British Columbia Library Association

Simon Fraser University librarians on the changing role of library information service

By BCLA Perspectives

Academic libraries in Canada have seen the roles of their information staff change at the professional and para-professional level in the last 20 years. This is also the case at Simon Fraser University (SFU) Library. To get a better sense of how this large academic library system is coping with the changes, Perspectives spoke with SFU Library’s Elaine Fairey, Associate University Librarian, Learning and Research Services; Ania Dymarz, Head, Learning and Instructional Services Division; and Janis McKenzie, eBranch Librarian.


Perspectives: What role do persons with a library technician’s diploma play in SFU Library’s public service model? Specifically, the staff members titled ‘Library Assistants’ working in the Learning and Information Services Division.

SFU librarians: Library technicians can be found throughout the library at SFU in public service. While currently public service positions do not usually require you to hold a library technician’s diploma, oftentimes the skill set we look for in particular public service jobs match the skills of graduates of library technician programs. For example, in the Learning and Instructional Services Division at SFU Library we have two library assistants who both have library technician’s diplomas. In the past, however, we have had staff with a variety of educational backgrounds. Library school graduates have held these positions, as well as graduates of library technician programs, and staff with a variety of post-secondary experience. What matters most when we are looking to fill a posting is that the applicant’s skills and experiences make them the best candidate for the job.

Perspectives: How has the role changed over time?

SFU librarians: The library assistants who work in the Learning and Instructional Services Division have always done instruction and reference work. These core areas have not changed over time; however, the mode of delivery has. Reference has moved away from being a service solely provided in person to being a service delivered virtually as well. Similarly, while in-person instruction is still a major part of the work of the division, a shift to providing instruction through online resources means a heavier emphasis on skills such as web publishing for our library assistants.

Library assistants are providing increased assistance with online resources such as guides and FAQs. While librarians continue to have responsibility for the content, maintaining guides and webpages and keeping them accurate is time-consuming, and our library assistants do a lot of work around formatting, link-checking, catching needed updates to content, and recommending improvements. Lastly, there has been an increase in the last number of years in the amount of introductory instruction and orientations taken on by library assistants.

Perspectives: What role do librarians play in the division and how does this differ from the library assistants/technicians?

SFU librarians: Librarians and library assistants work together on many projects and services; however, their roles are distinct. Reference services are staffed by both librarians and library assistants, but librarians take on the added role of providing training around subject-specific questions or specialized resources for those providing reference services. Additionally, librarians provide consultations for users who have more in-depth research needs. Both librarians and library assistants deliver instruction. Librarians tend to teach classes based on liaison areas and library assistants provide mostly general and lower-level instruction. Librarians also take on the role of an instructional designer for the classes that library assistants teach. Because of the overlap in roles there are many opportunities for collaboration between librarians and library assistants.

PerspectivesWhat are some of the major changes you have observed in the needs of library patrons (faculty and students) at SFU?

SFU librarians: One of the biggest changes, not just for SFU Library but for all libraries, has been the shift from physical to digital in many domains. Our users access our resources and services 24/7 from around the world. We have responded proactively to this by developing our online collections and continuously improving our online user experience. Users are also familiar with self-help models of service and we have responded proactively on that front as well by supplying self-checkout options in the library and self-help research support online.

Perspectives: What are the most valuable skills needed from a recent graduate of an MLIS/MLS program when entering the academic library sector, especially at a large system like SFU’s?

SFU librarians: While the specific skills needed may vary from position to position, what is of value to any librarian entering the academic setting is the capacity to respond proactively to change. Librarians respond to change on many fronts, be it with changes in technology, in the organization, or higher education generally. Responding proactively means that you are flexible in your approach to your work and that you bring creativity and many sources of information to the table when approaching any project or task.

Perspectives: What are the most valuable skills needed from a recent graduate of a library technician diploma program when entering the academic library sector?

