An Analysis of Relationship-Building in Liaison Work: Defining the Importance of “Hangout Activity”

By Ellen Hampton Filgo
and Sha Towers
Baylor University Libraries

Ellen: While waiting in line at my library’s Starbucks, I ran into a faculty member with whom I’ve had a few successful instruction sessions. He mentioned that he and his research collaborators were beginning a new project and were about to meet to talk about it, so he invited me over to discuss an aspect of their literature review that they were struggling with. Since then, every time they begin a new project, they invite me to collaborate with them on their literature search.  They call me their “secret weapon.”

Sha: Whenever I am in the art department, I pass through the hall with faculty offices, which often leads to impromptu conversations. During one of those conversations a few years ago, it became clear to me that an event displaying artists’ books that I was planning to hold at the library would really work better in the department, in a high traffic area that might draw a larger audience. The event ended up being a huge success, and several faculty members, noticing all the excitement, asked if they could bring their classes down to be a part of the experience. The interactions with faculty and students at that event generated library instruction sessions for other courses as well as students wanting to make appointments to see more of the collection at the library.

These are the types of stories that we would share, hanging out in the doorways of each other’s offices, excited about the rewarding interactions we had had with faculty and students. As we shared these stories, we noticed some patterns among them – namely that these social and informal interactions with faculty seemed to have a direct relationship to the quantity and quality of our more “official” liaison work: instruction, research consultations, and other types of collaborations. We ended up calling this type of interaction “hangout activities” because it often looked like we were just “hanging out” with these faculty members.

It’s not surprising that we found ourselves engaged in more of these activities, as we had recently reorganized our liaison program into an engagement-centered model, moving librarians off the reference desk in favor of engaging directly and proactively with the faculty and students in our assigned departments. With more time devoted to engagement, we soon discovered that activities that we may have previously dismissed as “not official work” – like chatting in the line at the library coffee shop, or bumping into someone at a social event – became important (perhaps even vital!) to the success of our “official work.”

Literature Review

As academic liaison librarian programs have moved from a collections-centric to an engagement-centric model (Church-Duran, 2017; Jaguszewski & Williams, 2013; Kenney, 2014), liaisons have grappled with new and evolving roles and skills. The library literature defines engagement-centered liaison models less in terms of what liaison librarians know, and more about how they are relating to others. Jaguszewski and Williams (2013) emphasized collaboration and flexibility in describing their hybrid subject expert and functional specialist liaison model. Church-Duran (2017) likewise highlighted collaboration, along with innovation and partnership, in thinking about the reimagined roles that liaisons must play. After surveying the literature on the role of the liaison librarian, Rodwell and Fairbairn (2008) concluded with a list of skills and attributes for those hiring, managing, and training liaisons to consider. It is worth listing them all, in order to grasp the scope of what these researchers consider important abilities for liaisons in an engagement-centric model:

  • confidence;
  • communication and presentation skills of a high order;
  • risk taking;
  • flexibility and comfort with ambiguity;
  • networking skills, being able to build coalitions and cultivation of clients and supporters;
  • relationship or “account management” skills;
  • negotiation, persuasion and influencing skills;
  • reflection on practice and ability to learn/play;
  • project management skills;
  • promotion and marketing skills; and
  • high level technical knowledge (Rodwell & Fairbairn, 2008, p. 123)

Apart from the last bullet point, every single one of the skills listed are people-centered rather than knowledge-centered.

As the literature on liaison engagement has developed, researchers have come up with a variety of metaphors that describe the relationships liaisons have with their faculty and students.  While some researchers have described the liaison role akin to one of a “sales force” (Jaguszewski & Williams, 2013; King & Solis, 2017), others have pushed back on that image (Brandow, 2015) and have described liaison roles using other striking metaphors. Díaz (2014) explored both familiar and emerging liaison roles and categorized them into those of teacher, consultant, storyteller, builder, partner, and visionary. Barr and Tucker (2018) categorized liaison roles as anthropologist, playmaker, peacemaker, and advisor. Ultimately, these analogies center on listening to, connecting with, and humanizing the people with whom the librarians are engaging.

