My unit of Sterling Memorial Library, Yale’s main library, is called Humanities Collections and Research Education, or HCRE for short. This unit was created in 1996 by merging the old Bibliography Department and the old Reference Department. As a result of the merger, the bibliographers (also known as selectors or collection development librarians), who build the humanities collections for Sterling and Bass Libraries, began serving on the reference desk and conducting research education sessions for students. Similarly, the reference librarians began building collections. The University Librarian’s idea behind creating the merger back then was for synergies to develop between these two groups, with reference interactions fueling collecting decisions as the bibliographers became more familiar with the needs of students and faculty first-hand. The merger was not seamless because it meant that everyone had to develop new skills and expertise that they hadn’t signed up for, but eventually everyone settled in to their new roles.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Since then we have seen a significant drop in the numbers of complex reference questions coming in, largely the result of free search engines like Google (which allow our patrons to help themselves to information, good or bad) combined with a general tendency for once-avid library users to work remotely now that so many of our holdings are available in electronic form (eJournals, eBooks, a web-based library catalog, and well over a thousand full-text databases). As a result of the drop in traffic, as I mentioned in an earlier post, we have converted our reference desk into an “Information Services” desk staffed by nonprofessionals. That happened in 2008 but it could have happened earlier; the idea of such a change was met with longstanding resistance because some librarians were understandably quite emotionally attached to the desk and couldn’t imagine a great library like Sterling without one. Today the HCRE librarians still handle plenty of reference interactions, but these occur mostly via email and one-on-one meetings in our offices rather than in a public space as they did before. And they happen largely as a result of outreach to our readers by the librarians rather than librarians sitting passively at a public desk waiting for readers and questions to come to them.
Of course we still spend millions of dollars each year buying new books, maintaining journal subscriptions, and purchasing or subscribing to new electronic databases. As you know from an earlier post, I select the materials related to literature in English, comparative literature, linguistics, British and Commonwealth history, film studies, and theater studies. And there are four other bibliographers in my department. Dave handles American History, African American Studies, and American Studies. Mike handles European history and French, German, and Italian language and literature. Colin collects in classics, ancient philosophy, ancient history, and philosophy. Jana covers Latin America and the Caribbean, Spain, and Portugal.
Since we are embarking on a new fiscal year (beginning yesterday, July 1) the members of my department have to come up with a plan for how we are going to spend our collections money in the coming months. Dave, Mike, and I work in the same office space, and this makes sense because we have the most overlap in the subject-specific materials we collect: broadly speaking, together we build collections in modern North American and Western European history, language and literature, and film. So the three of us sit down together each year at this time and draw up a list of priorities for “big purchases,” usually meaning new digital newspaper archives on offer from the vendor ProQuest or other databases like the ever-expanding State Papers Online published by the vendor Gale Cengage Learning that will each eat up significant portions of our individual allocations. We work together on this even though we each handle collections in different subjects because many of the databases we will want to purchase contain materials that span more than one subject, or because some of the funds we each have to spend have come to us from donors who have granted us leeway to buy in any humanities subject that the library needs. In other words we can sometimes pool our funds or help each other out so that we wind up spending our funds strategically as a cooperative effort. We have a productive meeting, and I agree to write up our list of priorities and submit it to our boss by end of day. Colin and Jana, who work in different offices, will each work out their own priorities, but they know they can ask any of us to pitch in for purchases that overlaps with our collecting areas.
Some readers may be wondering what kind of educational background and experience you need to land a job as a Western European language librarian in an academic library. Just this past May a group of six foreign language librarians from across the US, all members of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Western European Studies Section, held an informative online discussion on this very subject. The discussion is archived and viewable on YouTube: