v32#5 Librarian Engagement at the University of Minnesota

by | Dec 4, 2020 | 0 comments


by Jennie M. Burroughs  (Interim Co-Associate University Librarian for Research & Learning, University of Minnesota) 

Against the Grain is pleased to include the following two additional articles on “Innovative Staffing Models at Academic Libraries” that were intended for the September 2020 ATG issue:  Librarian Engagement at the University of Minnesota, by Jennie M. Burroughs (Interim Co-Associate Librarian for Research and Learning) and We all serve: Library-wide Distributed Desk Service, by Bo Baker (Public & Research Services Dept. Head, UTC Library, University of Tennessee Chattanooga) and Theresa Liedtka (UTC Library, Dean).

Emphasis on Engagement

Wendy Lougee wrote in 2002 about libraries becoming collaborators within the academy and librarians as diffuse agents, engaged with the mission of the university (Lougee, 4, 2002).  Almost twenty years on, the University of Minnesota continues to value librarian outreach and engagement throughout the academic community.  As accessing, structuring, and evaluating information is essential to all disciplines in the information age, the expertise of librarians goes beyond knowledge of information sources and collections to include understanding the evolving research practices, pedagogy, and goals of the departments and colleges with which they work.  The positioning of the library on campus enables considerable expertise with interdisciplinary practices and an overarching understanding of the production of knowledge. 

The current innovation from subject and specialist librarians stems less from staffing structures and more from the opportunities identified by librarians who are deeply engaged throughout the university.  This engagement allows the librarians and the library as an organization to shape information expertise and services to the distinct needs of disciplines, research centers, and communities of students.  The relationships developed between liaison librarians and the faculty, staff, and students in their assigned academic departments have been at the heart of some of the most meaningful innovations in services for research and learning. 

A Streamlined Liaison Librarian Framework

In 2009, Karen Williams outlined a position framework with ten areas of focus, describing the range of work and advocacy encompassed by subject liaison roles.  The liaison librarian framework has gone through multiple revisions at Minnesota, but the structure of a point person for a department who possesses “both subject expertise and strong knowledge of the interests, activities, and priorities of local faculty and academic departments” remains in place (Williams, 2009).  In 2013, Janice Jaguszewski and Karen Williams surveyed the field and noted that liaison work had evolved to commonly include two roles, “that of advocate and of consultant.”  The librarian’s positioning as a campus connector and expert on information production and curation makes him a frequent “ambassador of change” on campus (Jaguszewski, 2013).

In 2019, the framework for liaison librarian positions at Minnesota went through another iteration.  The directors and associate university librarians for the Research & Learning and Health Science Libraries divisions worked together to streamline the position elements to four core areas:  Engagement & Partnership;  Teaching & Learning;  Research Services;  and Collection Development.  There are additional modules to include for specific assignments in some individual’s positions, such as collection coordinator, data curation specialist, research services coordinator, teaching and learning coordinator, and branch library leadership.

Included for the first time in the position description, there is a section incorporating service to the university and professional contributions, which are typically evaluated separately and key to the library’s continuous appointment process.  This inclusion reflects that this work is also a core part of a librarian’s work.  Also fundamental to positions is equity and inclusion work, which is embedded within the core elements by calling out the importance of connection with scholars from diverse communities and cultures.

The focus of this latest iteration is on flexibility and disciplinary differences.  It describes the high level activities, desired outcomes of positions, and the impact on users, recognizing that there are multiple ways to accomplish this work.  The emphasis is on the librarian’s connector role, appreciating that relationships — built through attendance at department talks, regular emails, on-site office hours — create opportunities to partner.  The librarian’s attention to the information issues, research and teaching trends, and priorities in a discipline allows him to communicate resources and expertise in ways that resonate. 

Disciplines Informing Services and Investments

Through their attention to the edges of disciplines, the changes in research practice, the roadblocks, and the information problems, liaison librarians have become instigators of new library services and programs.  They have developed or identified programs through that knowledge of not only subject collections but of subject practices. 

