Subject librarians: skill set investigation

Research Project:

Investigation into the ‘subject librarian’ skills sets required to effectively support the information needs of researchers in the current and future research environment


The learning environment in general – and the research environment in particular – is going through a period of rapid change. Education is moving from instruction-based content delivery on a one-to-many basis to a more participative, ‘learner-centric’ and ‘learner as producer’ model. Research, once characterised by the lone researcher with quite traditional needs working in isolation, has moved to a more collaborative multi- and inter-disciplinary focus.

Libraries have responded by using the opportunity of increased digital content to free up space to provide more physical collaborative work environments (such as the Wolfson Research Exchange at the University of Warwick) and to populate virtual learning and research environments.

The support libraries offer to their user communities is also developing with more emphasis on roving services and greater use of peer-to-peer support. The survival of the subject/liaison librarian role in this environment is dependent on an agile and flexible response by staff in such roles and their managers. Much work has been done in recent years to re-energize support for teaching and learning but despite the emergence of new roles, such as data librarians, more is still required to develop subject/liaison support for research.

An initial overview of job descriptions and literature on the role of subject librarian/information specialist/liaison staff suggests that – although examples of good practice exist – role descriptions are generally ‘library-orientated’ rather than orientated towards the needs of the research community. It suggests there is a need to match researcher needs (in different disciplines and at different levels) more closely to ‘subject librarian’ skills sets.

The ‘subject librarian’ project

In response to this, RLUK is undertaking a project to identify researchers’ information needs (in the widest context) and to develop plans for ‘subject librarian’ roles to meet these needs, both considering current liaison staff and future library staffing and staffing models.

The key stakeholder groups for this project are:

• Subject librarian/information specialist/liaison staff (hereafter referred to as ‘subject librarians’).

• Library Directors.

• Pro-Vice Chancellors for Research/research managers.

• Library Schools.

• Professional bodies.

Areas of Investigation

The following reviews are being undertaken:

• Literature review of ‘subject librarian’ roles in the UK, North America and Australasia.

• Environmental scan of ‘subject librarian’ job descriptions, staffing structures and models of researcher support in the UK, North America and Australasia. Review of the skills sets required to support researchers with their information needs

• Literature review on the information needs of researchers in the UK, North America and Australasia.

• An investigation to define the skills sets required by ‘subject librarians’ to support researchers, mapping these to researchers’ information needs.

• A gap analysis in selected RLUK institutions. Review of relevant training and development activities currently available in the sector

• Review of training for existing professionals and gaps in the market.

• Review of training for new entrants and opportunities for working with library schools to ensure new professionals are equipped to support the current and emerging research environment. Review of alternative models of information support for researchers

• Review of alternative routes to providing ‘library’ support for researchers (eg. research data).

• Review of approaches that by-pass traditional ‘library’ support and implications for the profession.

Benefits and Outcomes

It is envisaged that the project will provide the following benefits/outcomes for the key stakeholder groups:

‘Subject librarians’

• Scoping of activities required to support research will enable staff to identify opportunities for new roles, to extend portfolios and develop skills sets.

• Skills analysis will enable staff to identify skills gaps and hence training needs.

• Leadership/distributed leadership opportunities may also be identified. Directors of Library and Information Services in RLUK

• Scoping of activities can be used by Directors for role development, informing planning and assessment of what staff currently offer, what can be abandoned, and what needs to be developed in line with institutional strategies – this in turn can inform structural reviews of LIS services.

• Skills analysis can inform institutional training programmes.

• Customizable job descriptions and person specification templates (to be produced as deliverables for the project) can be used to be tailored to meet the needs of individual institutions. Pro-Vice Chancellors for Research/research managers

• Scoping of activities will enable research mangers to become more fully aware of what can be offered by ‘subject librarians’, rather than accept traditional models of support or seek support from alternative routes/sources. • This in turn may increase demand for (and support of) LIS services. Library Schools

• The project will identify opportunities for library schools to develop courses for new professionals which are more closely aligned to the needs of library managers to ensure new entrants to the profession have the appropriate skills sets to support a constantly changing research environment.

• The project will also seek to identify opportunities for collaborative work between the library schools and RLUK to develop courses aimed at developing existing professionals. Professional bodies

• The project also aims to increase understanding amongst relevant bodies (RLUK, RIN, RLG, SCONUL, CILIP) regarding the needs of researchers and support options.

• It will highlight opportunities for RLUK to work with library schools or other providers to develop training programmes for staff.

• It will also highlight opportunities for RLUK to work more closely with other professional bodies to inform marketing to potential LIS professionals to show another dimension to library work.


It is intended that the final report/deliverables to come out of the investigations (later in 2010) will include:

• An analysis of relevant literature.

• A mapping of researcher needs onto ‘subject librarian’ support activities.

• A review of the ‘subject librarian’ support landscape (including strategic drivers for change) and a review of issues related to alternative models of information support for researchers.

• Sample staff structures.

• Composite job description and person specification.

• Tools for training needs analysis for staff.

• Analysis of training offered by library schools/other bodies and opportunities for developing new courses (for both entry-level and established staff).

• Analysis of how the research might inform future RLUK activities and opportunities for greater working with other professional bodies.

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