Library directors lead strategy, policy and placement within the institution and externally, whilst the professional staff realise the library offer on the ground.  From one perspective they may be seen as a questionably costly element in the library’s budget, from another the critical spearhead which can help to transform the relationship between the library and researchers.

Cost profile of selected research support libraries 2009/2010. (1)


As budgets remain static, costs rise, electronic access burgeons, and the funding and management of research changes, the role of academic liaison staff has been the subject of recent reviews in the UK and USA (2,3,4,5,6,7,8). These reviews agree that the skills and support which professional staff can offer to researchers is under-promoted and so under- appreciated, and that this needs to change by moving from a collection-centred approach to one which emphasises service.  One commentator (2) has observed that “we may see an increasing number of non- MLS professionals in academic libraries with the skills needed to work in this changing environment.”  With the possibility of research support being out-sourced librarians will need to hone their offer and develop their skills if they determine to integrate more with researchers.

There are many problems associated with such a change. They range from the acquisition or development of new skills and ways of working, (for example with a multi-skilled team) to an understanding that the underpinning concept of an academic liaison librarian needs a thorough overhaul. Within each library the challenge then will be to manage a change of culture as well as activity.

The traditional view of the liaison librarian has been described, in the USA, as the “holy” trinity of reference, instruction, and collection development (5).  In the UK there is ample evidence of added-value which is being energetically pursued by professional staff who demonstrate their ability to train, advise and work with students and researchers.  How much impact this has made on researchers has been reviewed by the Research Information Network (9, 10).  The reports show that there is clearly some way to go.

Liaison librarians have, for some years, been moving away from the collection caretaker approach by developing ways to help in the efficient and effective use of content.  For example by developing  effective research strategies, providing information literacy training, undertaking literature searches, providing digests of discovered information, and current awareness services.

Researchers greatly appreciate help which enables efficient access to content (10).  They also value subject expertise and knowing that the librarian’s knowledge is up-to-date.

Many liaison librarians are developing responsibilities related to scholarly communications such as institutional repositories, data management, plagiarism, digital preservation, open access, bibliometrics, intellectual property, and the value and use of mobile technologies.  Many research-support libraries promote these services especially those within strongly research-orientated institutions.  This development is taking place in other University libraries to a greater or lesser extent. Some liaison librarians are also moving into the area of ethical and effective publication.  However many researchers remain uncertain as to how useful it would be for librarians to advise on and be involved in the whole publication process from information searching to publication.

At the moment the libraries who are espousing these developments are uncertain as to their collective impact on the profile and reputation of the library.  They have often taken an initiative, sometimes by default, and sometimes because they saw an opportunity and were able to respond in a timely way to fill it.  Some have increased their profile substantially as a result.  What is missing is a clear input/value link.  Researchers and institutional administrators need evidence of the direct value arising from these activities.

A third area, as yet more on paper than in practice, is that of greater involvement in the research process.  Some libraries can give evidence of working in this way though it is not clear whether this has resulted from a systematic approach or through circumstance. However this integrative route is touted in the literature (9, 3,) as a way to enrich the research process and to consolidate the future of the liaison librarian’s role in the institution.  This role would demand not just specific, technical skills but also an ability to move out from the library into the research environment, sometimes physically, to be proactive, appreciative of the research environment, and be sensitive enough to offer appropriate interventions.

These activities might comprise (3):


Understanding specific needs and how the Library fits into a wider institutional research support strategy/being aware of current and changing local research interests/understanding the significance of national/international collaboration (e.g. UKRR, RLUK, RIN)/understanding the researcher’s workflow and how they access and use information/knowing sources of research funding to identify potential future funders/having knowledge of datasets and advise on the identification of current and pre-existing data/being aware of ethical and security issues around data handling to offer advice and support


Building strong relationships with researchers and other campus professionals/building subject knowledge plus expertise in search skills with an understanding of a department’s field and specific research areas/finding out the information needs of research managers and leaders/identifying a role in research projects e.g. assist in bid and report writing/contributing to grant applications especially for open access mandates/writing up a methodology as part of a research team/advising on the management of information – organise and store bib. references and datasets/advising on data manipulation and curation, training researchers in specific data management systems, providing comprehensive metadata support and data mining/advising on authoring and publication/dissemination/advising on the preservation of research outputs and project records/advocating and developing schema, and advising on the use of metadata/supporting digital preservation /contributing to the development of institutional training for researchers.

Knowledge & skills needed.

