So you want to be a subject librarian…

08 Mar
Picture of my building

I work in here. It's nice inside.

I work as an Academic Liaison Librarian – a subject librarian – at the University of York. It’s a role I’d always wanted to do (preferably at York) and last month I was made permanent, proving that it’s sometimes worth taking a gamble for the right role! (It was maternity cover, and I was leaving a permanent contract elsewhere.) But even though I’d always wanted to do this job, and I’d work-shadowed subject librarians before, and I’d talked to LOADS of them about the job, I still felt like I didn’t really know what it would be like – it seems everyone has a slightly different experience, and there isn’t ‘a typical day in the life’ as the job changes all the time.

With that in mind, here’s a post about what the job has been like for me, and specifically where it matched my expectations and where it confounded them.

Things I expected about being a subject librarian

  • There’s lots of teaching. October and the student-induction in particular are an absolute manic whirl of preparation and delivery. My previous experience of teaching was putting on sessions that any student could come to (voluntarily) – during induction you’re fitting your content around what the department has set up for you, which brings with it its own set of challenges.
  • Working with academic departments is great. I really like the academic environment but don’t want to be an academic – academic librarianship shares quite a high number of themes, as it happens, representing the best of both worlds for me. And I’m really lucky to work with switched-on and fascinating departments / academics. Higher Education is ace.
  • You have to be able to balance a budget. I’ve been in charge of a budget before, but it was pretty straightforward supply and demand. With book budgets there’s a whole load of factors complicating things, like different pots for different periods of writing with one of my subjects, and needing to spend up exactly what you have by a certain time, and keeping some money back for emergencies, and developing the collection whilst meeting teaching needs, and all that stuff. There is a sense that if you take your eye off the ball you could really stuff things up. That said, spending thousands of pounds on really great resources is an undeniably great feeling… 
  • There’s a lot of freedom. You can really be the master of your own subject domain, which I love – and you get treated like a grown-up, and are allowed to get on with stuff in the way you see fit. I honestly don’t think there’s a better fit in libraryland for people who want responsibility but don’t want the kind that leaves you fighting fires the whole time and all the stress that brings.
  • You get your fingers in many pies. Relates to the point above – subject librarians tend to get involved with all sorts of wider projects which don’t relate to our subject role, so for example I’m involved with the social media and marketing side of things, implementing the new catalogue, research support, info lit in the digital age, etc.
  • It stumps your ambition. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 year’s time, but there’s a strong possibility it’ll be right here doing the same thing. I’ve looked at the kinds of jobs on the pay-grades above mine, and the increased stress and decreased freedom aren’t worth the extra money / career advancement / prestige / whatever. I did think this might happen. You’re always supposed to think two jobs ahead, but I no longer can.


Things I didn’t expect about being a subject librarian

  • Checking your email requires actual brain-power. I know this sounds stupid, but the emails you get take a lot more time and energy to process than I expected… They take a lot more thought. I’ve got used to it now, but compared with previous jobs where you could quickly deal with emails and move on, in this one it felt like almost every one I got (and there are lots – it’s an emaily kind of a job) required concentration and good chunk of time.
  • There’s lots of tricky decisions… This is related to the above, and I should have anticipated it really – but it still surprises me how often I get asked questions to which there is no right answer. Lots of judgement calls, about whether to buy stuff, about what type of binding we go with, about whether the ratio of books per student we’re buying is correct, etc etc.
  • There is an expectation that you know what books you have in your collection – as in, all of them! A side of the job I wasn’t prepared for was going into the houses of the recently deceased, at the request of their family, to see if they have anything we’d find useful. This has actually happened twice in the last month, and generally speaking we get asked quite a lot to look at people’s collections that they wish to donate to us. And they expect me to be able to say “Ah, so and so’s treatise on community in post-war Prussia! We’ve been looking for that!” when, of course, I don’t have off-the-top-of-my-head knowledge of the tens of thousands of books we have in stock already. So I take a laptop and spot-check stuff against the catalogue and then it usually turns out we have much of it already. Maybe in 20 year’s time I’ll be able to nail this particular skill?
  • Just how much of my existing interests and skills could be pulled into the job. I obviously thought the job would match my interests but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by just how many thinks I’ve played around with and blogged and presented about have come in handy. I tweet for the library, create Prezis for the library, use Issuu for the library, edit and create video for the library, teach students about web 2 tools for the library, etc etc. Woot.

