Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship

v.10 no.3 (Winter 2009)

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Jumping onto the Bandwagon: New Librarians Navigating the Science/Technology Librarianship

Nedelina Tchangalova, Engineering Librarian
Engineering & Physical Sciences Library, University of Maryland, USA


The terminology of engineering is daunting to the novice librarian without any science background. Library information school (LIS) students without training in scientific disciplines express concerns about pursuing a career in engineering librarianship. Why don’t they get onto the science/technology (sci/tech) bandwagon? What information and inspiration are necessary to sail toward the science and engineering horizons of our profession? A successful transition from graduate student to practicing engineering librarian requires a complex combination of knowledge and skills. The support and assistance of colleagues is critical and the establishment of support groups for various research needs can provide a mechanism for discussing common concerns. The author will discuss strategies to encourage science, engineering, and library students to pursue careers in science/engineering libraries and highlight ideas on recruitment and retention of new science and technology librarians.


"To ask why we need libraries at all, when there is so much information available elsewhere, is about as sensible as asking if roadmaps are necessary now that there are so very many roads."
~Jon Bing, Professor of Information Technology Law, University of Oslo, Norway

We are at crossroads. We, the science and technology librarians (sci/tech), are facing multiple challenges to maintaining a thriving profession into the future. There are many roads on the professional map in front of us leading in different directions: learning new and evolving technology, discovering new channels for scholarly communication, transforming the information resources from analog to digital media, trying to instruct our users collaboratively, etc. Yet critical questions remain if we are confident to navigate our path. Is this map available to the public? Do we have followers to undertake what our predecessors have built?

Engineering libraries began to flourish before 1910 as academic departmental libraries across the United States (Neeley 2008). Currently, there are more than 150 engineering branch libraries across the United States (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Recent budget cuts have forced some to close. The lack of interest among library school students to undertake a career as academic sci/tech librarians is a concern. Together, these facts are alarming for the future of our profession and are discussed at library and engineering conferences and on listservs.

Dilemma: Dual Masters Requirement (Subject Degree plus Library Degree)

There is an ongoing debate in the literature whether it is necessary for sci/tech librarians to have a scientific disciplinary background as well as firm grounding in the use and design of relevant information resources of individual sci/tech disciplines. While this combination of disciplinary education and knowledge is helpful, and by and large expected at most academic engineering libraries, I will argue in this paper that these requirements should be changed.  To deal with the challenges associated with recruiting sci/tech librarians, some universities don’t even require MLS/MLIS/MIS degree when announcing available library positions. In order to recruit more appropriate candidates, some universities no longer require a terminal degree in library science, preferring to open the candidate pool to those firmly based in the sci/tech disciplinary training.

Does this indicate an accepted failure of library science education?  Are Library Information Schools (LIS) successfully training confident, adaptable and knowledgeable information specialists to sci/tech librarianship? Is the educational training and the applied practice in step with each other for preparing future professionals who can adequately and appropriately serve the sci/tech clientele? Is it necessary to have a combination of science background and library degree to serve the sci/tech academic community?  What recruiting obstacles are there with this requirement? What further education upon appointment is needed by new sci/tech librarians to be successful?

Many physical sciences librarians may retire soon, as the “graying of the library profession” becomes a reality, highlighting the need for recruiting sci/tech librarians. A decline in the recruitment efforts for sci/tech librarians in the recent years was discussed on the Engineering Libraries Division (ELD) listserv (2009).  Many suggestions and opinions were expressed. For instance, if the library degree is no longer required, what effect does that have on the marketability of library professionals? Furthermore, what qualifications, skills, or degrees are expected of candidates? And once hired, what is the process for acculturation to the library profession? On the other hand, if a library degree remains a requirement, can an individual feasibly become a successful sci/tech information professional without an accompanying science background?

By examining the core competencies for sci/tech librarianship, this article attempts to identify the relative importance of each educational requirement (scientific disciplinary background and terminal library degree) that shapes the successful sci/tech librarian. It reviews the literature related to graduate library school preparation for sci/tech librarianship and presents relevant experiences of recent graduates at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Library (EPSL), University of Maryland (UMD), and their first encounter with the profession. It also discusses recruitment strategies for library managers based upon relevant experience at the University of Maryland and other academic institutions, while providing practical advice for continuing education of sci/tech librarians. Topics include adapting to a new environment, on the job training, liaison work, and time management.

