Reference Services for Academic Staff at a Chinese and an English University:
A Comparative Case Study

Ling Zhang
Harbin Engineering University
Harbin, Heilongjiang 150001
Austin McCarthy
University of Northumbria
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST
United Kingdom

ABSTRACT: There is a marked contrast between the approach to reference services in Harbin Engineering University, China and Northumbria University, UK. Both universities have experienced increased pressure on library services due to a rapid growth in student enrollment. In both institutions, the academic staff are a vital link between students and the library. The emphasis at Northumbria is not on the provision of a reference service for academic staff but on making them aware of the resources and how to access and use them. In Harbin Engineering University, teachers are VIP library users. Delivering an effective reference service to teachers will encourage students to use information.

1 Northumbria University: a Brief Introduction

Between 1968 and 1973, a number of teaching institutions called polytechnics were created in England.1 They were primarily teaching institutions with an emphasis on vocational courses such as nursing, teacher training, business studies, engineering and fashion. Many Polytechnics established themselves as excellent teaching and research institutions with courses in the arts, social sciences and humanities, as well as in their traditional disciplines. In 1992 the polytechnics became universities. The rate of expansion has been rapid. Northumbria had 13,285 students and 1680 FTE academic staff in 1988/89; in 2003/2004, it had 23,912 students from 90 countries and 2,582 FTE academic staff, and is planning for another 7,000 students in the next five years!

While student numbers increased by over 100%, academic staff increased by about 50%. This expansion has resulted in changes in teaching methods, with more group learning and an increasing emphasis on student-centred (or self-directed or independent) learning - students acquire knowledge and understanding for themselves with limited guidance. The development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, together with a VLE (Virtual Learning Environments) facilitate the development of distance learning and the distribution of learning materials and information resources to remote students. Because of the origin and development of the university and the need to attract students in a highly competitive market, Northumbria is student-centred not research-centred. In other words, the emphasis is on students and ensuring the quality of the student learning experience. Courses are regularly reviewed to ensure quality, and the reputation for teaching quality is excellent.2 Although Northumbria is a teaching university, there are many researchers on the staff, not a few with international reputations, and the University has many research institutes and research centres. Library reference services at Northumbria are provided for academic staff with major distinctive characteristics from that at Harbin Engineering University.

1.1 Subject Specialists and Traditional Reference Services

The role of subject librarian (or subject specialist or information specialist) is well established in British and American universities but is a more recent innovation in Chinese academic libraries. For example, in a recent article Wu and Huang wrote: "To improve the quality of reference service, new positions like ‘subject librarian’ and ‘reference librarian’ have been created in Tsinghua University Library and Wuhan University Library, and soon this may be widespread in many academic libraries in China."3 Such posts were established in 2002, based on the US model. "It aims to provide better services for teaching and research. These subject librarians serve as liaison to academic disciplines, provide library instruction to students, and write library instructional materials for subject areas. The one-year implementation of this program has proved to be very effective."4 "Professional staff in the Library are at the centre of another planned innovation — the introduction of subject librarians who will work directly with academic departments to meet their needs for library support. Besides responding to requests for resources and user education, subject librarians will be able to advise departments on collection development and help formulate development policy for the Library."5 The responsibilities of such new posts are typical of the responsibilities of subject librarians in British universities, with some variation.

Subject specialists at Northumbria have direct, formal links to academic colleagues. Each information specialist is responsible for providing print and electronic resources, information skills instruction and a specialised enquiry service to a number of subject divisions. They sit on School Learning and Teaching Committees, School Programme (Course) Committees, School E-Learning Committees and so on. All have subject degrees; most have higher degrees; some have teaching qualifications; and some are active researchers working with academic colleagues. Liaison with academic staff and students to ensure effective communication and understanding has always been a key activity for the subject librarians at Northumbria. Twenty years ago, what reference services did we provide for academic staff?6 We answered enquiries – that is, academic staff or students asked a question and we found the answer for them. Sometimes, considerable research was required in order to do so; we undertook literature searches for them – finding books and journal articles for their teaching or research; we compiled bibliographies and scanned journal articles to provide a current awareness service based on their teaching and research interests. This was in the days of print abstracts and indexes and the early days of computer searching. Literature searches could take many hours to complete using print sources, and computer searching required knowledge of the specialised command language and incurred online telecommunication costs. The library was a building with books, journals, microfilms, and some videos. These services were time-intensive and required specialist knowledge and techniques. And how did academic staff contact us – they came to see us in the library; they used the telephone; or they sent written memos.