 From Twitter…

I asked subject librarians from Twitter what they didn’t expect about their roles – here are some of the replies, via Storify:

So there you go. Would I recommend being a subject librarian? Absolutely, 100% – it’s even better than I thought it would be. Got any questions? Leave me a comment…

- thewikiman


Some other stuff I really like about this role which doesn’t really fall into the categories above

  • Working with students. I have a real bug-bear with people who dislike students en masse – don’t work in bloody HE then! I like them – some groups are more engaged than others, but the really engaged ones make it all worth while. They’re likeable, enthusiastic, self-aware. It’s fun working with them.
  • Helping people. I’m not a particularly virtuous person, I don’t wander round thinking about how lovely it is to help people – but when I actually do, I love it. Quite often students will come for a one-on-one session on finding information and stuff, and leave really, really pleased with what they’ve learned. They’re better equipped and more enthusiastic than when they came in – that’s a great feeling.
  • Related training and conferences. I had a bit of an issue in my old job, where they didn’t particularly encourage me to go and present at stuff -  I did a lot in my own time. Here, though, they’re very encoruaging – plus the kind of stuff I like talking about is much more relevant to this job. So I’m enjoying presenting as a York person, rather than just as me independently. (Here’s my schedule for 2012 if anyone is interested – so much for saying no to everything! While I’m self-promoting, here’s the updated publications page too, with news of books and things.)
  • Twitter being a constant source of invaluable stuff. More so than ever, the time I put into Twitter pays massive dividends. The amount of times I can go from not knowing anything to having several valuable opinions in minutes is amazing – it’s enabled me to learn on the job much quicker.
  • My colleagues. Obviously this is a very York-specifc one, but I work in a really great team, with supportive, nice, and funny people.

P.P.S This has very little to do with the above, but I’d recommend reading Katherine Widdows’ excellent post about social media and Web 2.0 in the academic library environment – it’s on her blog here and it’s really informative. Warwick are brilliant at this sort of thing, and this is an insight as to why.


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  • Ned Potter March 8, 2012 at 1:46 PM

    New blog post: So you want to be a subject librarian…

  • Vassiliki Veros March 8, 2012 at 1:57 PM

    New blog post: So you want to be a subject librarian…

  • Ian Clark March 8, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    So you want to be a subject librarian… « « thewikiman @therealwikiman

  • Andy Woodworth March 8, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    New blog post: So you want to be a subject librarian…

  • Laura (@ellekaypea) March 8, 2012 at 3:15 PM

    Slight aside…I would love to be a subject librarian in a couple of specific fields, however at present, prior academic library work is required. This is incredibly frustrating – I have so many of the skills required (budgeting, training, research, acquisitions management, people skills and a pasion for learning) but it still comes back to that one thing. Of course, I appreciate that they can be specific and are looking for someone who already ticks all the boxes, but I do wonder whether that’s always been the case or if it’s a side effect of the current climate.

  • Aaron Tay March 8, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    So you want to be a subject librarian… « « thewikiman @therealwikiman

  • Aaron Tay March 8, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    RT @ijclark: So you want to be a subject librarian… « « thewikiman @therealwikiman

  • David March 8, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    I became a subject librarian last year, and I feel much the same way. Sometimes I get an email that makes me think my head might explode (and those ones always come first thing or just as you’re about to log off) and time/money/energy are constantly being juggled, but it’s wonderfully fulfilling, varied and interesting. I honestly can’t imagine switching to any other area of library work.

  • thewikiman March 8, 2012 at 4:42 PM

    Laura, I agree this is a problem. I took SEVERAL attempts to get here largely because there were always people with more experience than me applying – even this job which was 10 months fixed-term when I applied had over 60 applications, I believe. There are always people applying who tick all the boxes. You have to persuade the panel you offer something more or different to make taking a punt worthwhile.