Literature Review

When reviewing the appropriate topical literature, three areas must be discussed. The areas include: the existing information available about “Science and Technology Resources and Services” courses offered in library and information science graduate programs; an assessment of the skills science/engineering library recruiters expect new graduates to possess; and finally, recruitment strategies including assistance or training available to new graduates upon appointment.

The relevance of the MLIS degree is an ongoing debate in academic sci/tech library communities. Lillard and Wales (2003) suggest different strategies for strengthening the library profession such as team teaching and participating in joint research projects between LIS, sci/tech libraries and library associations. The transition from graduate school to a professional academic library position is a challenging one, especially when facing the initial journey into science and technology fields. Many librarians experience the stress of this move because in most instances recent graduates do not have the necessary skills, simply due to the lack of applied experience and education. The terminology of engineering is sufficiently off-putting to the novice librarian who lacks a science background. Library information school students without science background often express insurmountable fears and concerns in pursuing a career in engineering librarianship. On the one hand, LIS programs can hardly be expected to provide students comprehensive preparation in the manifold skills of librarianship (Tucker & Sinha 2006). On the other hand, it may be that neither LIS programs nor libraries are doing as much as they can to deal effectively with our current “tremendous educational ferment,” which finds the dual challenge of LIS programs lacking a well-defined core curriculum in engineering reference and engineering libraries lacking equally well-defined core services (Mulvaney & O’Connor 2006).

Still, the deficiencies of science and technology courses cannot be entirely blamed on graduate library science curriculum. The science and technology course often strives to teach basic elements of knowledge of information resources in the field. Unfortunately, one course cannot possibly discuss every aspect of sci/tech librarianship in minute detail. Science and technology courses cover the major areas of information resources in the physical sciences and best practices for searching, but in depth applied disciplinary knowledge cannot be covered. It is impossible to teach in a limited number of elective credits the breadth of knowledge required to gain a general science and technology subject expertise.  Kuruppu (2007) examined several surveys conducted at colleges and universities and reported that a high percentage of sci/tech librarians had at least undergraduate science degrees. These findings indicate that many librarians with science background are currently in the field of sci/tech librarianship. However, Kuruppu concluded: “[…] it appears that without a concerted, extraordinary effort to recruit more subject specialists into the profession of sci/tech librarianship, only slightly more than half of the librarians will have science or technology education or training.” The lowest percentage of science librarians with academic background in physical sciences was recorded by Winston (2001) and the highest representation came from chemistry librarians (Hooper-Lane 1999). Actually, the library education in chemistry information specialization remains very strong. For example, the School for Library and Information Science at the Indiana University has implemented a collaborative program between the library school and the Chemistry department to prepare information specialists with chemistry majors.   

The most recent research was presented at the Annual Library Conference (ALA) in 2005 by Mel DeSart, Head of the Engineering Library at the University of Washington. DeSart told of engineering students of many years ago who managed to graduate without ever setting foot in the libraries. Again in this digital era, because they can access published scholarly content online, there are still students who never set foot in libraries. He concluded: “[…] interestingly, we [sci/tech librarians] are a substantial portion of the reason why those users don’t need to ever use our physical facilities, since it’s via our efforts that those users have access to so much content without the need to enter our buildings.”(DeSart 2005). The literature confirms that those efforts will only increase in the future requiring from the next generation of sci/tech librarians to possess a new set of skills and knowledge (Jones 2009, Kuruppu 2007, MacKellar 2008, Matthews & Pardue 2009).

In her discussion of the value of having a science background, Kuruppu (2007) examined views of the proponents of a strong science background versus those of hiring “generalists”. This debate is ongoing and although it is true that the complexity of the information environment has created a need for librarians to not only apply sophisticated search techniques and retrieve complex scientific data, but also to understand its content and applications, the advent of the technology nowadays requires new set of skills. Library users freely navigate the Internet but they still lack information literacy skills. “We too have disciplinary expertise!” Gregory (2005) attracted faculty’s and students’ attention to the academic subject librarians. She argued the importance of emphasizing our professional strengths as information specialists rather than subject expertise because it is assumed that it will definitely be fewer sci/tech library experts compared to the researchers in the science fields. This library disciplinary expertise includes “information literacy, the organization of access to resources, the dissemination of knowledge, and facilitating users’ connection to key scholarly conversations.”

