February 17, 2018

Current Awareness Service and Academia Never Really Mixed | From the Bell Tower

While some library practitioners still deliver current awareness services, what passes as this service today is mostly automated and impersonal. Steven Bell suspects that most academic librarians are no longer familiar with the art of current awareness, and that may be an unfortunate shift in our practice.

At the risk of dating myself and sounding out-of-touch, I’m going to admit that I miss providing current awareness service. When I obtained my library science degree in the seventies I was primarily preparing for the special libraries career track. Much of the coursework emphasized the importance of establishing current awareness services as a way of promoting the library, achieving a well-informed clientele and delivering on a core special library value—the personalized information service. I even wrote a lengthy research paper about it for my final course. In my first job out of library school I worked in a special library setting, and I created the mother of all current awareness services for a staff of approximately 50 professionals. Just know that these folks were incredibly appreciative of having someone look out for their information interests, and it established enormous trust in the quality of the library operation. It still remains one of the more satisfying ways I’ve been able to serve my community as a librarian and establish the value of the library.

It’s a human endeavor

A Google search on this phrase revealed a number of academic libraries that offer this service. However, these are mostly medical or law libraries, and what they describe as current awareness service is often some variation on automated ways to register for journals’ table of contents updates. To my way of thinking, that’s not real current awareness service delivery. I see it as an analog service that depends on establishing a relationship with the recipient of the service, in which quality depends on having a deep understanding of that person’s information needs. Then, by virtue of having access to the content, the librarian hand picks just the right information gems for each person based on their knowledge of each client’s work or research interests. You can see the difference between sending someone a table of contents every month and selecting the just-right-article that person would choose for themselves. It’s a highly proactive, customized and thoughtful approach to making sure each service recipient is treated as an individual.

Who needs it?

Thanks to the Internet and advanced information technology, the art of personalized current awareness service is pretty much on life support, if not dead—at least in higher education. Is there really any need to have a librarian retrieve and package news items for you? Anyone can create their own personal, customized regimen for daily current awareness. In the space of just a few years, the process of establishing e-mail or RSS alerts for targeted publications has shifted from high-tech skill to everyday practice. With the advent of easily created alerts for web searches and table-of-contents pages, along with near constant news from social media channels, if anything we are now able to achieve a state of current awareness not previously possible—perhaps not even with the help of a personal librarian. Despite all that’s changed from the time I first become a believer in the power of current awareness, there might still be something special about the relationship between the librarian and client that is the outcome of current awareness service.

Not for academic librarians

There are some obvious reasons why personalized current awareness service was never a hallmark of academic librarianship. For one thing, it would be difficult to invest the time and effort required to scale the service to all the potential users. It’s one thing to know 40 or 50 researchers well enough to attend to their information needs, but doing the same for 4000 or 40,000 is unrealistic. Academic librarians certainly build relationships with faculty and students, but not nearly deep enough to perform a truly thorough job of delivering a regular stream of content of true value to them. Somehow this service never quite fit into the core functions of student learning, faculty research support, and collection building. While current awareness service may never quite be a perfect fit for academic librarianship, I suspect it is happening to a lesser extent for a limited number of faculty and administrators. Once we get to know these colleagues and their research interests, it’s not particularly burdensome to occasionally share with them the title of a newly acquired book or a relevant article.

Just recently I was assisting a fellow administrator working on an extended project. Initially I performed a standard literature search and delivered a set of articles. In a follow up conversation, I sensed an opportunity to build on that initial service by sharing some news articles directly related to the topic. It required only a small amount of extra work for a short time, but my colleague greatly appreciated the effort. Now this administrator, whom I rarely spoke to before, greets me warmly and has, I think, a much better appreciation for the work of academic librarians. Who knows how that small investment of time might pay off in the future when the librarians need the support of their non-library colleagues?

Joys of current awareness

Current awareness service, for me, will remain something I value as a librarian. I have yet to completely surrender thinking I can make a difference for people in my community by proactively discovering and sharing information I believe they will value. What I mostly lack now are good opportunities. I suspect that the design and practice of current awareness service is no longer taught in LIS programs, excepting perhaps any remaining special librarianship courses. Given the shift to a digital content, the need for one person to manually cater to the information needs of another is greatly diminished. Still, I like the idea of a service that creates a bond between me and my community member.

Technology is great, and you need a strong technology infrastructure these days for a great academic library. In a technology environment in which individuals can, with incredible ease, self-select all manner of alerts and feeds, and gorge themselves on an endless buffet of content, perhaps there is now a great opportunity for subject specialists who can artfully identify quality items and share them in a timely and personalized way. No matter how much technology we deploy in service to our communities, we should always want to rely what got us here and what will get us to the future—relationship building between academic librarians and their community members. Current awareness service may be exactly what we will need to help us get there.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Steven, thanks for this insightful article. I followed the same track as you and delivered the same kind of service, encountering many researchers dissatisfied with table-of-contents delivery or canned searches like through Dialog Alerts that were difficult to structure exactly to filter out irrelevant material. Even with TOCs, RSS, database alerts, citation tracking (much helped by Google Scholar,) and more, I never found the one size fits all solution. There is a need for this kind of service, as patrons appreciate it, it adds value and aligns the library with the larger institution’s activities, yet to many of us it may seem like one more task to accommodate with limited time and resources. Bravo to you for calling attention to it.

  2. Talk about currency! I just finalized Version 1 of a program for this library system (that I designed and implemented as well) for just this very topic. Our Professional Aide-de-Camp Program will utilize graduates to engage with their employers – we want them to introduce profession-based literature currency, do so for free and with the full support of this library system. We’ll enable IP address peer-reviewed journal access, remote login, materials and downloadable Internet browser Toolbar to help them out.

    The graduates chosen will either self-select volunteer or be selected based on their use of the library, connection with us as librarians, interactivity, communication, program, hopes and dreams. This program will enhance their employment marketability by showing professionalism from the start, answering that old interview question – what will you be doing for us in the first 90 days? Well . . . let me tell you!

    • Hi Garrett.

      Great minds think alike. Glad you enjoyed this column and that it struck a chord with you. I hope it might inspire you to do more with CAS at your library.

    • Thanks Kenneth.

      Interesting to hear about your software.

      I hope to hear more about it and possible applications for delivering CAS in libraries.