New times, new roles, new structures

New organisational structures mean that library roles and activities are being re-designed.

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The Association of Research Libraries (ARL), in 2011, began publishing a series of reports, New Roles for New Times[1]. In this series, written by staff from ARL-member libraries the authors described the ways in which they have modified their services, or added new services in their respective libraries to ensure that they are meeting the changing needs of their constituents.  Three reports have been published in this series to date.  Although the Digital Curation for Preservation and the Research Library Services for Graduate Students reports were well received by the research library community, the most recent report, Transforming Liaison Roles in Research Libraries, by Janice Jaguszewski and Karen Williams, has perhaps been the most cited, and has certainly garnered a lot of attention. 

In this report the authors suggest that the liaison librarian role – traditionally defined as one who develops the collection, staffs the reference desk, and conducts instruction sessions – should now be expanded to include tasks such as:

  • Assisting with the research process
  • Working on digital humanities projects
  • Supporting digital scholarship
  • Enhancing the user experience, and
  • Playing a greater role in intellectual property and scholarly communication discussions and activities.

Of course not all these activities will be relevant in every setting, but there is certainly a recognition that these are new, in some cases perhaps developing, areas in which faculty, students, and researchers need assistance.

Irrespective of the level to which these new activities will be practiced on each campus, they demonstrate a shift in the nature of the relationship with the campus community.  Librarians, once more internally focused, are now being encouraged to engage more in the academic environment; to develop and enhance the relationships with the faculty, students, and researchers; and to further demonstrate the value we bring to the academic enterprise.

From writing data management plans in grant applications to mapping information using geographic information systems software to creating online or other digital projects, academicians are discovering that they need help as some of these projects fall outside their area of academic expertise.  These are skills that libraries and librarians can – and should – bring to the research process.

But is it necessary to restructure the library to provide this assistance?  Not necessarily.  However, many members of our communities still hold that traditional view of the library – the reference desk behind which the librarian sits and perhaps having a consultation by appointment.  New organizational structures, however, can be more aligned with the changes in the academy and can signal the responsiveness of the library to the new needs of the academic community.  Several libraries, including TU Delft Library in the Netherlands, the Libraries at the University of Manchester, and those at the University of Kansas have restructured in unique ways to face these challenges.  Although our reorganization at Washington University in St. Louis was not as drastic as those at the aforementioned libraries, we have gone through some changes that will enable us to better engage with the campus community and demonstrate how we can provide the new resources and services they need to be successful.


Trevor will be talking about changes to library roles - and culture - at Washington University in St. Louis.  You can hear him in Session A102 on Tuesday 21st October.

[1] Association of Research Libraries.  New Roles for New Times, http://www.arl.org/focus-areas/planning-visioning/new-roles-for-new-times Accessed July 15, 2014