Relationship-building, therefore, is one of the foundational skills, inherent in any collaborative, partnership-driven, engagement-centric liaison model (Barr & Tucker, 2018; Díaz & Mandernach, 2017; Hahn, 2009). In his research on social capital in liaison librarianship, Schlak (2016) found that the most significant category related by his study participants were the strong interrelational dynamics of the relationships that they had built. These dynamics included good bilateral communication, a personal component, and collegial trust. In describing her work with business school faculty and students, Chung (2010) outlined the process of relationship-building as using events as opportunities to form relationships which are then cultivated in collaborations. Brandow (2015) emphasized “recognizing and capitalizing on serendipitous and nuanced opportunities” in delivering effective outreach (para. 6). Building relationships take time and patience and does not always happen the same way twice. Many researchers have recorded a wide variety of activities in service of relationship building (Holtze, 2002; J. Miller, 2014; R. K. Miller & Pressley, 2015; Silver, 2015), and included in these lists are many activities that could be described as social and informal: attending departmental or campus events and social activities, meetings over coffee or food, office drop-ins, and serendipitous encounters, among them. These are the activities that piqued our interest, and that we came to call “hangout activities.”

A few “hangout” case studies have made their way into the library literature, including the aforementioned business librarian and her work with an entrepreneurship initiative (Chung, 2010), a discussion of librarians who got involved in extracurricular dance and music activities and the impact they had on student perceptions of the library (Kasperek et al., 2007), a discussion of a successful monthly faculty social events group planned and coordinated by a librarian (Rigby, 2010), and a (possibly?) tongue-in-cheek opinion piece about why a librarian who played weekly with a faculty jazz band should have that activity count on his tenure portfolio (Kinnie, 2002).

Schlak (2016) confirms our belief that the idea of “hangout” has not been fully explored in the library literature, when he stated: “the personal component to relationships emphasized repeatedly by respondents suggests that advances in liaison librarianship may lie in this realm, and those exploring the future of liaison librarianship might be wise to focus resources and attention on building strong relationships through personal contact” (p. 419).

Matrix of Liaison Activities

In order to explore the nature and purpose of “hangout activities,” we classified and visualized liaison activities into a matrix of formality and location. The horizontal axis plots activities by type on a scale from planned to unplanned. The planned activities are more formal and structured, possibly even agenda-driven. Unplanned activities are informal and unstructured, perhaps serendipitous. The vertical axis indicates where the activity takes place: either on the librarian’s turf or venturing across campus to the faculty’s turf. Then we plotted on the matrix a number of activities that we as liaisons have participated in over the years: everything from instruction sessions, attending symposia, departmental or other committee meetings, attending campus events, social media interactions, auditing classes, and social events.

Matrix of "hangout" activities

In the top left of the matrix, quadrant 1, planned activities take place on faculty turf.  These activities are more formal, like departmental meetings, advisory board or other committee meetings, departmental symposia, conferences, lectures, and desktop coaching. It also includes activities like instruction sessions that take place in the department. Emails to faculty are also in this section. As ones moves towards quadrant 2, where the turf becomes more neutral, activities include things like attending graduation or commencement.  Quadrant 2 at the bottom left of the matrix includes planned activities that take place in the library, such as library sponsored events and library advisory boards. While there are not many types of activities in this quadrant, it does include the bread and butter of many liaison roles: instruction sessions or orientations to the library.

Moving to the right-hand side of the matrix into quadrant 3, one will find faculty members stopping by librarian offices for help, or serendipitous encounters in library coffee shop lines. Quadrant 4 includes activities such as dropping in to visit departments (for business, personal reasons, or errands). It can also include things like sitting in on a class, scheduled reference hours in a department, departmental events or receptions, and random encounters on campus. The neutral ground between quadrants 3 & 4 can include social events, parties, dinners, lunches with faculty members, etc.

