The Library as Research Partner

As I typed the title for this post, I couldn’t help but think “Well, yeah. What else would the library be?” Instead of changing the title, however, I want to actually unpack what we mean when we say “research partner,” especially in the context of research data management support. In the most traditional sense, libraries provide materials and space that support the research endeavor, whether it be in the physical form (books, special collections materials, study carrels) or the virtual (digital collections, online exhibits, electronic resources). Moreover, librarians are frequently involved in aiding researchers as they navigate those spaces and materials. This aid is often at the information seeking stage, when researchers have difficulty tracking down references, or need expert help formulating search strategies. Libraries and librarians have less often been involved at the most upstream point in the research process: the start of the experimental design or research question. As one considers the role of the Library in the scholarly life-cycle, one should consider the ways in which the Library can be a partner with other stakeholders in that life-cycle. With respect to research data management, what is the appropriate role for the Library?

In order to achieve effective research data management (RDM), planning for the life-cycle of the data should occur before any data are actually collected. In circumstances where there is a grant application requirement that triggers a call to the Library for data management plan (DMP) assistance, this may be possible. But why are researchers calling the Library? Ostensibly, it is because the Library has marketed itself (read: its people) as an expert in the domain of data management. It has most likely done this in coordination with the Research Office on campus. Even more likely, it did this because no one else was. It may have done this as a response to the National Science Foundation (NSF) DMP requirement in 2011, or it may have just started doing this because of perceived need on campus, or because it seems like the thing to do (which can lead to poorly executed hiring practices). But unlike monographic collecting or electronic resource acquisition, comprehensive RDM requires much more coordination with partners outside the Library.

Steven Van Tuyl has written about the common coordination model of the Library, the Research Office, and Central Computing with respect to RDM services. The Research Office has expertise in compliance and Central Computing can provide technical infrastructure, but he posits that there could be more effective partners in the RDM game than the Library. That perhaps the Library is only there because no one else was stepping up when DMP mandates came down. Perhaps enough time has passed, and RDM and data services have evolved enough that the Library doesn’t have to fill that void any longer. Perhaps the Library is actually the *wrong* partner in the model. If we acknowledge that communities of practice drive change, and intentional RDM is a change for many of the researchers, then wouldn’t ceding this work to the communities of practice be the most effective way to stimulate long lasting change? The Library has planted some starter seeds within departments and now the departments could go forth and carry the practice forward, right?

Well, yes. That would be ideal for many aspects of RDM. I personally would very much like to see the intentional planning for, and management of, research data more seamlessly integrated into standard experimental methodology. But I don’t think that by accomplishing that, the Library should be removed as a research partner in the data services model. I say this for two reasons:

  1. The data/information landscape is still changing. In addition to the fact that more funders are requiring DMPs, more research can benefit from using openly available (and well described – please make it understandable) data. While researchers are experts in their domain, the Library is still the expert in the information game. At its simplest, data sources are another information source. The Library has always been there to help researchers find sources; this is another facet of that aid. More holistically, the Library is increasingly positioning itself to be an advocate for effective scholarly communication at all points of the scholarship life-cycle. This is a logical move as the products of scholarship take on more diverse and “nontraditional” forms.

Some may propose that librarians who have cultivated RDM expertise can still provide data seeking services, but perhaps they should not reside in the Library. Would it not be better to have them collocated with the researchers in the college or department? Truly embedded in the local environment? I think this is a very interesting model that I have heard some large institutions may want to explore more fully. But I think my second point is a reason to explore this option with some caution:

2. Preservation and access. Libraries are the experts in the preservation and access of materials. Central Computing is a critical institutional partner in terms of infrastructure and determining institutional needs for storage, porting, computing power, and bandwidth but – in my experience – are happy to let the long-term preservation and access service fall to another entity. Libraries (and archives) have been leading the development of digital preservation best practices for some time now, with keen attention to complex objects. While not all institutions can provide repository services for research data, the Library perspective and expertise is important to have at the table. Moreover, because the Library is a discipline-agnostic entity, librarians may be able to more easily imagine diverse interest in research data than the data producer. This can increase the potential vehicles for data sharing, depending on the discipline.

Yes, RDM and data services are reaching a place of maturity in academic institutions where many Libraries are evaluating, or re-evaluating, their role as a research partner. While many researchers and departments may be taking a more proactive or interested position with RDM, it is not appropriate for Libraries to be removed from the coordinated work that is required. Libraries should assert their expertise, while recognizing the expertise of other partners, in order to determine effective outreach strategies and resource needs. Above all, Libraries must set scope for this work. Do not be deterred by the increased interest from other campus entities to join in this work. Rather, embrace that interest and determine how we all can support and strengthen the partnerships that facilitate the innovative and exciting research and scholarship at an institution.

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