The vanishing academic subject librarian


There’s been quite a bit of talk about how librarians are a vanishing breed, it all started with an article on Library Journal by John N. Berry. Berry claims that librarian jobs are being de-skilled, in that the job is being dumbed down.

In response to Berry’s article, Brad Fish writes that some of the things that Berry doesn’t consider include the fact that funding has not increased in the last few years, but decreased in real terms, that opening hours and customer service has typically been cut back and so forth. This isn’t the case at NTNU Library, so are we being de-skilled?

I was thinking about this in relation to the job I do: I’m a subject librarian. To be a subject librarian at NTNU Library, you don’t need to have formal librarian qualifications, you need to hold (at least) an MA, and then the library pays for you to do a correspondence course in subjects they consider relevant to the job (legal deposits — we’re a deposit library, classification, etc.). There are some subject librarians who are “proper librarians”, i.e. who have BA-level or MA-level subject qualifications as well as a proper library degree.

There are quite a few subject librarians, though most have at least two (and increasingly three) subjects, of which one will be their major subject, one minor and one that is a related sub-discipline/one in which the particular subject librarian has a personal interest. The problem is: what do subject librarians actually do? And to what extent are these roles being de-skilled as Berry puts it?

Subject librarians:

  • select and classify materials for the collection (including legal deposits)
  • teach information skills to the academic community
  • market the library to the academic community
  • co-ordination work/develop and maintain the physical and digital library
  • work at the information desk
  • participate in internal library projects

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it covers the main areas that are common to all subject librarians. The interesting thing is that we spend time in an interesting way, a recent survey carried out internally states that we, on average, spent 17% of our time in meetings, while we only spent 16% of our time on developing the collection.

That sounds ridiculous, because the collection is surely the most important thing. The thing is that the majority of our budget over two thirds is spent on digital resources, these resources mostly come in the following forms:

  • subscribed databases
  • eJournal packages
  • eBook packages

These resources aren’t (re-)evaluated more than once a year, and they take a huge slice of the budget. This means that the subject librarians are freed up to do other things — although these subscriptions all require marketing and some training. I don’t know that I like, for example, packages because they include a lot of stuff we don’t want to get a few things we do want. But are subject librarians really being de-skilled at collection management? I don’t think so; material selection skills are a learned skill, and we still do enough of it to learn this really well. The packages of eJournals are a real problem, because we rarely select journals any more. On the other hand, we know what journals are important because we ask the academic community we serve — and we typically have a degree where we have done research, and know the major journals in our field.

The de-skilling of one area, however, frees up time for other tasks, like getting in touch with the academic community, improving our teaching skills by taking courses, and so on, which actually improves the job we do. Swings and roundabouts? I think so.


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One Response to “The vanishing academic subject librarian”

  1. links for 2008-02-29 « Malin surfar & återanvänder Says:

    […] The vanishing academic subject librarian « Infonatives (tags: Librarianship toread) […]

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