4 May 2014

Being a Subject Librarian

I am currently on a long road towards my dream of being a Subject Librarian for East Asian collections. During my last few months as a Library Graduate Trainee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, I thought it would a good opportunity to meet and talk with individuals within this field as a form of CPD. Last week, I interviewed Fujiko Kobayashi, the Subject Librarian for Japan and Korea at SOAS. The questions below formed the basis of my talk with her about her role and its importance within the university.
How did you come into your role? How do you spend most of your day? How do you see your career progressing?
Fujiko like many other librarians simply fell into the role. First from teaching in Japan, to volunteering as a teacher in Malaysia before moving to America and studying Librarianship as a random interest. She greatly credits that participating in a Masters degree around the time were the internet really took off, allowed her new skills in cataloguing and programming with HTML and CSS to assist in landing a job as Library Assistant in London. Before progressing to become a Subject Librarian at SOAS. I expected to hear that as a Subject Librarian she would be getting involved in projects (e.g. preparing reading lists for programmes and research courses) but the majority of her time is spent split 50/50 between cataloguing and classification and dealing with enquiries. Every so often she provides one-one training seminars for research PhD students. Due to her previous experience in teaching she would like to continue to assist students and complete the mammoth task of cataloguing the 60% of the collections that is not online.

Degree vs job training?
This is probably one of the most polarising debates within librarianship. Currently, Fujiko definitely emphasised the need for training on the job opposed to pursuing a degree. However, it is vital to ensure you gain collective experience e.g. cataloguing, acquisitions, library services etc., if you are already on a degree course. Even with all the professional experience under her belt, Fujiko states that even now having a depth of knowledge about your subject of choice and also broader subjects is an important skill for the role of a Subject Librarian that can only be developed overtime on the job. Furthermore, the ability to adapt with changes in trends on the job is more likely to prepare you for a career in librarianship than a degree. However, ultimately for you to progress in the future having a degree will become important for managerial positions.  

Describe the collection development policy for the Japan and Korea collections.
Unlike the Archives and Special Collections department which I previously visited, the collections are not specifically geared towards collecting materials on British Missionary individuals and organisation abroad. The collections are mostly for the purpose of being a national resource for Japanese and Korean Studies with subjects on Humanities, Social Science and History to name a few. Technical, Medical and Pure Sciences are not widely collected, although the History of Science in these regions are. Currently, the collections are made of monographs, journals, audio-visual materials, special collections and some major Japanese and Korean databases. Unfortunately, 30% of books and journals are kept off-site in storage to accommodate for student research space and multi-media desks, as more students use the library study facilities.

Subjective acquisitions or patron-driven collections.
Apart from the core collection focus, Fujiko usually selects resources for acquisition purposes but is 90% flexible towards the needs of academic students and their requests. As most libraries with shrinking budgets, there is a change of focus to increase online resource access and online periodicals and spend less on books which can be expensive. Although this is also an expensive option, due to digital formats will save money in the long-term from reducing the chance of damage of materials and scratches on audio-visual collections. The popularity of learning Japanese has been taken over by Chinese Studies in recent years (which I agree is due to Japan’s economical situation) but the levels of students applying to SOAS has not fallen but increased according to Fujiko. Nonetheless, it seems Japan’s indifference to adapt to technological change and changing laws in publishing and copyright, has seen a low Japanese journal subscriptions rates and access.
Cataloguing and Classification

The Japanese collection is very unique as it uses a combination of the Nippon Decimal Classification (9th ed) and the Dewey Decimal Classification System (DDC21). I was intrigued to know that there were a very small handful of books on botany and science history shelved around DB470. Books written in the Japanese language have the letters 'DB' followed by the DDC subject classfication and anything with just a 'D' are books about Japan written in a Western language. Taking a browse through the WebPAC catalogue, powered by Innovative Technology’s Library Management System (either Millennium or Sierra at a glance), Fujiko mentioned that it is not multi-language friendly. So for language studies to search for resources in the Japanese language they would have to search via the subscribed database of CiNii. As all data about the Japanese and Korean collections is sent to CiNii, users can see whether materials resides at SOAS or another university subscribed to the same service.

Language competence for Subject Librarians

Unfortunately, the unicode for Kanji and Chinese characters is not available at Kew. Currently, I have been cataloguing periodicals in Japanese romanji, using my limited knowledge of Japanese. Fujiko states that it is of upmost importance for her role to have written and spoken knowledge of Japanese and Korean to perform her daily duties. However, learning a language is no easy task. Although many foreign vendors can cope with English especially those in Korea, the impact of not having sufficient knowledge with being a Subject Librarian for a language can affect negotiations and subscriptions. Thus, impacting on available research materials for students. 

New trends impacting the role of a Subject Librarian within the next 5 years?

Particularly at SOAS, Fujiko believes that there will be more change to online resources as Japan plays catch-up with its technology for e-journals. In addition an increased provision of workshops to educate Japanese language users about the libraries services, without alienating users with too much information via email.

Online advocacy and digital libraries for Japanese collections

Even though there is a subject librarian’s blog, it seems that a lot of students don’t really read it. However, it has been useful in gaining contacts from other Japan Subject Librarian and finding out that whether they can help in expanding the collections. Fujiko emphasised that once again due to the Japanese cultural aspect, there has been a very slow shift to digital libraries and online collections. A lot of books and journals are only made in print and in the Japanese language. Contrast to the Korean collection which she also manages, there has been a huge technological move along with the hanyuu wave to ensure that Korean library materials are available worldwide in Korean and English and accessible online.

Future training and networking

To reach my career goal of working with special collection libraries with East Asian materials in London or abroad, Fujiko definitely thinks I should ensure to increase my Japanese language knowledge to at least JLPT N2 level. Also network at events for specific library associations like the UK Japan Library Group, Japan Society and engage in discussion groups.
I have definitely learnt a lot from this meeting and will definitely put her recommendations to good use. I have around another two years of studying for my librarianship degree and I definitely like the idea of (possible) 2 year master course in Japanese Studies. All in all, I will be able to combine my Japanese language skills with a career in libraries/ information management.

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