1.2 Changing Role of Subject Specialists7

How have libraries changed during this period of expansion and technological development? Just as subject librarians were being appointed in Chinese libraries, a debate was resumed in the West about their role and future prospects.8 What has happened to subject librarians and what reference services or other services do we give to academic staff now and why? For one thing, the library is not just a building any more. The library is still heavily used. But the collection now includes ebooks, ejournals, images, datasets, databases, maps, statistics, etc. The library offers workshops on Web-based information skills, the electronic help desk, and the virtual learning environment. All such resources and services are available 24 hours a day to our students all over the world and to students in Newcastle who choose to study outside the library. And the demands and expectations of users are rising. They want access to full text of all resources on and off campus twenty four hours a day, which means study spaces with IT facilities and Internet connections situated near the books and journals; help and support on demand; and instant and easy solutions to the complexities of using this wonderful information world. Therefore, the subject librarian has to adapt to this new environment and to continually retool their skills to meet their challenges so as to best meet users’ expectations. So extensive have been the changes in the work of subject librarians that the IMPEL2 Project9 suggested that they "were often at the forefront of technological change within UK HEI libraries".10

Notably, the role of subject librarians has been changed in the following areas:

1.3 Changes in the Work of Academics

Just as the work of subject librarians has changed, so has the work of academics. More students entail a greater teaching load, more exams and assessments to mark, and more student counseling and support due to differences in their age, recent educational experience, abilities, language problems, etc. Academics need to learn the skills necessary to work in an electronic environment and produce teaching resources;12 they are responding to greater pressures from parents, students and employers; adapting courses to meet market pressures in a new competitive environment; searching for new markets and partners at home and overseas. And they are subject to ever more quality assurance systems.13

1.4 Impact of Changes on Reference Services

Subject librarians undertake fewer literature searches and answer fewer subject enquiries from academic staff. There is little demand for the service because databases can be searched anywhere by anybody without the need for specialised knowledge. Whether they are searched effectively is another matter! Nor do subject librarians spend hours of their time scanning journal articles to provide a current awareness service. The availability of online databases with TOCs (Table of Contents) and SDI (Selective Dissemination of Information) facilities has made the service redundant. But we do maintain Web pages to assist them in keeping up-to-date.14 What else do we do now for academic staff? First of all, a great deal of our time is spent working with academics for the benefit of their students, rather than for the academics themselves. For example, we are often involved in course planning, and we provide bibliographic information for reading lists. We work with academic staff to embed information literacy into the curriculum. Subject librarians offer support during the quality review process; there are between five and eight in each academic year. The review process includes an assessment of learning resources so that we have to demonstrate over and over again that we are responsive to student needs and provide a service which meets those needs. We assess new resources and advise academic staff about them.

Library staffs at Northumbria know that lecturers are probably the most important link between information resources and students. This is not a novel observation. "As the head of one academic library observed, LIS promotion of EIS is of limited usefulness to students unless backed up by regular recommendations or ‘pressure’ from their academic tutors or lecturers."15 Because students are expected to study independently – and that includes finding and evaluating their own information - it is particularly important that they are directed by their lecturers to the best sources to find the information. But academic staff do not always know all that is on offer in this complex, rich information environment. Why are they ignorant about what we have? Less contact with subject librarians? Fewer visits to the library? Too many and too complex resources in a virtual environment? They are too busy; as the student population has grown so has staff workload. We have to ensure they are aware of the full range in their subject areas, and the full range of services on offer: our opening hours, services for distance learners, the database of reading lists hyperlinked to the OPAC and made available on the VLE, linking to exam papers on Blackboard and so on. We organise awareness sessions for staff to inform them about our resources and how to use them, but again our focus is on helping the students. We want the academic staff to use the resources themselves, and we want academic staff to recommend the resources to the students. We use every opportunity to present "awareness sessions" to groups of academic staff to bring them up-to-date. We go to Schools and subject divisions, to committees, to conferences, to staff training sessions – anywhere we can!