    I think you have to go one of two ways – the best way is to become a subject assistant. A LOT of our team started off that way – if you do well and prove your value, you’ll get an interview the next time a post comes up and have a really good chance. The other way is to work your way up to the same grade in other library jobs and get all the additional experience you need in your own time via presenting and writing, which is what I did, and then hope you give a really good interview. But it’s very hard to get a foot in the door (hence my taking a risk in a difficult economy, with a young baby, as I did. :) )

    I’d also say, don’t limit yourself to specific fields – you’re literally just waiting for people to retire, in that situation… When you become a subject librarian you sign a contract to just be a subject librarian – the departments you look after can and probably will change. (And it is possible to do a good job without subject experience of the subjects, as it were.) Just my two cents, as they say…

  • thewikiman March 8, 2012 at 4:42 PM

    David, I’m really glad it’s not just me!

    I agree, hard to imaging changing now. It’s a nice place to be.

  • Ned Potter March 8, 2012 at 5:27 PM

    Now upated with some new stuff at the bottom, plus comments / replies: So you want to be a subject librarian…

  • Eric Rumsey March 8, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    RT @aarontay So You Want to be a Subject Librarian… Expectations & Surprises (@therealwikiman) –

  • Rowena Macrae-Gibson March 8, 2012 at 8:22 PM

    Joining in this thread as a bit of an Oldie (ouch!) who has been working in subject or liaison librarianship for nearly 20 years (where did it all go?) in 4 different universities so far, and who now manages a subject librarian team and therefore wades through applications for said posts.
    Roles and specific tasks will vary between institutions, so do keep focussing on those transferrable skills. I remember discussing supporting social sciences with a group of SLs from another institution a few years ago. Their mouths fell open when I said I didn’t purchase stock directly, but then they didn’t do any teaching, which was my main focus. So I look for people skills, problem solving, willingness to explore, IT & social media skills. Some posts may be looking for a longer length of experience and might not be as appropriate for those seeking a first job put of library school, but this can be the case for all sectors of LIS and not just SL.
    I am very happy to consider applications from those not currently in SL posts, but remember to match your skills to the person spec, and remember that skills can come from professional commitments such as group & branch committees in addition to day to day jobs. So liaison experience could come from liaising with external colleagues, venues and speakers when organizing an event or conference, for example.
    Run a skills audit matching your skills against some SL person specs to identify any skills gaps (remember we all have skills gaps) can you ask to shadow a colleague/assist with a session/join a wprking group to plug any gaps?
    I think the last SL post I advertised garned about 120 applicants, so demonstrating clearly how you match the person spec is vital. Please don’t give me an essay on how you love cataloguing when the job spec is clearly requiring teaching and IL skills.
    Subject specific knowledge is not necessarily important either, but you can make this play to your advantage e.g. If you are currently working in a law firm and apply for a law subject librarian post then your application may score more highly than someone who is currently an SL but has no experience of law.
    Don’t think, ‘oh I don’t like x subject so I won’t apply for that post’. This is very important. My degree, like so many others in libraries, is in History. If I had just limited myself to looking for history SL posts I’d probably still be looking. As it was some of my posts did include this, but not all. See this as a way in. The departments you look after can change, can actually be broader than you think, and you are gaining great experience and can volunteer for working groups etc. Subjects also vary greatly between different institutions. Also your experience grows and matures. In my time, I’ve been SL for arts and social sciences topics, however I have answered every single topic under the sun at enquiry desks so do look at the whole portfolio of roles rather than specific subjects.
    Very happy to discuss further, it’s really encouraging to see that so many people are interested in the SL role, and I’m interested to find out why!


  • Ned Potter March 9, 2012 at 9:55 AM

    So you want to be a subject librarian…

  • Constance Wiebrands March 9, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    RT @theREALwikiman: So you want to be a subject librarian…

  • thewikiman March 9, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    Rowena, that’s a fantastically helpfil post, thank you!

  • CILIP March 9, 2012 at 11:00 AM

    So you want to be a subject librarian… More great stuff from @theREALwikiman

  • thewikiman March 9, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    I should also add – for an American perspective (and just for a very useful blog post generally), Wayne Bivems-Tatum wrote this excellent piece on the Letters To a Young Librarian blog, about becoming a departmental liaison.