MacKellar (2008) brought another interesting perspective to this discussion: the accidental librarian. Sci/tech librarians without a science background can learn valuable lessons from her book “The Accidental Librarian.” Having a strong foundation of library knowledge from library school, sci/tech librarians, similar to the “accidental librarian,” could grasp the applied disciplinary knowledge while on the job. In support of this situation comes Angell (2009) who argues that the financial and time costs to pursue two degrees may not add sufficient value because a science background is not strongly required in hiring sci/tech librarians. Angell attributed this fall in requiring second degree to the variation in the core skills new sci/tech librarians are expected to bring. The investigation of the core competencies from various resources (ALA 2009, ASERL 2000, SLA 2003, Tompson 2007, Tucker & Sinha 2006, Beck & Callison 2007) showed a consistent trend in defining the necessary skills and knowledge a sci/tech librarian should acquire for the 21st century.

The professional competencies are:

The personal competencies outlined in the above mentioned documents are:

Directly to this point, the 1996 Special Library Association (SLA) professional competency “[a] special librarian has specialized subject knowledge appropriate to the business of the organization”, has been dropped in 2003 revised edition. This supports the shared vision expressed at the Academic Research Libraries (ARL) - Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) forum on “Reinventing Science Librarianship: Models for the Future,” held on October 2008 in Arlington, Virginia. Adaptability, flexibility, “focus on strategies for library service assessment, evaluation and improvement,” “skills related to organizing and manipulating data and data sets,” “skills to negotiate between different data systems and between different sorts and compilations of data sets,” and the ability “to play mediating and facilitating roles within and between [virtual] communities [of researchers]” were presented by Jones (2009) as the new set of knowledge and skills necessary for research subject librarians to be effective information professionals along with the evolving technology and constant transformation of science.   It is assumed that the future offers a challenging technological environment to the upcoming sci/tech librarians.

In addition to the ARL-CNI set of skills, the newly hired sci/tech librarians will need to continue their education while on the job. The Science Technology Section (STS) Continuing Education surveys from years 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007 showed an emerging trend of continuing education needs. Teaching science information literacy using a variety of instructional techniques and technologies, and learning new electronic resources will be necessary (Desai 2002). An improved liaison relationship with science departments is indicated (Christianson 2004).  Learning new technologies will be ever-present (Spackman et al. 2006).  And there will remain a sustained need for learning best practices in collaboration between faculty and librarian, along with evaluating existing services and developing new ones (Calzonetti & Crook 2009).

Library recruiters have several pools of candidates to fill sci/tech librarian vacancies:

Different authors suggest a variety of strategies and tips for recruiting potential candidates for the sci/tech library profession. Recruiters can communicate with possible candidates the attractiveness of our profession and emphasize its many areas of applications area:  public service, collection development, and collaborative instruction. Other suggestions include:

Recruitment of Science and Technology Librarians at the University of Maryland and Best Practices at Other Academic Institutions

Recommendations for Library Schools

I attended Mel DeSart’s ALA conference presentation (2005) where he provided statistics on 2005 LIS course offering.  I have followed the same methodology to find whether the situation has changed since then. The catalogs of all ALA-accredited library schools were surveyed to identify which listed science and technology courses. Secondarily, over one academic year, the semester schedules of those schools were reviewed to identify the frequency of course offering. Lastly, beyond the DeSart study, I indentified dual degree programs offered by the same institutions and determined the percentage of existing sci/tech dual degrees.

The findings are illustrated in Table 1 and in the Appendix.

  2005 DeSart’s findings 2009 Tchangalova’s findings
ALA-accredited programs 56 57
Conditionally accredited 3 4
Excluded Montreal None
Sci/tech course listing 41 programs (74.5%) 42 programs (73.7%)
Offerings within one year period from universities offering sci/tech courses 15 (36.5%) 25 (59.5%)
Dual degree offerings in all subjects N/A 27 (47.3%)
Dual degrees offering in sci/tech only from universities offering dual degrees N/A 6 (22.2%)
Table 1. Science/technology courses and dual degree offerings at ALA-accredited library schools

There has been a small shift the past four years. Only 27% in 2005 and 44% in 2009 of all ALA-accredited LIS programs could a student interested in a sci/tech focus be able to take a sci/tech course during a one year period in that program. Many LIS programs are one-year full-time programs. Thus only 1 in 4 in 2005 or 1 in 3 in 2009 of the ALA-accredited LIS programs could a full-time student expect to have even the opportunity to take a sci/tech course from the point they entered the program until they graduated.  The ratio will drop lower if these courses are cancelled due to lack of minimum enrollment. This means that a very large percentage of LIS students never have the opportunity to take a sci/tech course during their studies in a given LIS program, even if they had the interest. Furthermore, only 11% of all ALA-accredited LIS programs offer dual degree programs in the sciences.  This further limits the number of library students who have the opportunity to explore sci/tech specialization.

