Quiet quitting is a way of dealing with burnout. They try to balance these pressures by looking towards meaning and purpose in their work, organizational culture, and professional relationships. The term presents a view of an American workplace culture that celebrates toxic workaholism and grind culture. The popularity of the term is a positive sign that there is a shift in workplace expectations. 

The pandemic has led to what some are calling the “great resignation”. On many college campuses, salaries have stagnated and the cost of living has increased while productivity has remained the same. It makes it hard for many people to afford a home. For contingent workers, there is no national legislative support for required paid sick days. As a result, people are rethinking the role that work should take in their lives. 

Many individuals like to think of libraries as the bastion of democracy. A place of liberal ideas and intellectualism. However, it is conservative and resistant to change. It is just a workplace at the end of the day where individuals jockey for prestige, hierarchy, and resources. A non-profit that has a need to generate income. Although some might think of it as a higher calling, it doesn’t mean that it is beyond reproach. The university library is built on relying on workers to pick up the slack due to the slow pace of hiring and the freezing of positions as budgets become lean. Library workers have had to do more with less. It raises the question: would the library collapse if people worked the stated number of hours and/or stayed within their job description? 

Asking workers or groups to change feels “personal.” It seems like an individual moral failing if a person burns out as though it were an accurate reflection of their ability and character. There are some individuals who will claim that work is supposed to be hard and difficult and people have to just suck it up. They use the stereotypical phrase, “It is called work for a reason.” It presumes that burnout is a personal factor rather than an organizational failure.  

Organizations have weaponized the idea of passion or calling when it refers to working. The work that library professionals do such as helping patrons or serving the common good feels like it is “inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” The previous quote and concept of vocational awe was coined by Fobazi Ettarh talks about the ways that librarianship at both an institutional and individual level are feeding into the narrative that dysfunctional systems and actions are beyond critique because of the mission, vision, and values of a highly regarded institution like the library.  

Let’s stop blaming individuals for imposter syndrome, burnout, and low morale. Organizations send library professionals to conferences or bring in consultants to address these workplace issues. It often feels like the message is for individuals to fix their attitude because organizations can’t be successful unless people are productive. After these employees come back to their libraries, they often find that the policies and budget don’t support the necessary changes that need to be made. Libraries need to look at the systems and structures. When we ask people to make do with less, or don’t give them all training or resources to do a project, people will say that they aren’t good enough. They think that there is something wrong with themselves. Instead, let’s look at the system that underpays them and doesn’t give money for projects. 

When we focus on a process, policy, or system, leaders can make workers feel that they are less targeted or spotlighted. There will be less resistance, rejection, and backlash. Additionally, these problems are complex and multifaceted. To create bigger and long lasting change, it is better to focus on the system rather than the individual.  

 These issues surrounding quiet quitting create an opportunity for the university library to recognize the challenges and assume responsibility for resolving them. This is a message of hope because it means that members of the community can take action. Hope without action is just toxic positivity. The challenge might be tough but the pain even more so. The pain that we are collectively feeling can act as an impetus for change. It can keep us focused and working towards something positive.  

I want to end this post with a list of ideas. I acknowledge that every library environment is different and we each have a unique set of circumstances. It is my hope that each of us at no matter what level of the organization that we find ourselves will enact change where we can. As a result of this change, library workers and administration are able to build on positive patterns of trust, commitment, accountability, and results. We are part of an interconnected ecosystem. Just like the natural world, if we neglect one area, other areas suffer.  

Some ideas for change include: 

  • Individuals and organizations need to undertake an honest assessment of the financial situation, staffing patterns, and employee workload. Using this information, they need to make deliberate decisions and create sustainable environments. It doesn’t mean giving up but rather a chance at a new beginning. An opportunity to get rid of preconceived ideas of what it means to be successful. It can be exhausting to live up to unrealistic ideals. Quiet quitting isn’t a symptom rather it is a direct cause of overwork, neglect, and low compensation. When people don’t feel cared about, eventually they stop caring.  
  • Individuals must prioritize the health and safety of individuals at all levels of the organization. There is a thought that it would be easy to just get rid of things that are bad or harmful and everything would be solved. It is only one piece. We also need to create systems that heal too. Activities could include job flexibility, access to mental health services, and diversity policies. 
  • Leaders need to readdress relationships with historically marginalized employee groups by focusing on pay equity, promotion and tenure, and workload distribution. They need to have difficult conversations and enact change.  
  • Administrators need to take a long term view of the future instead of focusing on the current budget year. Planning for the future instills in library workers at all levels a sense of purpose and motivation to go the distance. It also allows us to plan for the well-being of future generations.  
  • The system needs to be designed to learn and improve over time. It can’t just be a yearly training and there is no single solution. It needs to be a continuous improvement feedback loop. Leaders need to look at personal structures and relationships that enhance psychological safety, empathy, vulnerability, and peer support. This will create a culture of support at all levels that aligns structures and processes with our institutional values and purpose. 
  • Diversity work needs to be baked into the job duties of individuals and they should have adequate time during their work day to accomplish it.  
  • Building managers need to design workspaces to fit a variety of different people including individuals who are neurodivergent and who have differing physical abilities.  