Two examples demonstrate how this works in practice.  The Bio-Med Library had long offered a systematic review service, which aligned with a common methodology in the health sciences.  Megan Kocher, librarian for several departments in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences, noticed an increase in the number of requests for help with systematic reviews and meta-analyses from her departments, and Amy Riegelman, Social Sciences Librarian, saw similar interest in her departments, particularly Psychology (Riegelman & Kocher, 2018).  This trend also aligned with discourse about reproducibility in the social sciences.  They pitched an investigation of a potential library service in systematic reviews and evidence synthesis that went beyond the health sciences and developed a cohort to support this methodological need.  They have experimented with different levels of support for the service, have become instrumental to teaching this methodology to students in their disciplines, and have co-authored systematic review articles with faculty members on multiple occasions.

Business librarians Mary Schoenborn and Caroline Lilyard work closely with experiential learning components of the Carlson School of Management.  They serve as research consultants in the Masters of Supply Chain capstone course and work with multiple project teams of students as they develop cases for partner corporations.  Similarly, these liaison librarians are integrated with the school’s Enterprise Programs, helping student teams working with corporate clients to understand the methods of market research using secondary sources and the tools afforded by the library.  The librarians develop customized approaches with each student team, ensuring they understand these information practices.  The librarians rightfully describe this as “high-touch, high-value work.”

Due to this high level of engagement by librarians, students and faculty knew where to turn for help as we all made the rapid shift to online learning and working remotely in spring 2020.  Some librarians who were teaching research methods courses and sections of other required courses had to make the same hard pivot to remote teaching as other instructors.  Liaison librarians reported a high number of online consultations with students as the semester drew to a close, and the library’s chat reference service handled a record number of questions.  Even though our library buildings closed, faculty knew they could get in touch with their library contacts for troubleshooting, facilitating online content for courses, and embedding tutorials and exercises into the campus learning management system. 

Value of Engagement

The sustainability of partnerships at a large research organization is a recurring question at the library.  High touch engagement is hard to extend, and prioritization of effort can be difficult.  Part of recognizing disciplinary differences is recognizing that some library services vary in relevance by discipline or look different depending on the discipline.  This recognition supports liaison librarians as they prioritize elements of their work based on academic department needs and interests.  However, part of this prioritization means setting boundaries on services, watching capacity, and saying “no” when partnership doesn’t make sense.  It means focusing teaching efforts on high impact learning experiences and utilizing integrated online learning objects in other cases.  It means utilizing automated collection development mechanisms when possible and delving into selection in targeted ways and priority areas.

Using a network approach to research and teaching services has also proven essential.  Jaguszewski and Williams (2013) discuss the collaboration imperative for complex initiatives and cross-campus support.  There is underlying value in recognizing that other units on campus are similarly engaged with students, faculty, academic departments, and colleges.  Partnering with academic technologists, instructional designers, research computing, and research centers enables stable and deep support for the research and teaching enterprise as a whole. 

This is not particularly novel, and the liaison role is no longer “new.”  However, what is continually innovative is what deep engagement with disciplines and their scholars affords: an ongoing attention to disciplinary shifts, nuances, and problem areas that allows a library to adapt to current and forecasted needs.  The innovation stems from the partnership with campus scholars, at all levels and from multiple backgrounds, and positioning the library as a colleague in change.


Jaguszewski, J., and Williams, K.  (2013).  New Roles for New Times: Transforming Liaison Roles in Research Libraries.

Lougee, W., and Council on Library Information Resources.  (2002).  Diffuse libraries: Emergent roles for the research library in the digital age (Perspectives on the evolving library).  Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.

Riegelman, A., and Kocher, M.  (2018).  A Model for Developing and Implementing a Systematic Review Service or Disciplines outside of the Health Sciences.  Reference & User Services Quarterly, 58(1), 22-27.

Williams, K.  (2009), A Framework for Articulating New Library Roles.  Research Library Issues: A Bimonthly Report from ARL, CNI, and SPARC, no. 265 (August 2009): 3-8.  http://www.arl.org/resources/pubs/rli/archive/rli265.shtml.  

Name of university or college:  University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Website:  https://www.lib.umn.edu/

Carnegie classification:  Doctoral Universities: Very High Research Activity

Number of undergraduates:  31,455

Number of graduates:  16,038

Number of faculty:  3,965

Highest degree offered:  PhD

Name of library:  University of Minnesota Libraries

FTE librarians:  140

Other FTE staff :  143

Library annual budget:  43 million

Annual circulation:  150,711

Annual gate entries:  1.6 million

Physical service points in the library:  12 locations


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