Career Strategies for Librarians
Becoming a Subject-Specialist Librarian
by Brenna K. Helmstutler
Before pursuing my MLIS, I had a Master’s degree in Counseling and eight years of experience in higher
education. As I began applying for positions before graduating in December 2003, I knew that I wanted
to work in academic libraries and that my experience would be an asset, but I questioned whether I
would get to directly use my Counseling degree. Two months after graduation, I began work as a
subject-specialist (liaison) librarian for Counseling & Psychological Services as well as 3 other related
Many academic libraries use the liaison model, in which librarians are assigned to work with at least
one academic department (in larger institutions, it may be several). Given that LIS graduates often have
prior Master’s degrees and/or substantial expertise in a particular field, this model is of substantial
benefit to potential librarians, academic departments, and libraries alike.
The department has a point of contact in the library with specialized skills, knowledge, and abilities
The liaison can market services to his or her academic department that can increase student and faculty
library usage as well as skill level in using library resources
In working closely with the academic department, there is increased support of curriculum and research
Overall, it increases the level of organization within the library structure
Primary responsibilities include:
Selecting print and electronic resources for purchase.
Each fiscal year, an allotted budget is available for each subject area which the liaison utilizes for books,
videos, or DVDs. There is typically a separate budget for journals. A collection development policy is
created for each department stating guidelines for the areas of emphasis and collecting levels based on
whether a program is at the bachelors, masters, or doctoral level. A faculty representative works with
the liaison to regularly review the collection development policy and disseminate faculty requests for
Evaluating the collection.
The collection must be regularly evaluated by the liaison to ensure that it is current and meets the needs
of the academic department. De-selecting, or weeding, is part of this process. Criteria such as
circulation statistics and publication date are used to determine whether a book is retained in the
collection. Additionally, due to the high cost of subscriptions and budget restraints, the liaison and
faculty or a committee which reviews serials often reviews journals for possible cancellation.
Providing library instruction for faculty and their classes.
The liaison provides instruction that can either be a general overview of library resources, or specific
resources to assist with a research project, course, or degree program. Ideally, the session is
conducted in a computer lab setting in which students get hands-on experience with locating and
accessing the resources that are being discussed. This is one area that liaisons can use as a
marketing tool to generate requests for faculty and student assistance.
Personalized library instruction or reference assistance for faculty and students.
Also known as an individual consultation, faculty or students from a particular department can meet with
the liaison in the library. This may occur as a follow-up from a class instruction session, a new faculty
member wanting a library orientation, or an initial research inquiry.
Liaisons may also have general duties such as working at the main reference desk or in an academic
department, and responding to inquiries via e-mail or in a virtual reference service. Liaisons with faculty
rank are expected to publish and participate in service activities such as committee work or conference
presentations to support promotion to the next level, which is an ongoing responsibility.
As with any type of librarianship, it is essential for subject specialist librarians to keep up with current
issues in librarianship, technology, and their subject areas. This can be done by joining listservs,
which are geared towards a particular specialty within librarianship (i.e. EBSS-L, which is for Education
and Behavioral Science Librarians), and reading journals.
In addition to the usual library-related qualifications, candidates for liaison positions will ideally have
either degrees or experience in the subject areas with which they would be working. However, some
schools may not require this depending on the current workload and/or potential of the liaison to work in
a certain area. For example, my degrees and experience fit well with my current position; but when I
was hired, I was asked to take on an additional program in which I do not have direct experience.
Also, prior experience in working with faculty or in higher education in general can be very helpful in
knowing the organizational structure and politics that are part of the overall institution and the academic
Strong skills in technology are crucial for any librarian, but for subject-specialist librarians, they are
especially important. At Georgia State, liaisons create research guides for their programs that are
attached to the main library website. The research guides contain comprehensive information on and
links to resources (see the research guides link at the end of this article for an example). Several of
the liaisons also contribute to blogs within their subject areas by posting resource information, links to
articles, and library news.
Strong time management and organizational skills are a must, especially if you are responsible for more
than one program. Keeping a current schedule with meetings, reference desk hours, class instruction,
etc. will help greatly in making sure you are working in a timely manner and will alleviate stress and
memory problems. At Georgia State, we use an email system which includes a calendar and options to
enter schedules and send meeting requests to anyone within the university.
Good communication skills and assertiveness are also crucial. Because this job is so tied to the
academic departments and the faculty, it is important to communicate with faculty regularly with relevant
library information, reminders of important dates, or invitations to request instruction sessions.
Because I am new to Georgia State, it has been extremely helpful in my first few months here to meet
with the chairs and faculty of the departments with which I work. Your success as a liaison can be
measured by how much business you generate in terms of instruction sessions, overall contact, and
general requests for assistance from your departments, so it is important to establish good PR. For
example, I recently distributed a flyer to the faculty in my areas to schedule library instruction sessions for
the fall semester, and plan to follow up with an email in a few weeks.
The websites with library job postings include a plethora of announcements for subject specialists
offering great opportunities for those with corresponding degrees. If you don’t have the exact
qualifications listed in the posting but have related skills or experience, apply anyway. Design your
cover letter and resume to effectively market your value in relation to the specialized aspects of the
position. Use background research to your advantage at this point: reviewing the websites of the
institution, the library, and the academic departments connected to the position will allow you to get a
feel for the mission, goals and needs of each. Intersperse this information appropriately in the cover
letter as well as during the interview to demonstrate genuine interest and initiative.
At the interview stage, you will inevitably be asked to present on a topic relating to your position
responsibilities during the full-day interview. As you develop your presentation, be sure to indicate not
only your knowledge of the selected topic, but also provide concrete examples of your experience or
coursework as appropriate, as it will serve as a constant reinforcement that you have what it takes to do
the job well.
Immediately after the interview, send a thank-you letter, again emphasizing your strengths to impress on
the interviewers why you should be hired over the other candidates.
Once you are hired as a subject-specialist librarian, you will reap the benefits of working with academic
departments in this capacity, and find your work simultaneously challenging and rewarding.
About the Author:
Brenna Helmstutler is an Education and Public Health Liaison/Reference Librarian at Georgia State
University in Atlanta, Georgia. View her research guides at http://www.library.gsu.
Article published July 2004
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necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.