It was hard to know where to put social media because it really depended on the nature of the posting, so we tended to cluster it in the middle of the matrix, with the more institutional social media platforms closer to the planned side and the personal ones closer to the unplanned side.

As we plotted liaison activities on the matrix, we discovered that the types of activities that we had described as “hangout activities” occurred most frequently in the upper right-hand quadrant, high on the vertical axis (toward faculty turf) and to the right on the horizontal axis (toward more informal and unplanned interactions). We also came to realize that these activities had definite characteristics, including the following:

  • They happened more often (though not exclusively) during social and informal activities.
  • They often involved networking.
  • They frequently occur during face-to-face contact (whether that’s formal – in a classroom, or informal – at a social activity); however, they can happen in social media spaces as well.
  • They involve people/relationship skills, risk taking, being comfortable with ambiguity, and playfulness (Rodwell & Fairbairn, 2008).

That last statement is where the definition of “hangout” comes more sharply into focus.  One can begin to understand what makes an activity a “hangout activity” when thinking about what it means to be in a relationship with friends. When hanging out with friends, there doesn’t have to be an agenda or a list of things to accomplish. Friends might see a movie, play basketball, or talk about life, but that’s not the main point.  Friends hang out because of a relationship. Within the relationship, there is openness, adaptability, and vulnerability.

“Hangout” with faculty members from liaison departments doesn’t mean you have to bare your soul to them, but it does mean that there is a similar state of mind: openness, adaptability and vulnerability. As Brandow (2015) states, “any success I have had with [larger library 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… But that willingness has offered me much more outreach success” (para. 20). Engagement does not happen with an agenda, or to complete a task or checklist, but rather builds a relationship on trust, care, and mutuality. While this can be a vulnerable position, especially in the workplace, it is the seedbed for some of the most rewarding work we have experienced.

Local Case Studies

Sha: Hangout conversations with a faculty member led to me being embedded in a course and involved with the students throughout the semester. Because of that level of involvement, the students and professor saw me as part of their class and invited me to their potluck lunch at the end of the semester. While the meal wasn’t the goal, that invitation speaks to the way being open to involvement on many different levels can lead to, for example, being viewed as a valued member of the course experience and partner in shaping the direction of the course.

Sha: I curate a large book arts special collection that is often used in conjunction with various art classes. As a result of the expertise I’ve built in book arts and because of the relationships I’ve built with these professors, I was invited to present at a regional conference organized by one of the professors with whom I work. Because of the relationships I’ve built with the artists represented in the creating collection I curate, I invited several of the artists to be part of a panel that I would moderate. The artists accepted, the panel was a success (with about 100 art professors and students in the audience), and the colleague that invited me to present was impressed that I had that kind of influence to make this happen. The reality is, all of this was possible thanks to building good relationships and being open to possibilities for collaboration.

Ellen: I got to know a faculty member in one of my departments a little better when we would run into each other while dropping off our children at the same daycare. Over the years, our children became good friends and through play dates, eventually our families ended up becoming good friends as well. We have spent family birthday parties and even holiday celebrations together and it is truly a joy to know him both personally and professionally. When he became the undergraduate program director, we began to talk about how to scaffold information literacy throughout the curriculum, and when he was tasked with creating a New Student Experience course for his department’s first year majors, he brought me in from the very beginning to integrate information literacy into the course.

Sha: Once while teaching an information literacy session for new theatre students, the faculty member asked if the students had ever met me before and they replied enthusiastically, “Yes! he comes to our weekly theatre department workshops!” (All the students and faculty of the department attend these workshops, which often include design presentations for upcoming theatre productions, guest speakers, and performances of student directing projects). The professor said, “Exactly! I want you to know how lucky we are to have a librarian who cares enough about what we do that he comes to our shows and events and supports us.” Having a faculty member point that out to students may have influenced the robust cheering I received from the students at the next workshop when I made an announcement about a new theatre database we had recently acquired. This in turn led to a theatre student asking to interview me for an upcoming assignment and several theatre faculty members asking if I could come speak to their classes.

