Subject Librarians in Digital Reference
by Vanessa Chavez, Post-Tracks Editor, MSIS, U of Texas/Austin
Many libraries are experiencing a major change in reference services, especially a shift to providing digital reference to online users. This shift has led many people to question the role of the librarian, including subject specific reference librarians.
Subject librarians are typically information professionals with an expertise or focus in a specified area of study, and have an advanced degree in addition to their degree in Library & Information Studies or equivalent. Subject specializations can include music, art, philosophy, law, chemistry, engineering, and architecture, to name a few. These librarians are indispensable in their fields and are an invaluable asset to the community they serve. Their extensive knowledge of a topic enables them to answer detailed questions and builds an awareness of the resources and materials both available and necessary to research in the field. Often, these librarians are involved in collection development for their area, work in a specified subject library, and keep updated on the latest trends in the field.
Until digital reference began to take on a major role in the library field, users, especially public library patrons, had trouble accessing services provided by subject specialists. In the traditional reference setting, there have always been barriers in answering subject specific questions. Unless there is a subject specialist employed in the library, patrons are left with few options when trying to reach a specialist. In the past, public librarians had to call specialized libraries, hoping to find a librarian to fit their needs. Many times, patrons needed to make a second trip to a special library (if this was even possible), trying to track down reference help. In the worst cases, the librarian could not fulfill the patron’s needs, and the patron would leave disappointed and still in search of an answer.
The transition to the virtual environment has changed this. Currently, many institutions are involved in a consortium of various libraries in a given region, state, or discipline. Consortiums offer users better access to information by including librarians in various areas of expertise. Librarians in different institutions, different geographical locations, and even different time zones come together in a virtual environment to serve the patrons in their locations. Programs such as AskColorado and QandANJ create new reference options for patrons in rural or underrepresented areas. Although generally speaking, few subject librarians regularly staff the digital reference desk, questions are easily referred to subject specialists. Patrons no longer have to wait for phone calls or head over to a different library; their public librarian can refer their question to the appropriate person or redirect them immediately to a subject specialist at a different location.
The very nature of digital reference consortiums lends itself to subject specialization. Librarians in one library or environment collaborate with librarians in another library or environment to serve users and broaden the scope of information they can provide access to, hoping that these other service providers will be able to fill the gaps that a librarian working solo is unable to. While not always the case, these gaps are usually the subject questions that are referred to specialists.
Currently, there is an expectation that general reference librarians are able to answer the bulk of questions received, with the remainder referred to subject specialists. While this reference model is both practical and useful, it may be beneficial to further utilize subject librarians. In an ever changing field, looking to the future of virtual reference may prove advantageous. Subject specialized questions are common among digital reference patrons. Reviewing digital reference statistics, such as those for the AskA Service available on the Virtual Reference Desk website, indicates subject questions make up a significant portion of digital reference questions. While this “referral out” method may work now, it may not be too long before the field necessitates a more active role from subject librarians. So the question remains, can subject librarians play a larger role in digital reference?
It is difficult to determine what this role may potentially be, but it is acceptable to assume that as virtual reference develops, so will the role of those involved. So what are our options? Although it may never be feasible to have primarily subject specialists staffing the general reference desk, it does not mean subject librarians will not have to take a turn. Additionally, a revised entrance screen could immediately redirect subject questions to the appropriate librarian, reducing wait time and cutting out the middle man. Or, subject librarians could establish a larger presence in the outsourced and contracted librarian environment. Instead of limiting subject specialization to librarians employed by participating subject libraries, consortiums may consider outsourcing more questions to subject specialists in topics not represented in their current library pool.
An increased awareness of the ever changing digital field will prepare librarians for transformations in digital reference. Modifying behavior early on and seeking new ways to satisfy user needs will prove necessary in the coming years. Digital reference is still in the developmental stages, so the current ideals may need to be modified to support changes. If a large portion of patrons are continually seeking subject specific information, it may be necessary to modify the role of subject librarians to accommodate these needs. In this information age, it is safe to say, we never know what’s coming next.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License