SFU librarians: Again, while the answer to this question may vary from position to position, overall an ability to stay flexible is important across positions. While the ‘what’ of your job may stay the same, the ‘how’ may change over time. The ability to master the core areas of your job while staying flexible to how you approach those areas will help your library move forward and will help you develop your own professional expertise regardless of the area.

It is also very valuable to be aware of the higher-level goals of your organisation, as well as the unit in which you are working. What are the library’s (or unit’s) priorities? Who is it serving? When employees are committed to, and excited about, what the library is trying to achieve, their fresh perspective can help us all find ways to do things better — along with the skills they’ve developed through formal training. Lastly, excellent interpersonal skills are incredibly important as well.

Perspectives: Have there been or are there expected to be changes to job titles so that they better match the changed responsibilities of librarians and library technicians?

SFU librarians: Job titles do change over time across sectors and the library is no exception. At SFU Library we have recently had a discussion about the term ‘liaison librarian’ and whether that term still captures the work done by librarians. It is good to revisit job titles because they both help define our own roles internally but also communicate our areas of expertise and our services to the community.

Perspectives: The digital shift has impacted all library sectors. Given these changes to collections and services, what professional development opportunities are offered by SFU to all library staff?

SFU librarians: At SFU Library, staff have a number of professional development opportunities. Staff have access to in-house training opportunities through regularly scheduled brown bags and learning opportunities. The library also encourages staff to take advantage of external opportunities such as conferences and workshops where appropriate.

The shift to digital is reflected in all of these professional development opportunities. Oftentimes the topics that come up at brown bags and in workshops are a direct response to a need or interest that has been identified by a staff member. So for example, some of our more recent brown bags have addressed digital topics such as website user experience and digital content management. Staff from all levels and divisions are invited to attend during work hours, as well as to present on conferences, readings, activities, and ideas.

Perspectives: Has the SFU Library undertaken any strategic initiatives to prepare all library staff for expected or current changes in reference and instruction services?

SFU librarians: Any major changes that are introduced within reference and instruction on a divisional level are usually facilitated by the work of a task group. Any changes that would be carried forward would be recommended by the work of a task group, that is, the recommendations would be made through the work of a team that has been strategically put together to have appropriate representation across library staff groups. Furthermore, no recommendation would be made without the consultation of many stakeholders and no recommendation would be made before seeking out many sources of evidence to inform any recommendations.

For example, SFU Library is currently considering changes to our reference services model. As such, we have struck a task group looking at frontline reference services made up of service providers that includes representation across all three SFU Library branches. This group has looked at many sources of evidence, including literature, an environmental scan, and local information sources such as reference desk statistics. We have also consulted with various groups including students, library assistants, and librarians. Depending on the nature of the changes to instruction services, a similar model could be deployed for introducing changes to those services.

Perspectives: What support technologies do the library staff use to provide reference services and academic support?

SFU librarians: Library staff use many online resources in the provision of reference services. Virtual reference services are provided through AskAway, British Columbia’s consortial chat service. We also respond to questions over email and text through our Txt Us service. Depending on the research needs of our users, we may also bring in a variety of technologies for support; for example, citation management software to help with literature reviews or software such as NVIVO to facilitate data analysis.

Perspectives: How have the library’s physical spaces adapted to accommodate the changing needs of its patrons?

SFU librarians: Library spaces continue to be updated to respond to the needs of our users. The main floor of the library on the Burnaby campus was recently renovated to create more student spaces, both for individual study and group collaboration. Some changes to service points were also introduced, the loans and research help desks were co-located, and the tech help desk was moved next to the printers for ease of access. One new service that the SFU Library is currently considering is the creation of a makerspace that would invite users in as creators and collaborators. SFU Library is also looking at creating a master plan that will enable the library to plan for long term strategic changes to physical changes.


Elaine Fairey is the Associate University Librarian, Learning and Research Services at SFU. Ania Dymarz is the Head, Learning and Instructional Services at SFU. Janis McKenzie is the eBranch Librarian at SFU.

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