Ellen: A faculty member in one of my departments was expecting a baby and I found a onesie that related to her academic discipline. Even though I was invited to her departmental baby shower, I could not attend, so I dropped by her office later to give her the gift. On my way out of the department, I saw that another faculty member, who had recently received tenure, had her office door open. I ducked in quickly to congratulate her on her achievements and to ask her if there was a way that I could support her post-tenure research. Since that time, the faculty member with the baby has repeatedly stopped by my office for help with Zotero as she completes her book manuscript. The newly tenured faculty member is now leading a departmental task force to look into the feasibility of starting a PhD program and came to me for help with market research for that project.

Sha: While attending an evening opening reception and exhibition of graduating student artists, I had the opportunity to congratulate students on their achievements, many of whom I’ve worked with in classes throughout their time at the university. Several art professors, the chair of the department and even the dean of the college, sought me out during the event to thank me for coming to support their students and their department.  Even the smallest gestures of care and interest go a long way toward building good will and positive professional and personal relationships. During the evening, a few art professors also said things like “I need to set up a time to get your help on a research project of mine,” or “I’ve been meaning to email you about doing a session with my class.” Being present in their environment has clearly created the spark to move forward on collaborations that might otherwise never had come to fruition.

Ellen: I noticed a few students filming each other on their phones right outside my office windows by some library shelves. I quickly recognized that they were social media interns for the communication department who were filming their “Major Monday” feature for Instagram stories. Because I follow all my departments on social media, I knew who they were. During a break in their filming, I popped my head out of my door and introduced myself as their librarian and suggested I could be “future content.” One student exclaimed, “Oh, I want to interview you for my podcast!” While nothing came of it that semester, later in the year as I stood in line for dinner at a workshop being held on campus, I bumped into a faculty member from their department. We had not met formally before but knew each other’s reputations. While we talked about our busy semesters, she thanked me for coming to a lecture she gave the previous semester (I did not realize she knew I’d been there!). We met up later over coffee, where she talked about her work with the social media student interns, and before I could even mention it, told me that she was going to meet with them to talk about featuring me on their social media content, in order to promote the services that I can provide to students.

Sha: Because I am very involved as a liaison in the life of the theatre department, the students and faculty see me at their classes, performances, and workshops. As a result, a graduate directing student recently asked if I would serve on his thesis committee as the non-departmental faculty member. To serve in this role requires that I be a member of the graduate faculty, which I was not, but since the graduate program director and the department chair have been so enthusiastic about my involvement in their world, they petitioned the graduate school to appoint me to the necessary status so that I could serve in this role.

Sha: Thanks to the Starbucks in the foyer of our main campus library, I often see students and faculty that I work with in the library. Almost every day, I see groups of theatre students heading to Starbucks and they always stop to greet me by name and thank me for coming to their plays, musicals, and workshops. Often these encounters include one or two comments of “I need to come see you for help with my theatre history research!” During a recent version of this encounter, one of the students asked, “When are you going to perform during theatre workshop? Someone needs to cast you in a scene!” While their confidence in my acting ability is completely unfounded, I view such encounters and comments as an appreciative response for the way I have embraced my work as a liaison and my wide and varied support for their department and the things that are important to them.

Non-local examples of “hangout activities”

While we were confident in what we were interpreting about our own interaction with faculty in our liaison departments, and many of our colleagues also shared similar examples with us, it was still only a few localized data points. Were liaison librarians across the profession also interacting with their departments in the same manner, and if so, did they realize the importance of “hangout activities?” In order to discover whether “hangout activities” were a part of liaison work elsewhere, we explored the findings of a national survey and its resulting open access data set on subject liaisons in academic libraries. In 2015, Nero and Langley began this project to “gather and analyze data about how subject liaison librarians did their work” (Nero & Langley, 2017, p. 6), after which they published and made accessible both their survey instrument and data set. Included among the questions were seven specifically about outreach and instruction, and among them, question 25 stood out: “How do you interact with your department(s), faculty, staff? Check all that apply” and listed ten ways plus an open-ended “Other” selection. Several of the choices looked like “hangout activities” or venues in which “hangout” could occur: “pop-in,” “departmental meeting,” and “event/party.”