  • Sarah Wolfenden March 9, 2012 at 2:43 PM

    I really want to be a subject librarian. I enjoy training and teaching students and staff and I get a real buzz out of being able to help people. I enjoy communicating with people from other depts and in the past have built up some really strong relationships, however, I have no budget experience (although I run a tight ship at home!) which often lets me down. I am responsible for 28 HE subjects in my current role as I work at a college, having never had experience previously, so do believe I could be a librarian for almost any subject! I’m surprised by your comment about it stifling ambition – I wasn’t expecting that but I believe your comment about being treated like a grown up!

    I think another of the reasons I would like to work for a university is that they encourage development. I do lots in my own time as I am genuinely interested in finding out and learning as much as possible but sometimes even this is discouraged or used as a reason for my not needing ‘development’ at work. I’m afraid I can’t afford to start off on a lower wage due to personal circumastances which doesn’t help me either but I will keep trying.

    I moved down south for the job market as there are many more universities within commuting distance so I have my fingers crossed! Perhaps I should start looking for alternatives that encompass the same skills and qualities but aren’t necessarily in the academic sector – wouldn’t know where to start looking though. Failing that I’m off to run an olive farm…

  • thewikiman March 9, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    Well first off I should say I meant it stifled my ambition in a good way! I meant, I’ve achieved the main ambition and it’s so good that I don’t have any others, for now.

    Budget-wise, you’ve probably already thought of this but get on a committee as the Treasurer. You just need to be able to tick that box to get the interview, and then you can dazzle the panel with everything else good about you. It costs maybe £250 a year to join the SLA and CILIP (don’t be put off by SLA’s ‘corparate’ image, I can’t remember the exact stat but I think people from academic backgrounds form the biggest percentage of members) and you’ll earn it back in the first few months of getting the right job. Between all the special interest groups, branches, divisions etc that the two of them offer, there must be a Treasurer’s role you can get yourself into. SLA generally has more money sploshing around, so if you want control a bigger budget, that may be the way to go… (Of course, demonstrating you can manage a budget can come from anywhere, doesn’t have to be library related. Olive-farm management, for example. :) )

    It sounds like you’re doing all the right things – and it could be that being able to tick all the boxes from working outside the academic sector will ultimately get you where you need to go. If you haven’t already I’d advocate printing out the person spec for the next subject librarian post you see advertised at the kind of place you’d like to work in, and literally go through the Essentials and Desirables line-by-line coming up with a plan of how you’ll be able to meet every single one within the next 12 months (or whatever). Good luck!

  • Sarah Wolfenden March 9, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    Thanks Ned. I’m currently on the ARLG LASEC Committee for CILIP as a Liaison Officer. There are currently two treasurers due to the merger so I don’t think they need another but I may pick their brains. I am a recent member of SLA and have in fact applied for the SLA ECCA award, fingers crossed, but haven’t yet got properly involved in anything with them – although will be attending one of their event in two weeks. I might chase this up. Thanks again, you’ve boosted my motivation levels – they flag every now and again!

    I usually do print off the specs but generally apply! I tell myself if I can do 70% and am willing to learn the rest then I should go for it.

  • Rowena Macrae-Gibson March 9, 2012 at 7:19 PM

    Sarah, you have a really good set of skills, so I would not expect the budget issue to hold you back.
    In my previous post I mentioned how we all have skills gaps, well one of mine is perhaps budgeting, I have not managed massive budgets but have still been able to progress, and importantly can still understand budgeting. Maybe small scale experience is even more impressive: ie look what extra control, care and negotiating skills are needed with tiny budgets! Also, some institutions operate devolved funding anyway, so not all SLs are in charge of mega corp budgets anyway.
    This comes back to thinking positively about all the things you CAN do, rather than those you think you can’t. Even if you are the worlds most experienced at X, well maybe your new institutuion will do X differently, and will certainly have its own regulations, procesess to learn. You should receive training in these institutional specific processes, so would pick up general theory about a subject anyway.
    Even if I am looking for an experienced person, do I expect someone who can do it all with no induction from day one standing on their head? Won’t they get bored and leave? Would they fit in to the team with that attitude? I would be very surprised for anyone to score 100% on each interview question; it may be that circumstances at your current institution have meant you have not been able to get experience of X, but you can still show your undstanding of it and willingness to learn.
    Subject Librarianship encompasses a whole range of skills and duties, don’t let the fact that you think you haven’t got x experience hold you back.

