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Getting up to speed on new subjects

This article was first published in CILIP Update, June 2013.

It is often said that a librarian is someone who doesn’t necessarily know the answer, but does know where to find it. That’s true up to a point, but for many librarians in subject specialist roles, part of the job is having a pretty good idea what the answer might be too.

When dealing with the information flow of our workplaces, it is possible to gain a pretty good grounding in any given subject. Librarians are therefore ideally placed as the first port of call for anyone wanting to get an overview of a subject, or find out about the latest research or developments in their area.

There are times when it is necessary to get up to speed more quickly on a new topic, rather than picking up specialist knowledge on the job: maybe your library has introduced support for a new subject, or you have recently started a new job in a different sector. Facing a new sector can be daunting, but there are quick ways to get the basics covered.

Start by getting to know the practitioners (academics, lawyers, etc) in your new department, and ask what their interests are. Make sure you’re reading the same journals or blogs they read. Ask what keeps them awake at night: finding out their main concerns and priorities allows you to supply the information they need before they’ve realised they need it.

The other route is, of course, other librarians! Hopefully you’ll have been developing your professional networks all along and will have a bevy of helpful, knowledgeable librarians to call on. Check your LinkedIn contacts, twitter followers, or any other online network you use to see who is talking about your new field. See if you know anyone at related organisations – and if you don’t, get in touch. You could also find out if there are any mailing lists that cover your topic.

Your professional body will be of great help here: CILIP and the Special Libraries Association (SLA) both have sector-specific interest groups. Never be afraid to ask a fellow librarian for help: that’s what we do, after all!

Surface knowledge from dealing with information in a certain domain is of course no substitute for the in-depth knowledge of subject practitioners, but exploring a new field, utilising professional connections and staying up to date will allow any librarian to hold their own as a subject expert.

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