There are two other major new areas of activity worth mentioning. The University now has an extensive network of partner colleges in Britain and overseas, including several in China. Subject librarians in my team support partners in several ways: offering access to our electronic resources, advising library staff and lecturers about the resources, and conducting information skills and awareness seminars for staff and students.

The other developing area is in encouraging academic staff to embed library resources and other reusable objects in our VLE. We are advisors about content, copyright, and licensing. We have developed guidelines, demonstrators and case studies to show them how to link reading lists to the OPAC, how to link to journal articles using persistent identifiers, and how to find and use images and datasets and many other types of resource in Blackboard. More recently, we are moving into developing repositories of reusable learning objects because we have knowledge of applying metadata, recording, ordering and retrieving, that is, cataloguing and classification, and resource discovery. And of course, we continue to answer enquiries, few though they are now.

2 Harbin Engineering University – Introduction

In 1953, the Military Engineering Institute of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was established. It was renamed as the Harbin Shipping Engineering Institute in 1970, and in 1994 it became Harbin Engineering University (HEU), subordinated to the Chinese Commission of Science, Technology & Industry for National Defence. It is the only major national university for the Chinese shipping industry, with an emphasis on marine science, combined with engineering, management, arts, law and economics. The period from 1996 to 2000 was a time of rapid growth. Now there are about 25,000 students, including 4,300 postgraduates. Student numbers have increased five-fold in five years.

Reference services in university libraries are available to all members of the university community. But the services are provided primarily for the teachers and students. As information users, teachers are very different from students. Students’ information needs are derived from the requirements of their coursework and dissertations. Their subject knowledge is limited, often to what they have been told by their teachers before they begin the information retrieval process. Academic staff, on the other hand, have to keep abreast of new information and learning, and be aware of the latest scholarship and developing areas in their specialized fields of teaching and research. They are information providers as well as information users. Their very position as academics means they will be long-term users of reference services. At the same time, they are in a unique position, in the course of their teaching and research, to enhance students’ consciousness of the need for high quality information, to encourage students to find and use such information efficiently, and to be aware of the reference services available to help them to do so.

2.1 Academic Staff’s Information Literacy

Information literacy is a fundamental and indispensable prerequisite for effective teaching and research. We know a great deal about how students search for information.16 We know that students prefer Google or Yahoo, that they do not use them effectively, that they think they can evaluate Web pages but do not know how to, and that many students find it difficult to locate relevant information. But what about academic staff? Do they fare any better? How effectively do they use information resources? Are they information literate? Research results are not very encouraging in this regard. According to Wang Qiong,17 59.8 percent of academic staff know little about information retrieval, and Song Hui-Lan demonstrates that nearly half of academic staff in universities do not like to access information using professional databases; a quarter of academic staff do not have adequate information retrieval skills; some academic staff still use printed documents as their main source of information.18 All in all, we should note that some academic staff have neither the expertise nor the patience to locate information when faced with so many information resources. They are not good at using a classification system or a thesaurus to refine or expand their search results if they are not satisfied at the first attempt. Only a few can understand the classification system used in Chinese libraries. Some do not have the necessary computer skills to access digital information resources. They have not acquired information retrieval skills and cannot make full use of digital information to improve their research and teaching. In addition, investigations at Harbin Engineering University show firstly that in general, academic staff in the arts and social sciences lack computer skills and that they need more help to retrieve information. This is in contrast to academic staff in science and technology who can fulfill their own information needs relatively well. 41 percent of them say they do not have any difficulty when seeking information. Secondly, the information literacy of academic staff differs according to age. Middle-aged and young staff fare much better than older staff, regardless of discipline. Academic staff at Northumbria have similar problems according to a research project case study19 undertaken at the University. In the eye of the library staff, academic staff display the same characteristics as the student:

And academic staff say of themselves:

All academic staff need information and need to be information literate. So a major task for the reference librarian is to find suitable ways to achieve this objective.