    I think this thread encompassed two main topics actually. SL itself and also the whole job applications and interview process. Remember that the only thing about the whole process which you cannot control is the other candidates and how they do on the day. What is in your control is to make your application work for you. Make my life easier by matching the person specs!

    The other point to make is the SL role is only one part of your employment. Is being an SL more important than your location, your commute, how you get on with your colleagues, your relationship with your line manager, your institutional culture and ethos etc. No point in being an SL if the rest of the list makes you miserable!

    Happy to chat further

  • Ned Potter March 9, 2012 at 8:42 PM

    Also with very useful comments – last call for: So you want to be a subject librarian… Lots
    of library careers chat! :)

  • Weekly Link Roundup | Lone Star Librarian March 9, 2012 at 11:03 PM

    [...] So you want to be a subject librarian… « « thewikiman thewikiman [...]

  • thewikiman March 12, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    Sarah, that all sounds pretty spot-on, I think it’ll all work out!

  • Wendy March 12, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    Hi there,
    I’m having the same problem as Sarah (maybe we should form a support group!) – essentially having all the transferable skills (plus I have an MSc in library studies) but no experience in teaching. The last coupe of jobs I have applied for have literally done a tick-box approach to sifting the applications simply because they get so many applications from experienced librarians. Very frustrating…can’t get a job without the experience, and can’t get the experience… plus, many institutions are asking for additional qualifications when in the past librarians have been able to do these things on the job. Oh well, we keep plodding on!

  • thewikiman March 13, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    Hi Wendy, this is the thing – you can’t keep plodding if you really want to work in the role, you have to tick the box! If it’s what you really really want to do, then the old maxim of thinking two jobs ahead really comes into play. Get a job in an institution where people other than the subject librarians teach, and then get teaching. At my previous institution my role was all about digitisation, but I still got teaching experiences because I got on the Trainee Trainer programme for Info Lit and assisted on various sessions, then after a year became a full trainer and got to run sessions.

    If moving employers is an option, talk to people who work in various HEIs near you and see how their teaching works. If you’d rather stay where you are, see if you can get teaching experience by running workshops at CILIP (or SLA) events.

  • Rowena Macrae-Gibson March 13, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    Hi Wendy, I’d echo Ned’s comments about looking at HE more broadly, plus do take any opportunity you can, including any professional reading or CPD courses to show that you are keen in this area. Teaching is not about presenting, there are a wide range of pedagogical issues I expect my SLs to be aware of.
    Some posts are looking for more experience than others, but this is not always the case. As I said in a previous post, this is the same for all jobs, not just SL roles. As I also pointed out, SL roles can vary widely and some will be doing less teaching than others so may not be loooking for as much experience in this area.
    Also try looking for maternity cover posts, as these do usually get fewer applicants.
    Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on your application, either. I wish more candidates would do this. Often candidates just list skills without showing any broader understanding or application. It’s much more than a tick box exercise, I have to score each applicant on how well they match each item on the person spec, sometimes I can see that the candidate has better potential than they are demonstrating, but I have to go with what they have put on their application. Make sure your application matches the person spec, use the same language and tailor each application accordingly. Check who the post is reporting to, this will give you an idea of the balance of the different tasks within the role.

    Good luck

  • [...] So you want to be a subject librarian… I’m sure I’m not the only person who read this and thought “yes, I totally want to be a subject librarian and now I just want Ned’s job!” [...]

