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Friday, 9 November 2012

The subject librarian in the academic environment ... Jack of all trades and master of ...

By: William Dansoh

The work of the Subject Librarian in the academic environment has evolved in the past three decades.  In addition to the traditional role of the librarian as the keeper of physical books and journals in the library, this is gradually changing and is being replaced by the role of facilitating access to networked information.  Dale et al. (2006) describe the different roles of the subject librarian as follows:

  •      The librarian as subject expert
  •      The librarian as information expert
  •      The librarian as learning facilitator or teacher
  •      The digital librarian

How easy or feasible is it for a subject librarian to play all these roles effectively?  The librarian as a subject expert ideally should have a sound knowledge of the subject she/he supports.  This includes teaching, research and key concepts in the subject.   Where a subject librarian has not studied the subject at first degree level, there are ways of learning about the subject on the job.   The role of an information expert, in my opinion, comes most naturally to subject librarians due to their professional training and experience.   The librarian as a learning facilitator or teacher?  Very few library schools offer training in how to teach information literacy in order to facilitate student learning.  However these skills can also be learnt on the job.  Within the context of continuous professional development, I would describe this as “work in progress”.  The digital librarian manages and organizes all the digital library resources. 
My position is that in the attempt to wear the different “hats” listed above and other “hats” which I have not listed, the professional identity of today’s subject librarian has been difficult to clearly define.  There is no clear answer to the question “what is the work of a subject librarian?”  Ask 2 subject librarians, 2 members of academic staff and 2 students and you may get 6 different answers.   The way forward?

Subject to the availability of funds and human resources, the subject librarian’s job can be specialized with focus on a specific, clearly identifiable aspect of the what needs to be done, for example  instruction/educational/learning librarian; research librarian; digital librarian; systems librarian or metadata librarian to mention a few areas of specialization.   The specialist subject librarian will make a better impact on the teaching, learning and research enterprise of host institution.   Wear too many “hats” and the result is Jack of all trades and master of none!

Dale, P., Holland, M., & Matthews, M. (Eds.). (2006). Subject librarians engaging with the learning and teaching environment. Hampshire: Ashgate.


  1. You have hit the nail on the head William. I hope your recommendations will be taken seriously by library leadership at UKZN. Noni

  2. I enjoyed reading the blog, and wish to place on record my positive experience with (law) subject librarians! They may be wearing many hats, but they are certainly masters in what they do. Maybe I have just been lucky. As an old legal academic that have worked at three universities, my experience of the law subject librarians here are that they are a committed bunch - helpful and efficient. I cannot speak for HC (little experience with them), but the academics at the Law School (PMB) have on numerous occasions noted how lucky we are to have Rose, Shadia, Jabu and Bongani (and of course John at Inter-library loans). Maybe it is because of the fact that some studied law, but that is not the full story. It may help, but their quiet commitment to a well-run law library, even the humdrum updating of loose-leaf volumes, are performed diligently, timeously and in good spirits. Then, like last week, when I have given up trying to locate a report (which I normally am good at after years of experience), and in desperation sends a plea to Rose to help, I get notification within hours that she has "located it and it is on its way!" Not sure how they do it, but it is time to celebrate these under-appreciated jewels at the university! Thank you!

  3. Good day! It was such a pleasure to visit this blog and especially to read this post. In addition to that I want to ask you a question which is very important for me. What is your attitude towards guest blogging?