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.

More Final Reflections

Like Melissa, the time for my farewell post has come. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time writing for ACRLog—I’ve always found that writing helps me to process my thoughts and to reflect on my experiences. ACRLog has allowed me to do just that as I took my first steps into the life of a library professional. Looking back on it, the year has gone very quickly and, on the cusp of my second year, it feels like this year was a practice run. I tried some instruction, I tried some liaison work, I tried some purchasing, and now I’m ready to do it all over again in a more focused, organized manner.

I want to start this post with a few things I’ve learned along the way, or things that have surprised me.

You will be busy

My first few weeks, I had several different people tell me that I would probably feel like I had nothing to do for a good chunk of time, until suddenly I would feel like I had too much to do. They were right. This is exactly what happened for me. My first few weeks, I rattled around the library and filled my days with campus talks because I didn’t know what else to do. Then all of the sudden I had so much to do. I can’t pinpoint when that transition happened, but I know that it happened because, on top of learning more about what my job responsibilities really meant, I had also been saying yes to everything. Yes, I’ll go to that meeting, I have nothing better to do. Yes, I’ll write that book review, I have nothing better to do. These things eventually really do fill up your time.

This isn’t a bad thing, because I like to be busy, but now I’ve entered phase two: trying to figure out what I actually need to work on and what I can let go. Advice for those just starting out: you really can be picky. Your schedule will eventually fill up either way. Take that beginning time just to explore campus and explore where and how you really want to be involved.

Ask for things

Though it may be hard for the timid introverts among us, if there’s something you want, ask for it. You might be surprised. Whether you need something in your space like an extra bookcase or a standing desk, or you want time to pursue a new interest, or you need some extra professional development support, it doesn’t hurt to ask. I’ve been surprised at the help I’ve received when I needed it, but I shouldn’t be. Generally, people do want to support and help you.

Making time for research is hard

I was excited to start organizing my professional life and finally carve out some time for my own research. (Step one: figuring out what my research interests actually are.) It turns out, this isn’t quite so easy to do. As I already mentioned, it’s easy to get busy, and when that happens, it’s even easier for research to slip through the cracks, since it’s such a long-term practice and there are so many more time-sensitive things that need my attention.

I don’t have a good solution to this one yet. Yes, there’s always blocking off time in the schedule, but I’m not always disciplined enough to guard that time judiciously, so sometimes I don’t follow through. At least for now, though, this is my strategy.

How to learn?

It came as no surprise to me that there were things I would need to learn on the job: everything from library culture to how to subscribe to a new database to where donated books go. Generally, I’ve learned by doing. I needed to learn how to make a LibGuide, so I worked at creating one. I needed to learn how to write a book review, so I wrote one. However, I’ve also found that it’s very helpful to be taught things, or to follow along while someone else does something. Yes, I do like taking the time to figure things out on my own, but sometimes it’s more efficient and I learn more if I let someone know that I need help and they show me how they accomplish whatever it is I need to do myself. This way, I can see a good example and ask questions before I make my own attempt.

So, again, ask for help when you need it!


Despite learning some things and certainly feeling more comfortable than I did beginning this job, I still have a long way to go. Some of my goals for this coming year include really getting to know my faculty and their work. I want to be more engaged with the communities I serve, especially students, and I want to develop a deeper knowledge of the subject areas that I cover. This, in turn, will only improve my collection development. There’s also a buying trip in my future, which will be an entirely new challenge and another reason to turn to my colleagues for help and support.

And then there’s all the networking and conferencing that I have yet to learn to do properly. I’ve been working on building my online presence this year, while at the same time working on networking and understanding conferences. I can’t say I have figured everything out about online or in-person networking, but luckily I have more than year to learn and grow. I’m looking forward to everything this next year has in store for me, be it working more with others or getting deeper into librarianship.

Once again, it’s been a pleasure blogging this year and I want to thank ACRLog for the opportunity. Going forward, find me on Twitter or at my website.

Tales from an Unintentional Science Liaison

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?

Finding my footing and imposter syndrome

Like Quetzalli, who started blogging for ACRLog a few years ago, I am dipping my toes into the world of academic libraries by starting with a residency position. While there is some discussion to be had on critiques of residencies and whether a residency is a good choice for any given individual, for my own part, I was drawn to a residency position because it offered me room to explore as well as a little more support. Luckily for me, my institution has also been very receptive about working with my interests and I have no regrets about choosing a residency.

That said, at almost exactly three months in, I am starting to take stock of what I have learned and accomplished so far. With the new semester fast approaching, I am also looking for ways to work better and to prioritize all the various projects that could take up my time. As a subject librarian, a large focus of my work is on liaisonship, which, it turns out, is something of a challenge for me.

As I see it, my challenges are twofold: getting my name out there and establishing myself as someone capable of and willing to work with faculty members. I’m in a new position, so faculty members and students in my subject areas aren’t necessarily primed to come looking for me. To combat this, I’ve sent the usual introductory emails and have been working on meeting faculty members when they’re interested and have the time. I’ve also attended as many events as possible, both to become more familiar with academic focuses on campus and to make sure I’m seen and can participate in informal conversations as they arise.

