A defence of subject specialism in academic librarianship

As anyone with an unusual surname will know, it has its pros and cons. Mine was a real asset recently when my dad was taken into hospital with a serious illness. Everywhere in the health system where my Dad was treated, or my anxious Mum comforted – from paramedics to rehab and all the hospital wards and clinics in between – there was a Brookes student or graduate readily telling my parents that my help had given them the confidence to stick with the degree or to choose to do the dissertation. I’m so grateful for their kindness to my parents and, even if (I’m showing stereotypical librarian humility here), their comments were exaggerated, it’s heartwarming to know that, as a member of support staff outside their immediate Faculty, they remember me beyond Brookes and into their careers.

As an Academic Liaison Librarian for Health Care, I am part of the team who help students to get through their course. I use my skills in simplifying complicated concepts, and teaching sometimes the resources they need to use to be successful. I’m a named and constant contact throughout their course and I walk with them step by step through their information searching journey. Being subject specific means I can go along and teach groups of students, who then know me when they come to need support and are therefore far more willing to approach me. Many students come to see me through word of mouth recommendation, either from other students (past and present) or from the academic staff. Being subject specific allows me the chance to build up a relationship of trust and a connection, which a ‘nameless’ library contact could never create. I know their subjects, their assignments, and the common pitfalls which have caught students out year after year, and that knowledge makes it easy for me to help them out confidently and swiftly in a way a general librarian never could. In the 6 years I’ve been in post, I’ve become a walking medical encyclopedia, and I can see immediately that a literature search isn’t using the necessary terms to give them the results they were expecting. All of these things are only possible because I eat, sleep and breathe health care and we’re lucky enough here at Brookes to be one of the UK Universities which still has librarians with a subject speciality.

Subject specialists in the Library world are increasingly under threat from the spread of functional teams, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Robert Curry, our Associate Director of Learning Resources, on an article putting forward our case for keeping this valuable role in our Library, now and into the future. Since publication, we’ve received emails of support from library colleagues across the UK and Ireland, who are in danger of losing or who have lost the role in their libraries and didn’t know what they had until it was gone.

Consider that article as my shout-out. Now, I’ll just carry on in my quiet, determined way to help our students qualify as great health care professionals and go out saving lives, so that other daughters also get the chance to hear their reticent fathers tell them, (for the first time in four decades) that they’re proud of the work they do.

–Vicki Farmilo (Academic Liaison Librarian for Health Care)

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