From many conversations with colleagues, library professionals and in the literature (Bosque & Lampert 2009), it is evident that today’s library schools need to update their curriculum and equip graduates with a new set of skills and knowledge for the 21st century library jobs. Even more, from my personal experience and this of other new librarians I talked with at different library events, if they come to the academic environment and have to meet the tenure requirements, they come out unprepared to do any kind of research due to lack of educational training in research methodology while in library school. If they don’t understand the focus of what the libraries are doing, I would argue that at least they must get a 21st century understanding of what libraries do and how they do it. Our science and engineering librarians are striving to change rapidly to respond to faculty members and a student audience who insist in having access to information in a digital format and who work in a very different manner than they did 10 years ago. It is indeed difficult to create a curriculum to cover all aspects of librarianship: public, academic, and special and at the same time cultivate skills such as communication, negotiation, risk-taking, initiation, leadership, etc. For example, traditional librarians are not well suited to promote library resources and services because they struggle with various aspects of their daily job requirements. They are used to doing a bit of everything and so they do not excel in anything. They are better in “informing” about the resources and services than “selling” them. In this area for library outreach, there is a need of people with excellent communication skills and a mature confidence in them. It seems we require a hybrid “information technology (IT)” (Matthews & Pardue 2009) and “finding information” librarian kind of person. The future sci/tech librarian must be adaptable to the changing technology conditions, tight budgets and the ever changing institutional requirements.

Following are some best practices for producing qualified sci/tech librarians that I learned from colleagues in personal conversations at various academic institutions, library associations and training sessions:

Recommendations for Library Managers and Supervisors

Every time a student leaves EPSL for any reason, I ask them by e-mail to share their positive and negative experiences while working at the library. All of them found the experience extremely valuable and this hands-on practice opened them to areas of the profession that they had not considered. I worked with a library student who had a major in art and graphic design, so the student was involved in creating new signage for the library, marketing materials and exhibits. There are many opportunities for engineering or computer science undergraduate and graduate students to work on a digitization project or a chemistry student to help out with collection development work – there are a lot of possibilities!

From my experience with hiring and overseeing students with or without sci/tech background at EPSL, I found that those library students without science backgrounds acclimated faster to the workflow than graduate students with a science major and no library degree. I spent less time in training LIS students with no sci/tech background than I spent with graduate students with sci/tech backgrounds but not library education or earlier library experience. From this experience, I conclude that the educational credentials from the library school are as important as the communicative skills and the inquisitive nature of the students. Science background by itself alone cannot give the student a life jacket to survive the choppy waters of the sci/tech library profession quickly. I conclude that having a strong theoretical foundation in library science, from sophisticated search techniques to how to deal with various research communities, will solve the dilemma whether to require a dual degree or not: if one has a library degree, filling the gaps of subject expertise will come along the road of further professional development. This will put our profession on the higher steps of the professions and will make it still relevant for the upcoming 22nd century.

From the experience I have just described I would also recommend:

Recommendations for Both Library School Educators and Library Managers

Lillard and Wales (2003) call for collaboration: “Academic librarians and LIS educators must work together to seek creative approaches to strengthening LIS education. Collaboration between the two groups is one of the best ways to ensure that practitioners have a strong voice in education for the profession.” Increasing the communication channels and fostering a two way collaboration between library educators and academic librarians can help ensure that science and technology librarianship will have enough well prepared librarians to fill vacancies in engineering libraries and other sci/tech institutions. This can be achieved by:

Practical Advice for the Newly Graduated: From the Trenches of the University of Maryland

Adapting to an Academic Engineering Library

As a new librarian, applying the theories of library science to the reality of practice can be stressful and overwhelming. The first step in starting an academic career is to become acclimated to the new environment. Here are some things to do to become more familiar with the new surroundings:

Continuing Education and Developing Subject Expertise

As stated previously, increasingly librarians start their careers in sci/tech librarianship without any science background. In these cases, the new professional will not have in depth knowledge of the subject discipline; however, with an inquiring mind and willingness to learn, one can attain a sufficient level of subject expertise. Below are some tips to become a subject expert.