Bringing Disability to the Forefront

It’s been a busy semester at the reference desk. Amidst the busyness, I was elated to see that some of my coworkers created a display of books relating to chronic illness and disability. I was even more thrilled to see that students were often stopping by to look at the display, telling their friends about it, and checking out some of the books that were featured. 

March is Disability Awareness Month, and my library makes sure to create displays and programming relating to chronic illness and disability throughout the month. But with more and more people, including college students, becoming disabled due to Long Covid, it is more important than ever that we consider the needs of disabled students year-round. It is also more important than ever that we as academic librarians highlight books by chronically ill and disabled authors throughout the year, and not dismiss displays and programming as options that solely serve the needs of school and public libraries.

Chronic illness and disability are personal to me, as someone who is disabled because of chronic illness, and whose disability is considered invisible. Some days are better than others, which means I use a mobility aid on some days, but not others. It is often said that disability is the only group that anyone can become a member of at any time. 

Katie Quirin Manwiller, who has written two previous posts on Conferencing while Chronically Ill and The Inaccessibility of ACRL 2021, recently presented on Reasonable Accommodations from the Employee Perspective for the Pennsylvania Library Association 2022 Conference. Her research cited 26% of Americans living with disability prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as 1 in 5 adults who will experience Long Covid. 

However, we never know truly how many of our students, faculty, or staff are living with either chronic illness, disability, or both. There is still significant stigma attached to either, leaving many people to decide not to disclose. Also, no one is under any obligation to disclose to us, as librarians. We should make an effort to prove that we are capable of meeting the needs of disabled students without requiring them to disclose personal information they might not feel comfortable sharing. 

What does this look like in practice? On my end, it looks like:

  • Continuing the practice of masking. While there is no longer a mask mandate on my campus, I and many others on staff have continued masking. Working at a busy reference desk, I feel more comfortable interacting with people while wearing a mask, and I’ve found that many students have appreciated that we are still masking, and are also choosing to wear a mask themselves.
  • Staying up-to-date on the evolving language of disability. Language is constantly evolving. Not all websites have caught onto the fact that disabled people have reclaimed Identity-First Language, as opposed to People-First Language, and often refer to themselves as disabled not as a person with a disability. I’ve found that the best way to stay current on disability language is to follow disabled people on Twitter. Even lurking will allow you to gain a better understanding of issues facing disabled people, which undoubtedly includes many of your students.
  • Promoting materials by and about disabled people. The display at my library includes a combination of memoirs by disabled writers, sociology books on the history of disability, and even ready-reference on disability history. There are also plenty of electronic resources that contain information on disability history, which I’ve been working to familiarize myself with over the past couple of months. This is a work in progress for me; keeping in mind that resources can and will become out-of-date. 
  • Being mindful of library space. I’m always conscious about how my library physically meets, and doesn’t meet, the needs of disabled students. In practice, this looks like ensuring that aisles are kept wide and clear for users with mobility aids and offering study areas with varying amounts of light in order to accommodate students with sensitivity to light and/or sound. However, being mindful, for me, also means continually learning and keeping in mind that there is always room for improvement. 

With this in mind: How have you met the needs of disabled students, and how should libraries improve going forward?

Recruiting New Librarians

It’s been such a tough pandemic for academic librarian job seekers, particularly new graduates. Enrollment declines led to shrinking budgets which in turn meant disappearing job opportunities when so many librarians needed them most. I feel very lucky to be in a library that has had the budget, personnel, and time to hire several new librarians this academic year. Later this summer I’ll be in a position to hire both a Teaching & Learning Librarian and a Student Success Librarian. I’ve been working on the job description and thinking a lot about the recruitment of new colleagues. I definitely have the usual concerns about the construction of the job advertisement:

  • Is the language used to describe the position responsibilities accessible to librarians new to the profession?
  • Are we including a salary range?
  • Am I asking too much under Required Qualifications?
  • Does the job ad emphasize our library’s commitment to anti-racism, equity, and inclusion?
  • Will the position description sound appealing and welcoming to librarians from different backgrounds and communities?
  • Does it make our department sound like a good place to work?

I shared my initial draft with our assistant department head and two new(ish) librarian colleagues who had recently been through the job search process. They offered helpful edits and suggestions, and I was able to pass on our draft to our Associate Dean for Organizational Development and Learning.

But there are the OTHER factors to consider when thinking about recruitment, ones inextricably linked to the pandemic, politics, and legislation. The last few years have been and continue to be difficult for people with disabilities, compromised immune systems, families, income precarity; and all of the most vulnerable individuals. Are new or experienced librarians in a position–financially, emotionally, personally–to move for a new job? What kind of support and flexibility can we offer to individuals who may have unique health, family, or other needs? Are we prepared to have those conversations when negotiating with potential candidates? I hope that we’re ready.

Living in Texas I’m familiar with the common refrains online urging people to either (a) get out and vote or (b) get up and move. Both make a lot of assumptions about finances, personal situations, and other extenuating circumstances. So as we are hiring I will continue to think about how we can make work as safe and welcoming a place as it can be for the people who work within it.

Are you also hiring and onboarding new librarians this year? If so, what’s been your approach?