Conference Report: Critical Roles for Libraries in Today’s Research Enterprise

There were so many important moments at this one-day conference held in Washington DC in December, which drew 100 participants  from academic research libraries. Participants heard stories and received advice on proven ways to more fully integrate the library into the research life of a university. Panelists were drawn from both libraries senior university research officers, who provided the perspective of university research leadership.

The big takeaway: No single unit can support today’s research.

Wolfram Horstmann’s keynote message reminded us that support for researchers remains scattered across the academy, and that we need to develop a common notion of research support in a “one face to the customer” model, which would include library services as well as those lodged under other units that serve researcher interests and needs.

Part of the challenge for libraries is truly understanding what researchers want and need, and finding ways to enable it. Several speakers shared stories of small but significant projects designed to learn more in order to improve the researcher experience.

  • Several examples were cited of deliberate pilot projects where librarians would work on campus research teams, in order to better understand researcher needs.
  • Space is underappreciated as a way of reducing silos.  Concepts like faculty research commons or other “faculty-owned” spaces – described by one speaker as equivalent to an airline VIP lounge – were identified as desirable, as were neutral meeting spaces on campus for research groups.
  • Similarly, providing advice to researchers on virtual platforms was identified as a need.  Researchers don’t want to have to learn multiple platforms before selection, and it was felt that library staff could help identifying publishing options and could unbundle variable terminology used in different disciplines to help researchers achieve a common understanding.
  • University leaders are challenged to identify expertise on a topic both inside and beyond an institution’s walls, which surprised attendees, but senior university leaders wondered aloud if libraries could help more in this area through their own networks. As one academic VP put it, “We know who the stars are, but we would like to be more objective.”
  • Researchers want content and analytical tools to live together as valuable research resources.  In one instance, the library was charged with rationalizing the proliferation of unit site licenses across campus that could support infrastructure, and securing institution-wide licenses to reduce the incidence of software/tool silos.
  • University leaders are interested in research about research, for example, studying success rates across the research enterprise given specific conditions.  Could libraries bring some skills to this?

Some of the most helpful advice to librarians came from vice-provosts of research who were in attendance:

  • Don’t describe yourself as a service that you provide.  Think about yourself from the researcher’s perspective. They care about problems, not discipline or role.
  • Find a way to break through organizational barriers.
  • Don’t try to be all things to all people, because leaders prioritize. 
  • Think of yourself as gardeners – you create conditions for things to bloom and grow.
  • The idea of creating a more holistic research experience was identified.
  • Don’t try to set yourself up as an EQUAL partner in campus projects- you may be equal in commitment but everyone knows that you’re not equal in role, so don’t push it. 
  • Understand your audience, which will change depending on who you’re talking to. 
  • Keep in mind that researchers don’t necessarily know what a library can do
  • If you can make funds available to researchers, that’s a big carrot.  Grant money is a crude but real metric, and university leaders care about it.

The prevailing disciplinary library liaison and building structure remained the elephant in the room, and many library leaders in attendance were  interested in how to transform their organizations and staff into functional teams with fewer silos and broader disciplinary boundaries.  There was general agreement among leaders that information skills are now more important than subject skills, and in small breakout groups, many leaders were looking for ideas on how to move quickly to reorganize to support this new reality.  Ideas like disciplinary clusters emerged, where staff were situated in a cluster but also had a functional role. (York University reported this recent migration.)

Clifford Lynch summed up the day by reminding us that being a researcher is hard, competitive, and sometimes annoying. Libraries need to recognize this in order to provide effective help.

  • Seamless service is important for researchers. We must remember that researchers move (think: grad students) and need to constantly onboard and offboard research practices, tools, and digital resources.
  • Partnering with departmental research administrators is underappreciated and important, as is partnering with IT units both centrally and departmentally. Research computing sits in strange places on campus and does not always interact directly with the CIO.
  • Be realistic about your disciplinary expertise as a librarian.  True disciplinary expertise requires an understanding of standards, practices and how subfields operate in your discipline.  Do you think about what research practices will look like 5 years from now?
  • Cross-institutional collaboration is important and very hard for researchers.
  • When libraries think about research data management, they think about repositories. But there are other models for RDM and many other platforms outside of an institutionally-bound one, and they are “sustainability nightmares.” Libraries may need to join together to support better funding for sustainable options in this area.

A full 18-page summary of the day’s proceedings, including breakout groups, is available from the University of Calgary.

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