2.2 The Information Needs of Academic Staff

Generally, academic staff’s information needs are centred around their teaching and research. At the beginning of a research process, it is necessary to collect information to assess the status of the intended research project world-wide. As the research progresses, it may be necessary to retrieve information and documentary evidence to resolve problems and difficulties. At the conclusion of the research, it is worthwhile to recheck and compare with similar research projects to ensure the originality of the research. On completion of the research or after writing a paper, the academic needs information about the impact factors of journals and about conferences and other opportunities to publicise the research findings. When academic staff prepare documentation for an application for an award or prize, they need information to demonstrate their ability and level of scholarship. During the teaching process, they need to provide useful reading lists, beware of new textbooks, and incorporate into their teaching current developments and topical debates in their own field.

2.3 Reference Services for Academic Staff in HEU

Reference services at HEU include introducing information resources available in the library; an alerting service to keep staff up-to-date with new resources; inter-library loans; seminars to teach retrieval skills; a foreign and domestic conference alerting service; a subject navigation facility, that is, guides to resources in specific subjects; seminars on specialised topics and specific databases; and an information retrieval service for research projects. The HEU Library sought feedback from academic staff on the reference services provided, which showed that the number of academic staff who need an introduction to all the available information resources is much less than the staff needing an alerting service about new resources. This means that most of the academic staff have some knowledge of our information resources. Over half need the ILL service, demonstrating that the library stock – print and electronic - cannot meet the staff’s information needs. More than 40 percent of academic staff would like to have a subject navigation service. Incidentally, according to a 1998 survey of the use of the Internet by academic staff in the UK, many wanted directories of resources for their disciplines, that is, a subject navigation service.20 A 2002 survey of academics in China also found a very high demand for specialised subject websites (ranked number one of the most needed Internet resources).21 Dong thus concluded, "Information intermediaries will play a very important role in providing high quality information resources, including knowledge navigation targeting certain user groups."22 That challenge and opportunity has been grasped by many subject librarians, and it is a service under development in the HEU Library. More staff need the international conference alerting service than the domestic conference alerting service. In the network environment, academic staff’s assistants or academic staff themselves can retrieve information for their research projects. Nevertheless, a high percentage of academic staff need the services of the reference librarian. In other words, they depend on the reference librarian to acquire more information. Forty-five percent of academic staff need help from the reference librarian to retrieve information and, of these 45 percent, a quarter have to start with learning basic computer skills and a third would like to start with basic internet skills. Our investigation revealed that many academic staff do not understand some databases’ English interface, even though they have very high IT skills. Most of the academic staff are not interested in the seminars given by the reference librarians on specialised topics. Through the investigation, we know the potential information needs of academic staff, enabling us to offer a much more effective reference service.

2.4 Steps to an Effective Reference Service for VIP Users

Collecting data about academic staff’s information literacy and information needs is the prerequisite for offering an effective reference service. At the same time, we should pay attention to the following areas:

Firstly, improving our service model. Traditional reference services focused on face-to-face enquiries, a very direct service. As reference librarians, we need to offer a service to academic staff in all ways available, including the traditional reference enquiry desk. But the direct reference service cannot cope with more and more staff and students. Modern network technology makes possible a one-to-multi or multi-to-one reference service. Traditionally, the ability to answer enquiries is limited to the resources and staff in one library. Now it is both possible and practical to cooperate with other reference librarians and access a huge knowledge database to meet academic staff’s information needs without subject or staff limitations. OCLC’s QuestionPoint demonstrates the potential advantages of such cooperation in China. Also, HEU’s reference services are focused on academic staff’s research interests. The service has to give more attention to the requirements of their teaching, for instance, helping staff to provide more useful reading lists and references to their students and encouraging them to initiate students into the research process (including development of information skills) by linking their teaching to actual research projects.

Secondly, developing interaction with academic staff. VIP users should be offered a personalised reference service. To do this, we need to collate information about the teaching and research programmes of the University and collect and analyse feedback from academic staff about our services. The resulting data should enable us to find more effective ways to serve academic staff. Interaction between reference staff and academic staff is very important for a successful reference service. Reference librarians need the experience of information retrieval for actual research projects to become competent librarians. Cooperating with academic staff and sharing their professional knowledge will enable the librarian to understand their research projects more easily. On the other hand, with the support of the librarian, academic staff shall be encouraged to recognise their information needs and utilise the librarian’s professional knowledge. In face of the different information needs of so many staff, it is all the more important for reference librarians to acquire effective communication skills. It is difficult for academic staff with a low level of information literacy to express their information needs precisely. Reference librarians have to look out for useful clues during the reference interview to understand the questions and try to encourage the enquirer to say more about their research in order to identify the concepts which will be used in the retrieval process. Once useful information has been retrieved with the help of the librarian, it may be apparent that more information is needed or the need may appear later as the research progresses. There is no better way to stimulate information enquiry than a successful interaction between academic staff and the reference librarian.

Thirdly, delivering more effective training, focusing on the needs of academic staff. As mentioned before, training is not only an effective way to improve information literacy but is also a requirement for some academic staff. Some useful and important concepts such as logical operators, position characters, wild cards, stop words, fields, classification, information evaluation, etc. can be learnt in different ways by staff with different subject backgrounds. Therefore, it is neither practical nor necessary to invite all academic staff to take part in a systematic training programme. Training is most helpful if conducted in the right place at the right time. It is very important for us to motivate academic staff to recognise, articulate and meet their own information needs. To provide an effective reference service, the librarian must be at a high level of information literacy, equipped with good IT skills and adept at using the Internet. Compared with many academic staff, librarians know the Internet better and were very early users, quick to take advantage of its opportunities for information dissemination. When this new technology first appeared, many academic staff did not need to develop the skills to use it immediately. Consequently, the information literacy level of many academic staff is lower than that of reference librarians. However, many academic staff are very sensitive and are unwilling to show their ignorance to a librarian. They tend to look for excuses to avoid using computers. So we need to help them to overcome the psychological barrier and encourage them to become sufficiently confident to use computers by themselves. After that, when they have information needs, they will be more likely to approach the reference librarian to request for an introduction to the information resources available in their fields, and ask for help as how to use these information resources and how to evaluate the information they retrieve. This is an opportune moment to demonstrate the worth of the subject librarian. Of course, we also need to think about more flexible and accessible arrangements for seminars and courses for academic staff. The current trend is to make more and more help available on the Web in a variety of formats, covering information resources and their use and information skills training. Training is an integral part of the reference services.

Fourthly, improving the reference service team’s subject knowledge. The reference librarian does not work alone but is part of a team, which should be evaluated according to its pool of shared knowledge. Team members have to cooperate with each other to meet the needs of diverse groups of users. They must keep abreast of new technology and trends in service development and share their knowledge and expertise. Although reference librarians have been recruited in universities in China for several years, there are still too few to meet the demands resulted from the very rapid expansion in student numbers over the last few years. In China, it is impossible for libraries to recruit sufficient experienced reference librarians. Therefore, we should emphasize and utilise the team’s collective strength.

Improving reference services for academic staff, the VIP users, is a long-term task. The measures taken to achieve the objective will differ from university to university, depending on the prevailing organizational culture and the academic priorities. Participating in the teaching process and cooperating with academic staff to embed information literacy into the curriculum will be a wise choice for reference librarians keen to develop their service. Because academic staff are such VIP users of reference services, reference librarians should seize the opportunity to understand their information needs, discover their difficulties in retrieving information, take steps to improve their information literacy, and then offer a high quality and objective service to them. Providing an excellent reference service to influential academic staff will be a very good example to the others. Without doubt, the best advertisement for reference work is the provision of a successful reference service. The library’s value to the university and its reputation will increase as more academic staff receive a high quality service.

