Interaction and knowledge exchange among academic business librarians in Ontario

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  • Academic business librarians are hired for their subject expertise to provide reference, instruction, collection development and liaison services to business faculty and students in university libraries. Previous surveys of academic business librarians found that many librarians assume these positions without an educational background in Business or a familiarity with business information. The literature provides only anecdotal evidence of how they learn the practice of academic business librarianship and little is known about the information sources they turn to when faced with difficult reference questions or when requiring advice on collection development or other issues related to their professional practice. The purpose of this study was twofold: first, to investigate the communication, information seeking, and professional development activities of a population of academic business librarians in order to develop a better understanding of how they acquired and shared knowledge related to their professional practice. Of particular interest was how these activities varied according to variables such as educational background, years of professional experience, type of subject responsibility (solo or shared) and the type of library in which they worked (branch or centralized library). The second purpose of this study was to use the framework of Communities of Practice to determine the extent to which this population of academic business librarians could be characterized as a community of practice. The target population comprised 25 individuals working as academic business librarians (also known as business subject specialists) at 15 different university libraries Ontario. A two phase multi-method research design was employed to collect data using quantitative and qualitative techniques. In phase one, a web-based questionnaire consisting of 23 closed and open-ended questions was administered via SurveyMonkey ( to elicit information on each respondent’s personal characteristics, workplace context, professional development activities, and professional communication habits. In phase two, in-depth qualitative interviews were held with eight individuals from six different universities. The interviews were conducted using the critical incident technique method in order to elicit details on each respondent’s information seeking behaviour related to the practice of academic business librarianship. 21 respondents (14% male and 86% female) for a response rate of 84%. Less than 15% of respondents had an educational background in Business or Economics. 43% of respondents worked in branch business libraries and 57% worked in centralized libraries. 29% of respondents had sole responsibility for business services compared to 71% who shared this responsibility with at least one other librarian. 61% of respondents belonged to the Ontario Library Association (OLA) and the OLA’s annual conference was the most frequently attended conference. Other common continuing professional education (CPE) activities included attending other library association conferences, workshops, internal training sessions, and database vendor presentations. Most respondents subscribed to Library and Information Science (LIS)-related email discussion lists for professional communication but nearly half of respondents did not subscribe to the Business Librarians (BUSLIB-L) email discussion list. 28% of respondents posted queries to LIS-related email discussion lists several times per year while 49% responded to queries posted by others at least several times per year. 90% of respondents communicated directly with business librarians in other organizations several times per year, most frequently via email or the telephone rather than via face-to-face communication. Analysis of interview transcripts found that information seeking occurred most frequently with new and early-career stage librarians who were new to business librarianship and working as solo business librarians. Individuals who had experienced a disjunctive socialization process (where they lacked an internal role model) experienced greater uncertainty and a lack of role clarity, and made greater use of third parties (external information sources such as business librarians in other universities) than individuals who had experienced a serial socialization process (where they were groomed by internal role models). Role-related information seeking occurred with respect to reference, instruction, collections, and CPE responsibilities and varied according to organizational context. Less external role-related information seeking occurred in branch business libraries (which all employed more than one business librarian and where the librarians worked in collaboration on reference, instruction, and collections responsibilities) than with solo librarians in centralized libraries (who were surrounded by colleagues unable to provide needed advice and support). Information sources included internal colleagues (for institution-specific help), external contacts such as other business librarians and business database vendors, email discussion lists (for quick answers to reference questions) and library web sites for benchmarking library holdings. Respondents identified a number of barriers to engaging in CPE activities including lack of time, lack of relevant offerings, and institutional constraints. Questionnaire findings confirmed that nearly all respondents lacked an academic background in Business or Economics. While nearly all held a membership in a LIS-related professional association, there was little overlap in membership, thus limiting opportunities for boundary spanning communication via professional association channels. The lack of subscriptions to BUSLIB-L raises doubts as to its importance as a tool for current awareness, professional development and advice for academic business librarians. Direct communication between librarians occurs via lean channels such as email or the telephone, typical for individuals communicating over long distances or conveying routine messages. This study found that various individual and contextual factors impacted information seeking behaviour including career stage, type of responsibility, type of library, and organizational socialization processes. This population more closely resembles a network of practice than a community of practice; while it is efficient at communicating explicit knowledge it lacks the face-to-face interaction required to transmit implicit and tacit knowledge. It does have the potential to develop into a distributed community of practice which could serve as a socialization agent for new academic business librarians and as a knowledge sharing forum, thus fostering closer interaction and coordination among community members.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International