In searching through the opened ended “other” selection for further instances of “hangout activities,” we discovered a gold mine of examples: “informal meetings,” “chatting with them when I see them,” “embedded office in the department,” “personal connections,” “social media,” “coffee chats,” “seeing them around town,” “at student art shows” and “lunches and happy hours” among many more. The plethora of “hangout activity” responses to the question of “How do you interact with your departments?” indicates that liaisons are aware of and recognize these types of interactions as important to the engagement work that they do with their departments. Other responses were: “As I see faculty on campus,” “casual meetings,” “by attending concerts,” “have a beer with them,” “being physically present in their workspace,” “during the student research showcase” – all of these responses could have case studies written about the relationships that were strengthened through these interactions and the resulting successful collaborations in instruction, research, and other library services.

Barriers to “hangout activities”

As much fun as the idea of engaging in “hangout activities” may seem to a liaison librarian, it is important to recognize the barriers to this type of work. First, it is possible that the idea does not sound fun – perhaps the idea of chatting to what may be a casual acquaintance in the coffee shop line makes you want to bury your nose in your phone or run back to your office. There is obviously a wide range of personality types and levels of introversion/extraversion among liaison librarians. However, social and soft skills can be taught, practiced, and improved (Anders & Glennan, 2018; Martin, 2016; Matteson et al., 2016). Regardless of a liaison’s personality type or comfort level, these are skills that are critically important to being a successful liaison. If a librarian is unwilling to try and improve their skills in engaging and building relationships with the people in their liaison departments, which will likely include interactions in social and informal spaces, it may be worth a discussion with management about reassignment to a different role in the library organization.

Another barrier to being able to participate in “hangout activities” is the size and location of your institution. If your institution is large and/or you live in a large metropolitan area, serendipitous social or informal encounters may be less prevalent. However, as the matrix of liaison activity shows, “hangout activities” can happen anywhere, even during more formal interactions. Perhaps your large city does not lend itself well to bumping into the faculty members of your liaison departments. In that case, it becomes important to find ways to put yourself in places where you know your faculty members are – such as making rounds in their department building or attending lectures where you know they will be.

More barriers come from time pressures and administrative pressures, which can sometimes be related. Liaisons do not have a lot of extra time, as they are often juggling research consultations, information literacy instruction, and providing services to their departments throughout all stages of the research life-cycle, alongside the regular meetings and duties of being a part of a library organization. If you consider that according to Nero and Langley’s (2017) data, 75 percent of liaisons serve more than one department, and 40 percent serve four or more departments, the time pressure becomes even more apparent. Administrative pressures can add to this burden. When your administration wants to offer new services, or requires you to re-skill in areas of need, like data management or digital scholarship, or when they add on new committee assignments, it can strain an already over-committed liaison. Library administrators also might not understand what “hangout activities” actually are and how they contribute to success in some of the more “traditional” activities of liaisons. The pressure to stop “drinking so much coffee” and get back to “real work” can sometimes be heard, directly or indirectly from library administration.

This leads to another barrier to undertaking more “hangout activities” – the difficulty in assessing them. It is important to take a long view on these types of activities. One coffee or encounter on campus might not result in an instructional collaboration that produces a lot of fruit. But, it also might. How do you assess something that is so dependent upon time, personality, and serendipity? Are you assessing the activities themselves, or merely what results from them? Assessment is a challenge, and if a liaison is at an institution where they must give a good account of their time, being able to make the case for “hangout activities” with administration might be a high hurdle to overcome.