The majority of subject librarians surveyed did not see a greater need for deep knowledge of discipline content in the future.  Domain expertise and/or strong information science and analytical skills will be needed.

Diverse and new roles  and ways of working

Involvement in conducting research, dealing with the organisation and dissemination of research data. Embedment in laboratories and research teams.

Spending more time out of the Library and in departments.

Less reliance on academic champions – need to approach researchers in their own domain. As for example, Knowledge and Business Intelligence Consultants and client manager brokering services – “An engagement model”.

Questions and reflections.

Whist the development agenda is promising it does require qualities of flexibility an outward-looking perspective and a wide range of new skills.  The baseline is a more dynamic, pro-active, customised and communicative approach from professional librarians than many researchers may be used to encountering.

Do these characteristics and skills exist?

The opportunity is large. Are there enough professional staff to respond effectively?

Can traditional activities be dropped or done differently? Will that release enough resource?

If there are enough librarians who meet these criteria can they work effectively with research teams and fight off competition – commercial digital information access or outsourced research support?

Many research libraries have re-structured in order to emphasise and properly direct support for research.  There has been a mix of new groupings and initiatives and ways of working which exemplify some of the activities listed above.  New job titles illustrate a changing approach e.g. Digital Initiatives Librarian, Literacy Co-ordinator, Grants Co-ordinator, Media Outreach Librarian, Head of Scholarly Communications, Research Consultant, Digital Library Integrator.

It is too early to tell what impact these initiatives will have are and whether they will redress the perception of the library offer which is held by many researchers.

Most importantly – are these activities sustainable? They will be led by a demand which is itself, driven by volatile external factors.   The old bedrock of collection building seems so much more robust.

Much of the emphasis in the literature is on the relational side of a liaison librarian’s work.  It is not clear, however, how many professional staff are engaged with library management systems or cataloguing and how they might be affected by the growth of digitisation, collaborative acquisition and metadata.  These are the underpinning elements of library provision but the shape of their development is not easy to predict at the moment.  Many library directors are poised on the brink of reviewing their acquisition and cataloguing infrastructure and how they might staff e-resource management or digital preservation but there is little reporting of concerted activity in this area at the moment.  It seems to be waiting in the wings whilst the more directly user-facing issues are considered, technological solutions develop and collaborative ventures mature.

In this context of resource presentation, increasing digitisation of collections does raise the question of preservation and access, how this might be managed, and the emerging need for collaboration on a wide, possibly international, scale in this area.  There will need to be mediation between resources and access modes and researchers.  There is little help available in collaborative repositories at present and this gap might be filled by professional staff with a range of skills and specialist interests.  The challenge is for library directors to agree on a radical collaborative solution and to apprehend the implications of a future in which the traditional institutional focus may become blurred.

  1. SCONUL.  (2011)  Annual Library Statistics.  London: SCONUL.
  2. ACRL Research Planning and Review Committee.   (2010)  2010 Top Tend Trends in Academic Libraries: A review of the current literature.  Chicago: ALA.
  3. Auckland, M.  (2011)  Reskilling for Research: An Investigation into the Roles and Skills of Subject Liaison Librarians Required to Effectively Support the Evolving Needs of Researchers.  London: RLUK (unpublished).
  4. Rodwell, J & Fairbairn, L.  (2008)  Dangerous Liaisons?  Defining the Faculty Liaison Librarian Model.   Library Management.  29 (1), 116-124.
  5. Williams, K.  (2009)  A Framework for Articulating New Library Roles.  Research Library Issues: a bi-monthly Report from ARL, CNI and SPARC, No. 265, 3 – 8.
  6. SCONUL.  (2009)  Focus. No. 45.  ( Subject Librarian issue).
  7. Thull, J & Hansen, M.A.  (2009)   Academic Library Liaison Programmes in U.S. Libraries: methods and benefits.  New Library World.  110 (11), 529-539.
  8. Kirchner, J.  (2009)  Scholarly Communications: Planning for the Integration of Liaison Librarian roles.  Research Library Issues:  a bi-monthly Report from ARL, CNI and SPARC, No.  265, 22-28.
  9. Curtis+Carwright Consulting Limited.  (2011)  The Value of Libraries for Research and  Researchers: A RIN and RLUK Report.  London: RIN/RLUK.
  10. Key Perspectives Limited. (2007)   Researchers’ Use of Academic Libraries and their Services:  A Report commissioned by RIN and CURL.  London:RIN/CURL.