Putting the “Expert” in Subject Expertise

School_Subjects_IconsI often think about how liaison and reference librarians interact with their subject specialisations. How much of  your week is committed to concerted improvement of subject expertise? And what do you do to develop a greater depth of knowledge around a particular topic you might not have a background in? If you have ideas on this, please leave a comment! I’m curious to know what your tricks are.

In an ideal world, of course we’d all have Masters degrees in the subjects we’re responsible for. And of course nobody would ever quit or go on leave, so you would never have to pick up other subject areas! Of COURSE. But alas: Librarians are always picking up subjects they don’t have ANY degree in, let alone a Masters. So what can librarians do to improve subject expertise, especially when it’s on the fly?

Here are some resources I’ve come across:

Online Courses: Professional associations have a small smattering of subject-focused online courses to cater to just this type of professional development need. Here are RUSA’s offerings. I took the Business Reference 101 course a few years ago, and found it provided an excellent foundation for general business reference, which I could do at home after work in my jammies (my favourite type of learning). I feel like these sorts of targeted classes are few and far between though, and might not provide the depth a librarian might need on the front lines – more of an overview.

LibGuides: You know what one of my favourite Google searches was when was a librarian?

“[my search term] inurl:LibGuides”.

This limited all my search results to LibGuides from libraries everywhere, to get at authoritative information from people who know more about a given subject than me (it was also useful when I building my own LibGuides). It’s a nice way to orient yourself to a subject too. If a Human Resources LibGuide is divided into jurisdictions – Canada, Ontario, etc. – that’s a hint that HR issues might be closely tied to legislation. Tah dah! Now you know.

Library Collection: Oh YEAH, we work in these giant buildings filled with books. Maybe I could read one of them.

But seriously, when trying to suss out the whole world of business information, database collections were a trove of useful resources – how-to guides, online screencasts, even virtual chat help. I suspect that level of marketing and client-training is more limited across other subjects, but if you’re in an area where the commodification of information is really lucrative – business, economics, medicine, law – those corporate sites have heaps of useful stuff (and three cheers for the commodification of information! Good times.). I remember hearing of a recent LIS grad who actually called the database companies up and asked for training on their products while she was on the job hunt — which they gladly gave her. I’ve not yet been so brazen, but it’s a great idea. They realllllly want you know to know how to use their products, and themselves may have subject expertise that you can draw on.

Khan Academy: I haven’t used this resource myself for library subject specialisation, but I still this it’s awesome. While this NGO focusses on classroom teaching, there are several subjects that would certainly be useful to an academic librarian. Like, here ya go – learn about Baroque Art for five minutes:

Coursera: I just happened upon this site, which seems really interesting:

About Coursera: We are a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Very nifty. Exploring now…

… And of course the whole “doing” piece of librarianship is an excellent way to learn more about a subject. There’s no better motive for learning lots on a subject than being scheduled to give a presentation to 300 students on it! Or having to sound semi-knowledgeable in front of faculty about it.

Do you have any other tips for improving subject knowledge?

About these ads

4 responses to “Putting the “Expert” in Subject Expertise

  1. Pingback: Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done | the zeds : academic librarianship

  2. Hiya – just dropping to say that another suggestion is to look at yearbooks or annuals. For instance in my field, English, there’s an annual that comes out called the Year’s Work in English Studies, which purports to review the most important works and journals in the field for the year. I try to look at it now and then. I have subject expertise in my liaison area, but it’s almost 20 years old now … so I have to figure out ways to keep up. Another trick is making sure you are on your subject department’s listservs and showing up to to their events/lectures and especially job talks, if they are hiring.

  3. Lisa Sloniowski

    Hiya – just dropping to say that another suggestion is to look at yearbooks or annuals. For instance in my field, English, there’s an annual that comes out called the Year’s Work in English Studies, which purports to review the most important works and journals in the field for the year. I try to look at it now and then. I have subject expertise in my liaison area, but it’s almost 20 years old now … so I have to figure out ways to keep up. Another trick is making sure you are on your subject department’s listservs and showing up to to their events/lectures and especially job talks, if they are hiring.

    • Awesome advice! I’ve literally never even heard of these Yearbooks of which you speak. Googling right now… And yes, being in the places and spaces that your faculty are in is so key. Liaison relationships help librarians to understand their subjects from the perspective of faculty needs, which helps focus expertise-building. Thanks Lisa!