I’m No Expert: A New Librarian Becomes a Subject Specialist

by Melissa Fortson

“I’ll do it.”

These may not have been the exact words I spoke from my chair in the Associate Dean’s office, but my response was something to that effect. Having joined The University of Alabama Libraries as a reference librarian on August 9, 2010, it was just two weeks later that I agreed to serve as a subject librarian in anthropology. I hoped the arrangement would be short-term; my colleagues and I had been asked to temporarily assume the responsibilities of a fellow member of the Information Services department who was undergoing cancer treatment. Sadly, Lisa passed away the following month. After Lisa’s death, it became clear that my temporary role had shifted to a permanent one. While I was thankful for the opportunity, I was saddened by the circumstances in which it presented itself. I also felt uneasy about my qualifications as an anthropology “expert,” as I had neither a degree nor significant experience in the field (I had taken Anthropology of Education, Medical Anthropology, and a course in kinship and family as an undergraduate). I knew my coursework and the expert knowledge I did have- librarians are information experts, after all- would allow me to meet the basic needs of the Department of Anthropology’s faculty, staff, and students; however, I wanted to provide a level of service beyond “basic,” and I knew that I needed to better prepare myself in order to accomplish this goal.

I set about determining the answer to the question foremost in my mind: “What is a subject librarian, anyway?” I discovered that, in my library, the subject librarian’s duties are in three primary areas:

  • Collection Development, or “planning and building a useful and balanced collection of library materials” (Reitz). The subject librarian serves as a selector, working with an academic department to ensure that the Libraries’ holdings support its teaching and research needs.
  • Liaison Work. The liaison serves as the department’s primary point of contact, relaying information about library resources and services and communicating departmental interests of relevance to the library.
  • Information Services. The subject librarian is highly knowledgeable about information sources and services in a particular field and responds to reference requests, provides research assistance, and offers library instruction. Note that “is an expert anthropologist” does not appear in the above list. While I cannot dispute the advantages of having a degree in a related discipline, I agree that a librarian with “an appreciation of teaching and research techniques in their subjects, and in the structure of the literature and in key terminology and concepts” can be a successful subject specialist (Pinfield qtd. in Feetham, 9). A new PhD student of French colonial archaeology dropped by my office last week, and while I could not have identified Le Page du Pratz prior to our meeting, I was able to quickly direct her to several important primary sources. While subject knowledge is invaluable, having an interest in the subject, a sense of intellectual curiosity, and the ability to “know what you do not know” often suffices.

I’d like to offer the following suggestions to other new subject librarians:

  • Further your knowledge of your subject area. Consulting references sources (even general ones) and introductory texts helps, as does keeping up with the professional literature in the field. Identify relevant professional associations, subscribe to listservs and blogs, and set up news and search alerts to quickly learn as much as possible.
  • Further your knowledge of the department. Course catalogs and departmental websites are helpful, as are university news sources (especially publication and grant announcements).
  • Reach out. Introduce yourself to the members of the department (the chair is a good place to start), and make it a habit to communicate regularly. If you are unsure of what to say, you might send a list of recently acquired titles, for example.
  • Ask. Ask other subject librarians how they approach their role. Ask the department about their research needs. If you’re a collection manager, ask the acquisitions and cataloging units what happens to the materials after you select them.
  • Utilize existing knowledge and tools. My library’s Humanities Collection Coordinator created an immensely helpful Collection Management LibGuide. I immediately subscribed to ANSS-L, the listserv of ACRL’s Anthropology and Sociology Section and later joined the section at membership renewal time. I discovered an Association of Research Libraries SPEC Kit on liaison services that listed specific services offered by library liaisons and included training materials.

While I certainly did not expect to become a subject specialist during my first month as an academic librarian, and I regret the circumstances under which I came to do so, I am glad I accepted the challenge. I’d encourage other new librarians, expert or no expert, to do the same.

Works Cited

Feetham, Margaret. "The Subject Specialist in Higher Education - A Review of the Literature." Subject Librarians: Engaging with the Learning and Teaching Environment. Ed. Dale, Penny, Matt Holland, and Marian Matthews. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2006. 3-17. Print.

Reitz, Joan M. ODLIS: Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited. Web. 30 January 2011.

Melissa Fortson is a Research and Instructional Services Librarian at The University of Alabama Libraries.