3. Conclusion

There is a marked contrast between the approach to reference services in Harbin Engineering University, China and Northumbria University, UK. Both universities have experienced increased pressure on library services due to a rapid growth in student enrollment. In both institutions, the academic staff are a vital link between students and the library. In the UK, the role of the subject librarian has changed considerably in recent years and there is little demand for some traditional reference services. However, questions arise about how effectively academic staff use information resources. The emphasis at Northumbria is not on the provision of a reference service for academic staff but on making them aware of the resources and how to access and use them. In Harbin Engineering University, teachers are VIP library users. Delivering an effective reference service to teachers will encourage students to use information. A prerequisite for providing an effective service is collecting data about academic staff’s research and teaching interests and information needs.


1 Brophy, P. (2000). The Academic Library. London: Library Association Publishing.

2 In the most recent Times league table, Northumbria is ranked 20th for teaching, out of 99 institutions, in the top ten for four subjects and in the top twenty for a further four subjects. Source: Northumbria Staff Newsletter, no.721 (26th May 2004), p.1. URL address: Accessed 10th June 2004.

3 Wu, Jianzhong and Huang, Ruhua. (2003). "The academic library development in China," Journal of Academic Librarianship 29(4). p.252.

4 Ping, K. and Zhang, Li. (2002). "Toward Continual Reform: Progress in Academic Libraries in China," College & Research Libraries 63(2). p.165.

5 City University of Hong Kong Library Newsletter, no.1 (March 2002). URL Address: Accessed 8 June 2004.

6 Some are noted in Ford, N. "Reader services: for students, teachers, and management." In McElroy, A. Rennie. (1984). College Librarianship. London: Library Association.

7 The changes are well documented. See, for example: Biddiscombe, R. (2002). "Learning support professionals: the changing role of subject specialists in UK academic libraries," Program 36(4). p.228-235.
Gaston, R. (2001). "The changing role of the Subject Librarian, with a particular focus on UK developments, examined through a review of the literature," New Review of Academic Librarianship 7. p.19-36.
Pinfield, S. (2001). "The changing role of subject librarians in academic libraries," Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 33(1). p.32-38.

8 See for example, Rodwell, J. (2001). "Dinosaur or dynamo? The future for the subject specialist reference librarian," New Library World 102(1/2). p.48-52.

9 See:

10 Gaston op. cit. p31

11 See

12 Littlejohn, A. and Higgison, C. (2003). "A Guide for Teachers," (e-Learning Series No.3). LTSN. p.3. URL address:§ion=generic&id=323. Accessed 19th May 2004.
Wilson, R. "E-education in the UK," Journal of Digital Information 3(4). URL address: Accessed 24th May 2004.

13 "Teaching and Learning Infrastructure in Higher Education: report to the HEFCE by JM Consulting," HEFCE, 2002. p.14.

14 For example, and

15 Coulson, G,. et al. (2003). "The need for a converged approach to EIS provision? Evidence from the JUBILEE project," Library Review 52(9). p.442.

16 Just one example: Griffiths, J.R. and Brophy, P. (2002). "Student searching behaviour in the JISC Information Environment," Ariadne, 33. URL address: Accessed 24th May 2004.

17 Wang, Qiong. (2002). "Information Literacy of University Professors in the Network Environment: a Survey and Analysis," Journal of Library Science in China 28(5). p.70-74.

18 Song, Hui-Lan. (2003). "On education informalization and training for the academic teacher’s information quality," Library Tribune 23(1). p.35-37.

19 Ray, K., et al. (2003). "JUBILEE: JISC User Behaviour in Information Seeking. Draft Report", Case Study Site, 1. p.22.

20 Day, J. and Bartle, C. (1998). "The Internet as an electronic information service: its impact on academic staff in Higher Education," IRISS ’98 Conference Paper. p.3. URL address: Accessed 25th May 2004.

21 Dong, Xiaoying. (2003). "Searching information and evaluation of Internet: A Chinese academic user survey," International Information & Library Review 35. p.182.

22 ibid. p186.

Submitted to CLIEJ on 3 February 2005.
Copyright © 2005 Ling Zhang & Austin McCarthy