Organic Outreach: Subtle Strategies for Liaison Librarians

By Elliot Brandow
Senior Digital Scholarship Librarian/Bibliographer for History
Boston College

As my manager prepared me to meet with the Music Department faculty in my role as their new liaison, we reviewed the department’s potential needs. We discussed the outreach efforts of my predecessor and our hopes for connecting the department to the library priorities of instruction and new media collection development policies. I felt ready as I joined the faculty meeting that afternoon. Talking points in hand, I sat down. Then they told me, “So, what we really need is ear training software. Can we get some?” Um, sure. Let me just check on that for you…

Libraries have many worthwhile goals beyond traditional collection development, and most of them require vital input from and connections with faculty and students. We want department-wide conversations about information fluency and data management plans. We want input on new discovery layers, new website design, new database trials. We want to chat about institutional repositories, about open access policies, about open educational resources. And we sometimes have to talk about journal cuts and tradeoffs.

But, as some liaisons might attest, library priorities are not usually why faculty and students are knocking on our door.

They want to talk about their book, their paper due tomorrow, their class on Wednesday, how that database was not working on their Android tablet while on a plane to Patagonia, and about the purchase they would like to make that definitely does not fit neatly into our existing budget structure.

Our role – as liaisons, as subject specialists, as research & instruction librarians – must be to act as an advocate for our library outreach priorities, but crucially only at the right moment. This means being prepared to respond to unexpected patron needs and acting as an advocate in navigating library workflows that might not support that need (that is probably precisely why it is a need!) But it also means being prepared to adjust our priorities and quickly step in when an opportunity to accomplish one of our goals organically arises, usually at an unexpected place and time.

Fully responding to unanticipated requests, and recognizing and capitalizing on serendipitous and nuanced opportunities to advance our priorities, can allow us to deliver more effective outreach than blanket emails, stock workshops, or meticulous flyers that are purely focused on the library’s own assertive agenda and timetable, however worthy they may be.

It’s Not the Technology, It’s the Unmet Need

In my liaison positions, I have taught instruction sessions, provided research consultations, and purchased books, journals, and databases. But I have also explored streaming audio solutions for course reserves; led faculty groups in creating and redesigning websites; explored a variety of mapping, network analysis, and digital exhibit tools; and, yes, selected and set up ear training software.

I have pursued some of these latter efforts as part of the slash included in my title in addition to my liaison duties (/information technology specialist, or currently /digital scholarship librarian). But this technology support has always been a natural extension of my work with faculty and students. I explored and offered support for various types of digital humanities and technology tools because I was following the needs and interest of our patrons.

My roles have evolved to include these hybrid responsibilities not because digital humanities and information technology were library priorities, but because I discovered that I could do a better job as a liaison for these specific departments by growing in those directions.

I did not begin the movement in the History Department to join Twitter. There was no initial social media workshop where I emphasized why folks should join this particular bandwagon. But, as a majority of the department began to join, sharing their thoughts about academic topics and otherwise, of course I wanted to find an appropriate voice in that conversation. I wanted to understand the possibilities and the potential value. Now as new faculty and students arrive and interest grows, I am a critical node in this new network, always prepared with examples of how it is (and is not) useful and helping to prompt a thoughtful conversation about the real academic value and concerns.

I follow the same model in support of more complex technology trends, like geospatial analysis and digital exhibit tools. Rather than simply handing any interest off to a specialist, I recognize a pattern of need in the department. I learn alongside interested faculty and students in an effort to explore the academic questions, and shine a light on any unmet support concerns on campus.

I want to understand the full picture of the scholarly endeavor for our faculty and students, including the casual academic conversations and the logistical technology frustrations, and I want to be prepared with answers as the questions inevitably repeat. And, of course, the more I am in the room to engage in these conversations, the more I can offer suggestions of relevant scholarly sources of content, the more I can make pedagogical suggestions for effective use of the technology, and the more I can connect the dots to the larger goals I and the library would like to accomplish.

Our Goals, But On Their Terms

We would all like to map out our goals a year in advance: here are the concerns and ideas the library would like to raise with faculty and students. And some see liaisons as a kind of sales force, promoting data management plans, open access repositories, or utilizing special collections in teaching as if we were a vendor selling the latest and greatest.

But when we speak with jargon or generalities, when we follow timelines that do not mirror the ebb and flow of the academic year, and when we expect our users to share our information landscape priorities, we miss the opportunity to respond to their real needs and offer our solutions to their concerns on their terms.

Chatting with a graduate student recently returned from a trip to the archives who is overwhelmed by the images and metadata from their visit? That is a great moment to discuss a data management plan in their disciplinary language, at the point of need. While we are at it, maybe we could offer a workshop on it next week for anyone else interested? Data management for history grad students as “making the most of your archival visit.” Fantastic.

Planning some digital humanities student assignments with a professor, but realize what the students really need is a basic library research overview? There is nothing wrong with speaking up and making a recommendation, even if it veers off the agenda. That is precisely the benefit of having a liaison with multiple responsibilities: you build in the capacity for an effective reference interview, helping to articulate the real need in any support situation.