As for my second goal of demonstrating that I’m capable of the job I’m doing, this has come slower. I’m working as the liaison for Southeast Asian studies and South Asian studies, and my background is solely in Southeast Asian studies, which means I’m working to get up to speed on South Asia. Now, I know that to be an effective liaison you do not need to have extensive knowledge of your subject areas. This is true, too—I’ve successfully answered the South Asia reference questions that have come my way. All that said, I still find myself feeling inadequate, which leads me to an oft-discussed topic: imposter syndrome.

Erin has already written a great post about imposter syndrome, especially tied to comparing your CV to others’. I find myself performing a similar sort of comparison, looking at librarians in my institution and in similar positions beyond my institution and wondering how they do so much, how they are so involved. I know this is similar to Erin’s own struggle and that I’m only seeing things from the outside, but it’s one thing to know that and another to internalize it.

I brought up my position as a resident at the beginning of this post because I think it also plays a factor in this feeling of imposter syndrome. As a resident, maybe I am an imposter, or at the very least, maybe people see me as an imposter. But I know that this, too, is also just my insecurities talking. While it is true that residents (including myself) do have to explain their positions and do have to face skepticism, it is also true that residents are as qualified as any other new librarian. As Erin lays out in her post, it is perfectly acceptable to be a beginner. Luckily for me, I am part of an organization that supports me and all its new librarians and recognizes that we are all beginners in one way or another.

One of the support systems my library has in place is a new liaisons group that meets once a month. These meetings provide a place to discuss our work and formulate strategies to become more effective liaisons, as well as simply to discuss challenges we may be having. At a recent meeting, when I brought up how I sometimes feel nervous approaching faculty members, a more established librarian offered a piece of advice that really resonated with me: we are faculty members too, so there’s no reason to feel lesser. Now, librarians are not faculty members everywhere, but no matter the institution, we are professionals, and in liaison work as with librarianship in general, there is no reason to feel lesser, even if you are new. For now, I’m going to make an effort to understand that I am a beginner and to not apologize for it, while I continue to learn and grow and develop the relationships that will help me to become a better liaison.

What are some situations you’ve found yourself facing imposter syndrome? Do you have any tips to share that have worked for you?

On Being a New Liaison

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Abby Flanigan, Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts at the University of Virginia.

Last January, I joined the University of Virginia Libraries as the Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts. This is my first professional position after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with my MSLS in May 2016, and I’ve found myself in an entirely new (to me) area of the profession: liaison librarianship. In graduate school, I heeded the advice I’ve seen echoed in every corner of the Internet about LIS programs, which is to get as much work experience as you can, and cobbled together a variety of internships in preservation, digital scholarship, cataloging, and reference services. Despite this list of jobs on my resume, I remember feeling instantly panicked when the first question in my interview was to describe my past experience as a liaison, because, of course, I didn’t have any. Luckily, I managed to collect myself and describe some other capacities in which I had worked with faculty, and ended up getting the job. Now that I’ve been here a few months I wanted to share some of my observations about what makes being a liaison both challenging and exciting as a new professional.

No two liaison positions look exactly alike. Because each academic department has different needs and histories with the library, each liaison I know works differently with their departments. Some are busy all semester teaching classes or doing research consultations with undergraduate students, while other collaborate on grants or do collection development for foreign-language sources. Similarly, liaisons are organized differently at many libraries, so it can also be difficult to directly compare positions or responsibilities with colleagues at peer institutions. At UVA, subject liaison responsibilities are decoupled from collection development, general reference, and first-year teaching responsibilities, so my day-to-day work looks very different than liaisons at other institutions whose responsibilities are split across a variety of areas. This was challenging when I first started because, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, my instinct was to model my strategy for engagement on my colleagues’, but it didn’t always transfer or apply.

This brings me to my second point: it takes time to be an effective liaison. Getting comfortable in any new position takes a while, of course, but the liaison model seems to benefit in particular from institutional knowledge. Part of the job is knowing faculty and students in the departments, including their research interests, information needs, and communication habits. Gathering this information can take many meetings, emails, and chance encounters; much of it is tacit knowledge that is built up over time and not necessarily passed on from a predecessor. Many liaisons also rely on the “ripple effect.” By working with a faculty member one semester, they may have more interest the next semester based on word-of-mouth between colleagues. This means that as a new liaison, I am working on laying groundwork for richer collaborations in the future. Building up relationships and projects is a longer process than I was expecting, but I think that’s a good thing because it means this is a job that I can grow into.

Finally, as I build these relationships, I’ve learned just how important communication skills are to this position. Being a liaison requires reaching out cold to people in your departments, and, more importantly, once you are meeting with them, articulating your role and value. It can be intimidating to present yourself as a resource to experts in their respective fields, especially without an advanced degree in the discipline for which you are a liaison, but over the past nine months, I’ve gotten more comfortable and confident doing so. In the beginning, I struggled to define exactly how I could help, and erred on the side of suggesting every possible way in which they might use the library’s resources. Now I try to reach out when I have a specific idea to suggest or information to communicate. After a few successful collaborations, I also have a clearer idea myself about what I bring to the table, so I’m able to more confidently offer my services.

“Liaison” is term which means very little to anyone outside of libraries (I know this from the blank stares I get from friends and family when I try to explain what I do) but can be a source of anxiety for people in them as we rethink and reorganize subject expertise in academic libraries. Being a good liaison or having a strong liaison program seems to be an ever-moving target. Stepping into a role of this nebulous nature as a new librarian can be stressful — it’s hard to know whether you’re doing it right! — but I’m learning to be more comfortable with figuring it out as I go.