Discussion & Best Practices

While training, experience, and subject knowledge are certainly valuable for librarians serving in a liaison role, we would argue that another set of skills and practices are equally important in developing successful liaisons. First, be willing to stretch past your comfort zone. This includes moving outside the comfortable, traditional, and formal range of interactions with faculty and students and experimenting, keeping one’s eyes open to new opportunities. While transactional interaction (supplying a client with what they need) can certainly build trust, recognize that relationship building is a strong foundation that leads to robust and successful engagement. This type of work is not a distraction from your “real work,” it is a crucial part of your work. We’ve all had experiences where it’s clear the only reason someone (often a salesperson) is talking to us is to “get something they want.” If you are thinking, “I will have coffee with this faculty member so that they will invite me to offer library instruction to their students,” you’re missing the point. It is important to value the experience you are having in moments like this. Liaisons who do not develop relationships with their constituents built on trust and shared interests run the risk of missing out on tremendous rewards in their work and success as a librarian. It is also important to keep a long view of your liaison engagement in focus. It’s not about whether that one chat over coffee yielded a traditional, recordable librarian activity; it’s about the cumulative effect of all the little encounters. You never know where the tipping point will be or what seemingly unrelated activity (like those described in the case studies) will result in engaged collaborations with students and faculty.

From an organizational standpoint, liaison leaders and library administration can support this type of work by providing professional development opportunities and training in soft skills. Leaders should implement a system for tracking liaison work that includes “hangout activities” and client relationship management (CRM). Many libraries have adopted CRM software to help illuminate connections among liaison activities. While it is much easier to track and assess traditional library work (number of instruction sessions, research consultations, reference questions, books ordered, etc.), it is still important to track and assess “hangout activities.” Tracking these types of encounters can show paths of engagement that might otherwise go unnoticed. The challenge, however, is in how we assess the activities and any successes or failures. Because the success of “hangout activities” is often the result of a cumulative effect, it becomes more difficult to assess. It can be difficult to determine when or if a “hangout activity” has been unsuccessful because it may not always yield a quick and visible result. Sometimes a conversation over coffee leads to a scheduled instruction session in the next week, but sometimes it’s a number of small relationship-building efforts that leads to something next month or next semester. Because of this, it’s important for administrators to afford time and space for a long view of this type of activity. In essence: time to plant seeds, to nurture, to germinate and see what the yield looks like. For some, it will be easy to stigmatize this type of work either because it’s not part of the traditional canon of library work or because of the germination that might be required. Administrators are encouraged to refrain from impatience or hasty judgement as these experiments unfold. Administrators can make or break this kind of experience by their response. If they are impatient or unwilling to recognize the potential value of “hangout activities,” liaisons will likely, out of self-preservation or diminished proactivity, return to more traditional and passive roles. If administrators show support for this kind of work, even in the smallest ways, such as an encouraging email or comment, or by more visible frameworks or policies, liaisons will be primed for whole new worlds of engagement, partnerships, and success.

Conclusion

Sha: One Saturday morning, at a local bookshop, I ran into an art history professor and, after catching up on what our kids were up to, she told me about a new course proposal where students would be doing original research with local archival materials. As we discussed the course, she asked if I would be willing to be a part of the course (including onsite research consultant in additional to traditional research instruction). This serendipitous conversation, off campus, on the weekend, resulted in a highly-successful embedded librarian experience. After this innovative course, we even presented at a library conference, which included students talking about their research findings and their course experience.

This story serves as a reminder of several important ideas discussed throughout this article that can serve as a roadmap to the “hangout” approach to liaison work:

  • Get out of your office or library – interesting and fruitful results can happen when you put yourself out there.
  • Be open and approachable – it’s easy to compartmentalize and not let your surroundings and unexpected encounters shape your experience.
  • Get to know your faculty – where possible, building relationships (personal and professional) can set the stage for new collaborations.
  • Show interest in their work – whether it’s their research or their teaching, showing interest builds connections and opens doors.
  • Be flexible and open new ways of collaborating – don’t limit yourself to the things you’ve done in the past or things that fit a pre-existing model of liaison work.
  • Leverage your experiences and successes – look for ways to capitalize on what you’ve done, sharing your stories, presenting at conferences, collaborating with other faculty members in similar ways, etc.
  • Track and reflect your experiences – notice the connective threads, record them, highlight the importance of those connections, and think of ways to share your story.

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