Science Librarianship

I recently attended a series of meetings with candidates for a bioscience librarian position within my library system. At one of the meetings the conversation eventually steered towards the future of science librarianship; one of the engineering librarians commented that fewer and fewer MLIS students with science backgrounds are applying for graduate jobs at his library. He argued that if science librarians don’t start recruiting science students more aggressively then science librarianship will be composed of librarians without science backgrounds.

Do you need a background in science to be an effective science librarian? (Image Source: About.com)
Do you need a background in science to be an effective science librarian? (Image Source: About.com)

To which I thought… would that really be so bad? At least two of the three candidates in this particular search had hard science backgrounds, either in academia or in the professional world. Surely this expertise would help them when providing reference services, developing instructional resources, and doing collection development for a science patron base.

However, having an advanced degree does not guarantee subject area expertise. Is it not possible that librarians with excellent reference, instruction, and collection development training could provide top-notch science librarian services? I recently read through The Busy Librarian’s Guide to Information Literacy in Science and Engineering, edited by Katherine O’Clair and Jeanne R. Davidson. While not directly targeted at science librarians without science backgrounds, the book contained multiple sections that urged such librarians to achieve just as much as their scientific counterparts. The book offered many suggestions for becoming a more effective science librarian, including: staying current in the literature for your specific subject (both journals & books); knowing widely used subject vocabulary; understanding scholarly communication trends within the field; actively communicating with subject faculty; working frequently with subject databases and tools to ensure fluency.

While some would argue that this is an unnecessary and unnatural process, it is actually what every new subject librarian has to do, regardless of their background. Learning the basic principles and then maintaining an up-to-date understanding is something that subject librarians must always do, even when their background matches their subject area.

A real-life example would be myself and most of the other graduate assistants I’ve worked with. We work at a library that serves the agriculture, consumer science, environmental science, biology, landscape architecture, and city planning subject areas. Most of us came from non-science backgrounds, and yet we provide reference services on a daily basis for a variety of science-heavy queries. While it is challenging and the learning curve has been steep, I have never felt that my background puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to serving patrons. Granted I am only a graduate assistant, but I feel as though those of us without science-heavy backgrounds still have a lot to offer, even to science patrons.

All that being said, I do heartily agree with the opinionated engineering librarian: we should have better recruiting efforts within the sciences, as science students represent a unique voice that is in danger of being lost in the profession of librarianship. I just wanted to put a plug in for those of us who don’t have a PhD in chemistry/botany/physics/etc., but who still get by on the science classes we took while at a liberal arts college and the sheer determination to learn everything we need to to serve our patrons more effectively.

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