  • Steve April 9, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    Hi everyone,

    I’m in the same situation evidently as some others on here – a university library assistant with an information qualification that would love to be a subject librarian yet lacking the extra piece of experience to become one even though I have good general experience in my existing post (also at a university library). This is certainly the case for all the existing interview feedback I’ve had, so the question I face is where and how to get the extra experience? Someone suggested being a ‘subject assistant’, a role I’ve never heard of – please enlighten me! Other than that, any other suggestions are most welcome! :)



  • thewikiman April 10, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Hi Steve

    Subject Assistant is a role that doesn’t exist at all Universities, which is why you may not have heard of it! It’s basically being part of the Subject Librarian Team, but rather than having responsibility for departments or subjects, you help out those who do. Sometimes by team (e.g there’s an Arts Team Assistant, Social Sciences Team etc) or sometimes generally for the whole team. We only have one at York, where I work, and they’re specifically assigned to Health Sciences, and they actually have a lot of responsibility. It’s a grade down from the Subject Librarian role (so it pays 25-30k I think), but two grades above the Library Assistant role – in other institutions it’s the grade in between, it varies.

    I wanted to get such a job myself and people already doing it recommended that I did – it just didn’t work out that way and I did other stuff instead, but I’m sure it would have been really useful. As far as I know it’s the only job that directly feeds in to / prepares you for the subject librarian role.

    In terms of other ways to get experience, you can do a few things. You can do some proper shadowing of subject librarians – I think this is really important, not so much for the brownie points (it won’t mean THAT much to an interview panel, but I’m sure they’d be pleased you’d done it) but so you can answer interview questions with genuine knowledge of what the job involves rather than more good-but-abstract answers, if that makes sense. You can start writing (in a blog like this one) about the kinds of stuff you need knowledge of but can’t acquire knowledge of in your existing role, and then you may be able to present a paper at a conference or even write a journal article off that back of it – in other words you can demonstrate your expertise about things you don’t currently do in your job. Also if you can identify skills a particular subject team needs, but doesn’t have, and develop those skills, it can help bridge the gap left by the lack of experience.

    Anyhow, good luck!


  • Rowena Macrae-Gibson April 10, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    This thread has been quiet for a while, but it’s timely as I am currently looking at SL roles.
    I’d reiterate my comment from last year, that some posts are looking for more experience than others, but this is the case for all roles and not just subject librarians. Some assistant or ‘junior’ SL roles are out there, it is a case of keep plugging away at all posts and keep developing your transferable skills. Unfortunately in the current market there is more competition, and if I needed to appoint someone to hit the ground running, then I would look for someone with more experience, but this is not always the case. Some libraries use library assistants to help out in IL sessions, so see if you can do this. Watch and evaluate any teacher, trainer or presenter you see and think what you would do in a similar situation. You can use this for interview experience e.g. ‘From your experience what are the key components of designing an information literacy session’ or “How would you persuade an academic that it is important for their students to be information literate” There are online courses provided by the IL Group, such as SirLearnAlot which you could use to develop awareness of IL issues.
    As ever, the key think is to demonstrate how you match each of the points on the person spec, so keep looking at job descriptions and matching your skills and experience against them.
    Unfortunately I’m not in the same role as I was when Ned first wrote this post, but am always happy to discuss further via email or via @RMGCat

  • Steve April 10, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    Thanks for all this Ned :) A fair share of ‘networking’ I think is also important with others in the profession – the ‘who you know’ approach (hence the fact I recently registered on ‘LinkedIn’). I actually work at Sussex University library where subject librarians don’t actually exist (blame streamlining!) so experience or shadowing someone is difficult although I’ll perhaps try some writing. Keeping optimistic is also one of the harder things but its good to speak to others for advice so thanks again!

  • thewikiman April 10, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    Hi Steve, you can ‘shadow’ to some extent at institutions you don’t work for! We quite often have had people come to the Library for a half-day or a day, during which they meet several of us subject librarians to talk about various aspects of the role. It’s not exactly shadowing but it definitely gives you a proper insight into the role and what’s required. Just send an email to a team-leader and see what happens – ideally at an institution you’d like to work for, so they know your name next time a position comes up…

    Also, join Twitter if you haven’t already. Being part of a community is a: a great way to stay positive and b: the best way to find out what sorts of opportunities for CPD there are out there.

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