Navigating an Uncharted Path in Liaison Librarianship

Towards the end of fall 2023, the STEM Librarian stepped down from her position at CSU Northridge. Throughout her tenure, she covered liaison duties that spanned across many Science and Engineering departments. I heard about this news during a monthly department meeting. Our department chair requested support and asked us to reach out if interested in taking over the STEM liaison roles. Despite the fact that I have an academic background in the Humanities and Social Sciences, I recognized the urgency of the situation and offered my support. In the spirit of camaraderie, I contacted my chair and volunteered to help. Soon after, I was assigned to be the liaison for the single department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, which includes library instruction and collection development responsibilities.

When I started at CSU Northridge, I was initially assigned to be the Central American & Transborder Studies liaison. Due to my background in Ethnic Studies, particularly Chicana/o Studies and Latina/o Studies, I felt quite comfortable with this assignment. I felt at home as I taught information literacy sessions, facilitated research consultations, and performed my bibliographer duties for the department of Central American & Transborder Studies. It wasn’t until I became the liaison to Chemistry & Biochemistry that I began to feel like I was navigating an uncharted path.

Recently, I had to select publications to update the collection for Chemistry & Biochemistry. Since it was my first time performing my collection development duties for this department, I was out of my depth. As a liaison librarian, I must meet 3 important collection development deadlines throughout the academic school year. Just over a week ago, I met the second deadline and I spent 75% of all available funds. To be frank, this was easier said than done for an early career librarian without a STEM background. For more support, I reached out to several librarians in the Collection Access and Management Services (CAMS) department. Although I was already diving into book reviews and book spotlights offered by professional associations, I realized that I needed more guidance. As a result of my colleagues’ mentorship, I learned about ALMA analytics and I discovered how to search for slips in Gobi. These lessons allowed me to finalize my selections for Chemistry & Biochemistry.

As for library instruction, the fall semester will start tomorrow, so I have not taught any information literary sessions for Chemistry & Biochemistry. However, I already received 3 instruction requests from a professor teaching CHEM 464L – Principles of Biochemistry. To prepare, I have been exploring the already established CHEM 464L LibGuide. So far, I have set my focus on current topics and the American Chemical Society (ACS) citation style. Additionally, I intend to contact the former Science and Engineering Librarian with the hopes that she will be open to sharing her Google Slides, instructional handouts, and/or other resources. My intention is to learn as much as possible to help students locate the proper library resources. While I recognize that I have immersed myself into a completely different academic discipline, I am reassured by own professional experience, particularly my 10-year trajectory as an educator.  I am learning to trust the process, so that I may rely on my own skillset, which includes teaching topics like keyword selection, information evaluation, citation practices, and database search mechanics.

As I wrap up this blog post, I would like to encourage other liaison librarians to please reach out if you’ve had a similar experience. What were some of your approaches? How did you become familiarized with your new role? I would definitely appreciate guidance as I continue to dive into science liaison librarianship.

Mysteries of Liaison Librarianship

I’m not saying I’m worried about faculty and students taking me seriously as a librarian, but harkening back to my days as a teenager who used to be a big fan of emo music: sometimes I feel misunderstood.

I recently read the article “The Librarians Are Not OK: A years-long attack on their status is bad for all of us,” written by Joshua Doležal, and published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Despite Joshua using the same title as Anne Helen Petersen’s empathetic and heralding CALM 2022 keynote, he gets at several things I’ve experienced in my early tenure as a librarian.

I’m an early-career librarian who is still sorting out what it means to be an academic librarian. I work as a liaison librarian, supporting several departments in our Faculty of Science. My entire ethos as a liaison librarian—and one that I share constantly when speaking to students—is that I want to make things easier for them, to save them time. And I do, if they and their professors let me.

I search for opportunities to talk to students about information literacy and save them time as they search for and access library resources. But there’s a misunderstanding of what librarians do. I recently had lunch with a faculty member and graduate student. We were talking about library services for graduate students, and neither had much idea of what library services are available to them. This isn’t their fault; in a lot of ways, libraries have a marketing and advocacy problem. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with my friends, and they have no idea about the bulk of my job. I need to liaise with students and faculty in my subject areas, but if they don’t have any idea of what I can do for them, doesn’t that fall—at least in part—on me?

As librarians, we’re knowledgeable and we have deep professional knowledge. We’re the ones implementing and maintaining the systems that allow our patrons to find resources in our catalogue; we’re the ones ensuring our collections support curricula at the institution; and we’re the ones expertly and concisely instructing on how to find, access, and use all kinds of information. We need to make sure our community knows this and for more people to know what our work consists of.

Shirley Phillips writes in a recent Globe & Mail opinion article, that librarians she knew would “literally search the world over, using their knowledge and uncanny problem-solving skills to find needles in haystacks. But they also helped high school students with their homework. No matter the question, there was no judgment. They went out of their way to put people at ease, ferreting out their true needs, especially those who were ashamed to display what they thought of as ignorance in a knowledge-based institution. It was public service at its finest.”

I think so, too.