Bridging the Divide: The role of libraries in the sciences

While libraries come to terms with new forms of scholarly communication and the technological transformation of the academy, has one academic domain already drifted beyond reach?

Have the sciences already become self-sufficient in their information needs? Are libraries lacking in the services and information resources that scientists require?

In the first of three reports on Research Support Services for Scholars: Chemistry Project, a study being undertaken by Ithaka S+R on UK institutions, it is clear that within chemistry, and arguably the sciences more generally, a growing distance is developing between the everyday work of chemists and the library. As the report makes clear:

“This gap in mutual understanding prevents partnerships from developing between chemists and the library”

While the Chemistry Project is a researcher-centric approach to understanding the scholarly and information needs and requirements of Chemists, this first report update has taken the library and liaison services as a starting point.

The report is based on conversations with research support professionals (mostly liaison librarians) and has some very interesting headlines:

  • An unbalanced relationship: While librarians felt their relationship to the department was critical for doing their job well, many librarians expressed concern about the distance between the daily work of chemists and the library.
  • The library as purchasing arm: The conversations and interactions between departments and library almost entirely revolve around collections budgets, acquisition and preservation of content.
  • A student focus: Connected to the point above is the increasingly centralisation of library services and spaces into a central library (or science library). Such consolidation usually focuses on delivering services to students, rather than the researcher. Where there are interesting service and tool developments for chemists these are usually done independently of the library, and are led by academics who identify a need in their own work.
  • The role of repositories and researchers is an interesting one, and in the context of this study seems to suggest that the library will have a role in promoting its use to chemists, and will be a ‘significant new research support service provided by libraries’.
  • The importance of graduate students was recognised by a number of participants in the interviews. This seems a group that bridges the divide between the department and the library. They provide an opportunity to influence research methods and practices before habits are formed.
  • There are also a number of emerging needs identified by participants that include: Research data management, discovery, research funding and open access. These emerging requirements were perceived as offering opportunities for libraries to engage with the chemistry researchers in a different way.

A few things strike me about the findings that have emerged so far from the library discussions:

How do you bridge the divide between the sciences and the services of the library? One potential answer might be that libraries shouldn’t – the relationship that currently exists works for chemists, and libraries need not expend resources on developing unnecessary and unused services.

Are graduate students the answer? There also seems to me to be an implication that something like a ‘hybrid’ researcher/librarian will develop. Is a convergence of subject knowledge and domain expertise going to be the future of library liaison?

Related to the above point is the idea of library services being embedded into the department. In the case of the group-model for chemistry departments and research this could be fruitful.

These interim findings should provide a nice complement (contrast) to the subsequent researcher based conversations and interviews, and it will be interesting to see if there are obvious opportunities for libraries and their engagement with the sciences.

Find out more about this project on the JISC webpages, and find out more about the role of libraries in the digital humanities in this recent post.

One thought on “Bridging the Divide: The role of libraries in the sciences

  1. Simon Bains

    I can’t pretend to have read the full report properly, but these findings seem, on the face of it, to contradict what we found at Manchester when conducting our own investigation to inform a review of academic support by the Library. Our conclusion was firmly that, in most disciplines, the subject expertise of the librarian is very much secondary to an ability to engage effectively, understand the principles of effective customer service and marketing, and build consistent services which support strategic university objectives and which can be adapted to meet the needs of different disciplines. As a result, we have shifted entirely from the subject librarian model to one which allows professional staff to specialise in either research support or teaching and learning support. Allied to this, we have a team of academic engagement librarians, who are not subject librarians, but, effectively, key account managers.

    Our conclusions were informed by consultation with senior academics across the University. It strikes me, at first glance, that this report may have focused more on the views and assumptions of library staff than consultation with academic users. Very few academics at Manchester felt that librarians needed subject knowledge. Those that did think this didn’t include chemistry academics.

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