Building good relationships: Exploring the “hangout factor” in liaison work
May 14, 2019
By Ellen Hampton Filgo
Librarians set best practices for collaboration
For the last few years, we have been exploring an aspect of liaison work that we call the “hangout factor.” Fittingly, this exploration began while we were hanging out in each other’s office doorways and recounting success stories in our work with our liaison departments. These successes included semester-long experiments in embedding into a class, faculty who sought out our assistance with literature reviews for new research projects, and events that were crowded with faculty and students exploring special collections materials.
As we discussed why these activities were successful, we began to see that many had their beginnings in simple social and informal situations, whether they were random and serendipitous (like running into faculty at the library coffee shop) or deliberate (like stopping by a faculty member’s office for a chat). These types of interactions seemed to lay the groundwork for the good relationships that led to our successes.
We quickly came to call these interactions “hangout” activities, because it seemed like all we were doing was just hanging out with these faculty members. However, because they involved our liaison departments, they were still relevant to our work. As we began to examine the activities more closely, we noticed several things:
They were often unplanned
They were often informal
They often happened in social situations
They could take place anywhere, but usually happened outside the library
To better understand these hangout activities and evaluate their value, we classified and then visualized liaison interactions into a matrix of formality and location. The horizontal axis plots activities by type on a scale from planned to unplanned. The planned activities are more formal and structured, possibly even agenda-driven. Unplanned activities are informal and unstructured, perhaps serendipitous. The vertical axis indicates where the activity takes place: either on the librarian’s turf or venturing across campus to the faculty's turf.
The types of activities that we describe as “hangout” occur most frequently in the upper right quadrant, high on the vertical axis (toward faculty turf) and to the right on the horizontal axis (toward more informal and unplanned interactions). Many of these were chance encounters that occurred outside the librarian’s usual domain, but often beyond the faculty member’s as well. These might include casual interactions at the grocery store or book shop, for example. Often the librarian’s attendance at such things as departmental events results in enthusiastic and appreciative responses linking this type of participation with significant support of the department, the individual faculty member, and students in ways that go beyond the traditional expectations of the librarian’s role. This response may be the result of moving beyond the traditional and narrow perception of the relationship with librarian as transactional, in which the librarian might only interact with the faculty member to meet a particular need expressed by the faculty, such as teaching students about library resources and services or ordering library materials to support teaching and research.
As we continued analyzing the results of these activities, we noted that many activities in the upper right quadrant had direct connections to liaison activity in other quadrants as well — in other words, hangout activities often resulted in increased activity of other types. In these informal interactions, faculty members would say things like “I’m so glad I ran into you. I’ve been meaning to contact you about [insert traditional liaison activity roles here].” Hangout moments also led to casual relational conversations: “Great to see you, what’s going on in your world?” “How are your classes going?” “How is your research project going?” It’s no wonder that these kinds of questions elicit good conversation and insights. People like to feel that others are interested in them and what they’re doing. It’s not that we ask those questions merely as an inroad to more liaison activity, but because we genuinely care about others. We demonstrate that through conversation, creating a safe and welcoming space that is fertile ground for more conversation and more collaboration. Even if the conversation doesn’t immediately lead to an invitation to teach a class or collaborate on a research project, the conversation may be preparing the soil and planting seeds for the future. A brief word of greeting, a small conversation, or a gift of a cup of coffee acknowledges the presence or value of another person, and even if nothing more comes of the encounter, building good relationships is good in itself.
As we have explored what these hangout activities mean to our liaison work, we have arrived at a few best practices:
Keep your eyes open to recognize hangout opportunities as they arise – perhaps you haven’t even noticed them in the past!
Stretch outside your comfort zone and experiment with different kinds of hangout activities. We don’t advocate for every liaison doing the exact same things; however, being aware of where your comfort zone is and where you may need to take risks is critical.
View hangout activities with a long lens to see the cumulative effect. One cup of coffee today may not mean a successful collaboration tomorrow.
Record and assess the hangout activities as you would other more traditional liaison activities. If you record them, you are more likely to notice any long-term results.
Accept hangout activities in and of themselves; embrace them as “real library work.”