Teaching science librarianship

Being one myself, I am interested in the training of future science & engineering librarians — especially people who do this odd amalgamation of things that reference, instruction, outreach and collections librarians do. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve seen a whole bunch of engineering librarian and science librarian job ads roll by recently, all full of things like data management, scholarly communication, and immersed instruction.

There’s a tension in library schools on whether to lean towards teaching theory or teaching hands-on skills. I went (a decade ago) to a school that emphasized theory, and I don’t have anything bad to say about studying things like information-seeking behavior; I still keep those lessons in the back of my mind whenever I have to learn a new discipline to liaison with, for instance. And some practical skills are also useful: every non-cataloging librarian I’ve ever met has said something along the lines of “well, my cataloging class was a slog, but I sure am glad I learned the MARC fields.” I feel similarly about my gov docs class; I may not work with them every day, but I’m really glad I had that deep look that continues to inform me how to find my way around a sudocs number.

But how to teach subject librarianship? Some schools shy away from teaching things like “science librarianship” on the theory that you pick most things up on the job anyway. This is true. And I don’t think classes full of learning databases and resources are super useful — interfaces will always change (learning the old print indexes is the most useful, if you want a theoretical understanding), and so will tools. And honestly, though I think some training is helpful, a ten-week class isn’t going to move the needle much on making you a good reference librarian; getting through a million weird questions and having a good memory will. The same goes for instruction.

So what *should* we teach? If I were teaching an academic science librarian class right now, focused on giving people skills for entering the current job market, here’s what I’d touch on, in roughly this order:

  1. Structure of the field: professional development and organizations; asking for help; responsibilities of the job; how to balance competing priorities
  2. Using the library: library space; how scientists & engineers learn and work; when library instruction fits in; getting user feedback
  3. Discovery: search; how databases & catalogs interact with the open web; cross-linking & exposing information; identifiers
  4. Collection development: negotiating licensing; PDA and rent-to-own models; the role of aggregators and packages; weeding, storage and shared collections
  5. Gray lit: standards; patents; tech reports & gov info; translations; conference proceedings
  6. Data: storage, preservation, data management plans
  7. Data: working with it, sharing it, citing it, finding it
  8. Intellectual property: copyright; open access
  9. Publication models: new journal models; identifiers (pt 2); digitization and preservation projects; alternative digital libraries
  10. Getting credit: current tenure metrics; alt-metrics; author identifiers

That could be a ten-week course, touching very briefly on each thing as a seminar topic; or, in my case, a ten-year course of learning these things on the job! Regardless, these are the things that occupy my mind, and they are what I would encourage new librarians to explore.

(I have also thought about a class just focused on exploring each of the major science & engineering disciplines in turn — and I think that would be super fun to do as a complementary class, but maybe less useful).

p.s. per facebook discussion, this is really “current topics in academic [science] librarianship” — which is a fine framing too.

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