The future of the subject librarian

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We’ve just had Michael Cotta-Schønberg, University librarian at (i.e. Director of) the library of the University of Copenhagen, visiting, giving a talk at a day-long internal seminar for academic/research/subject librarians (universitetsbiblotekarer) titled “The future of the subject librarian.

Well, what’s the deal? Michael said a lot of interesting things about rationalizing library processes currently carried out by subject librarians. Many of these things (for example, selection and classification) can be reduced by simply not doing them, relying instead on request-based acquisitions and using shelf-ready books with serial numbers for shelfmarking. This leaves more time for the other tasks carried out by subject librarians — and here Michael suggests the title “information specialist” (even though he’s really looking for “information generalists”) — such as contact with departments and pedagogical activity.

The suggestion is that a person with library and information skills plus an interest in a subject can do the job done today by a subject librarian who has a Masters level degree, for not one, but several subjects simultaneously.

This probably seems provocative for not very many of you — even those of you who are subject librarians — because you’realready covering at least two disciplines (I have three). On the other hand, most people probably aren’t going to like the idea of shelf-ready books and serial numbers.

Personally, I don’t really see that there is anything problematic about any of this, but this is mainly because the literature used by the subjects I serve is available online. The way that the library makes its offering of physical content is largely irrelevant because we tell our customers to use the OPAC and not browse the shelves already. I see, of course that there are certain areas where the serial number approach is less suitable (notably within literature), but I have no problem with specialized collections.

On the other hand, I don’t really think that the future of the subject librarian is going to be “teaching” — tell me honestly that you are ever going to get a high level of attendance at a library course (oh, and I don’t mean obligatory courses). No, I think not. On the other hand, why are we teaching people what they can equally well find out themselves when it is relevant for them…just tell people that relevant resources exist, and that they’re there when they need them. Read the manual. Ask at the help desk if you’re stuck.

In this sense, perhaps we can do away with the library bit altogether and replace the subject librarians with people with a background within education and marketing. On the other hand, the internet accounts for the majority of library use, so we might also need a few people who are good at presenting things on the Net. This sounds like the kind of proposal any accountant would like: replace all of those subject librarians with a couple of teachers, a couple of marketing people and a couple of web gurus. That’s 6–9 people in total. Winner!


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