Liaison Relationships

Establishing liaison relationships with your faculty is an extremely important part of your everyday duties. If you don’t have a science or engineering background, the faculty of your assigned academic department can be very helpful in providing background for your discipline. Faculty members often recommend books, journals and other materials for purchase. They collaborate in the purchase of more expensive and extensive resources, and advocate for libraries in difficult financial times. Also, establishing an effective communication line will be helpful for expanding your services not only to faculty but to students as well. Library instruction is a vital part of the educational efforts of any academic institution.

Time Management

As a new librarian you will have many duties assigned, so it is crucial to establish good organizational skills. In this technological era, it is imperative for librarians to be able to multitask. A good practice is to devote a specific amount of time for each of your assigned duties.

A Vision for the Future

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so focused on the requirements of being a sci/tech librarian and having a subject background. From my personal experience working with graduate students, there is a feeling that subject specialization in the sciences is not required in order to provide quality science reference service. An exception could be argued for the field of chemistry librarianship, as it is suggested in literature and from the dual degree programs available for this discipline. Perhaps instead we should focus on some common principles and skills that contemporary academic librarians should have – a commitment to teaching lifelong information literacy skills, advocating for better organization of digital information and more open digital information space, willingness to learn and incorporate new technology into their everyday work in libraries, sharp inquisitive mind and positive attitude, etc. If we look at the recruitment problem from this perspective, there is much less of a shortage of librarians with this skill set than there is of librarians with a specific understanding of one or more scientific disciplines. The only problem is to get individuals to jump onto the engineering library bandwagon. So, let us get to action and unveil the brightest side of our profession to all students undecided in their career choices and make it more visible and attractive.


There has been much attention in the library literature given to the debate over the necessity of the MLS, much less time has been devoted to questioning the legitimacy of requiring subject specific degree. Such expectations could truly be a challenge, as the financial reality of the average American population recently does not include a room for two expensive graduate degrees. And the libraries are not paying the salary levels higher than those for librarians without subject expertise. I’m hesitant to support the hiring of employees without library degrees but if the pool of candidates is limited, hire sci/tech librarians with science degrees but no library degree and make it a part of the contract to complete the library coursework in a specific time frame. The same could be valid in the reverse situation – hire a librarian with MLS degree and require the person to complete a science degree within a specific time frame. Some libraries provide free tuition costs for continuing education. This could be an option, too.

“Failure to adopt methods of resolution are detrimental to the profession, as people possessing passion and dedication but lacking dollars [and time] become the librarians left behind.” (Angell 2009). Efforts to recruit bright young people into the engineering library profession will be fruitful when they understand the requirements for entering the profession. This can be done by educating library students about what engineering librarianship is and by making connections between library graduate schools and engineering libraries. This is probably the most cost-effective way to achieve a higher number of candidates for vacancies in sci/tech librarianship.

On the other hand sci/tech librarians should try to do some things by book or the regular way and at the same time looking at what others are doing. Take the inspiration, the imagination and the energy that the newly fresh graduates bring to the market. Allow them freedom to learn from the best and come up with some new ideas themselves. Part of learning from the best involves from looking deeply into our mistakes in our profession and looking outside for the best ideas from allied fields. Along this line, it is imperative to take advantage of the intelligence and imagination of these recent graduates who could bring excellent customer service skills and innovation to library operations. More cooperation is needed to fill the gap that exists between the curriculum offered by library schools and the applied needs of sci/tech academic libraries. Library schools need to accept the new requirements of the digital era and together with the sci/tech libraries to strengthen the profession in the long run. Together they have to begin dispelling the myths about sci/tech librarianship for those who want to enter the academic setting. Once we reach the point that our hybrid librarian, constituted from IT, sci/tech and reference components, is ready to go out, don’t forget to supply him/her with the appropriate salary basket! Only then more people with sci/tech backgrounds will be interested in librarianship as a career. Library educators and academic sci/tech librarians must work hand in hand in strengthening the library profession, helping graduates gain diverse skills and perspectives. Foresight and persistence will reshape LIS education and make the doors to sci/tech librarianship more visible to graduate students. Let’s take this map of recommendations and undertake a journey toward the region of science/technology librarianship and make it inviting place for future graduates!



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