Liaisons are not a sales force, endlessly promoting what the library can do with generic brochures and websites. We should not be beholden to this year’s model of outreach. We are successful in our unique connections to disciplines, departments, and individuals. We are helpful as we offer customized solutions and suggestions subtly and organically.

We must be versed and articulate in a large variety of library outreach priorities, but focused on offering them at the right moment and in the right way. And, critically, when we are inevitably faced with requests that do not fit neatly into our support structures, we must be able and willing to turn around and adjust our outreach, advocate for changes in library services and workflows, and even alter our own roles to accommodate needs and frustrations we did not anticipate.

Big Ideas at the Right Moment

I still have my own library outreach agenda, of course. I would like to create a more intentional tiered instruction program across the undergraduate curriculum. I would like to find ways to explore more effective use of our institutional repository. I would really like to encourage and support more digital public history projects. But I never lead with what I want or the library wants. It is there, researched and prepared; but it is in my hip pocket, waiting for the right opportunity as we discuss the day-to-day needs of the faculty and students.

As I really think about it, any success I have had with these larger goals has been built upon my willingness to engage with them in any order and at any time. I have had to be willing to drop plans, rearrange priorities, and quickly advocate for library-wide changes. But that willingness has offered me much more outreach success than committee-built plans tied to library timetables.

I did not expect to discuss a new digital scholarship outreach effort with an incoming Department Chair last summer. But, when I visited him to touch base for the coming year, and suddenly found myself in a lengthy discussion about the need for more digital history support (something called to his attention by several faculty during his first few weeks in his new role), I was thrilled to work together, to make suggestions on how to proceed, and to leverage the opportunity. After a long, thoughtful conversation, we left with the beginnings of a new department-wide Digital History Initiative.

I did not ask for the meeting to discuss this idea. It was not the product of a library outreach initiative to increase interest in digital humanities. There was no new library website or flyer advocating for these efforts, with links to ACRL or Horizon Report or OCLC recommendations. The interest came organically, from his peers, and I was in the right place at the right moment to respond. It was crucial that I had already given it a lot of thought, that I was versed in those reports and recommendations, and that I was willing and able to adjust my time and priorities to pursue this effort. But it was an element of organic serendipity that made it possible.

During my first year as a liaison at a new institution, a thoughtful and outgoing graduate student, also the president of the department graduate association, approached me with the hope of offering a series of joint workshops to address common graduate student questions (bibliographic instruction, US government documents, authors’ rights, online academic presence, etc.) A workshop series for graduate students might not have topped my list of first outreach efforts, but here was a grad student asking for library sessions before I had even begun offering them! Three years later, that relationship and those workshops continue not because I advocated for them, but because I saw the huge opportunity and was willing to drop other plans and adjust my efforts to make the most of that moment.

Focusing on faculty and student priorities does not mean ignoring library strategic planning. But it does often necessitate seizing the right moment, and a willingness to quickly shift and respond. Most of all, this alignment of our goals and their needs means being prepared to answer unexpected complex questions with thoughtful answers and big requests with a frequent “yes.” Nothing is worse than pursuing a general outreach goal for years, then not seizing on an exciting opportunity when it finally arrives, only because it does not fit neatly into existing library organizational workflows.

Four Strategies

Any success I have found in organic outreach efforts with liaison departments is likely due to four strategies:

First, I always prioritize real faculty and student needs, however unexpected they may be, and especially when they seem to fall between the cracks of our organizational support.

Second, I try to develop my own thoughtful, fleshed-out goals for outreach. But I keep them in my pocket, accessible in any form and in any order, but reserved for the right moment.

Third, I try to remember that the right moment comes at any time. Just because the offer to speak with graduate TAs was funneled through a digital scholarship request does not mean that you should ignore your instinct to propose a connection to subject liaisons and information fluency goals. As we have all experienced, the real need is often not identical to the initial question. This notion is just as applicable in outreach settings as it is in research consultations or the reference desk. I try to be willing to speak up clearly and confidently at the point of need, even if it was not the initial purpose of the meeting.

Finally, I have been willing to continually recast my identity as a research librarian. Whether that means official title changes or the definition of your role simply evolves, it is essential to adjust and tailor your support of changing faculty and student needs. Cancel your reference desk hours and pick up department office hours. Teach yourself the basics of text encoding. Advocate for your larger parent organization to take on a new institutional membership if it means your liaison department gains access to important resources. But do these things in response to the real demonstrated need of your department faculty and students, not because the literature tells you it is on the horizon, because your peers are doing so, or because vendors suggest it is the next big thing. The essence of the liaison model is individual, customized support. We need to understand the complexities of modern academic work and be prepared for every faculty meeting and student encounter with ideas, suggestions, and hopeful priorities. But we need to be ready to throw it all out the window, at least for that day, and go compare ear training software.