Supporting Researchers

Researchers are time-poor and focussed on the immediate demands of the research process.  They tend to have a limited view of what librarians can offer them.  They have “ persistent confidence in their self-sufficiency as information users” (1), expect digital delivery of, scholarly information in journals (2) and  have little sense of the significance and value information management skills, or their need to improve them, unless a new project or stage in project demands it.  “Virtually none of them … begin a research project at the library’s website. (1)

Value and contribution

Indicators of research value to the institution largely consist of metrics which provide evidence of comparative quality or significance.

Researchers on the other hand are conscious of the research community locally, nationally and internationally in their field. Peer evaluation, intelligence and coterminous work are of primary interest.  This fuels their sense of where opportunities for future work might lie and, in some fields, may indicate the potential for commercial application.

The research community is one which librarians may find difficult to penetrate.  It is one where personal relationships count and each of those fulfils a need.  Librarians have to respond to a felt need and offer solutions which are clear, easy, and timely, add immediately recognisable value to a project, and free the researcher to do the research.  Researchers are impatient with structured cumbersome approaches to information and data management, bibliometrics and information skills training.

Can research support libraries address both the universities’ and researcher’s requirements?

From a strategic and operational point of view the response to changes in the research environment (funder requirements, publication modes and associated legal issues, e-access to information sources etc.) needs a concerted and collaborative response by libraries if they are to be accepted as offering essential and effective research support.   Formalised, inter-institutional approaches to acquisition, storage and access, including metadata, will not only help libraries to realise opportunities, it will also address the urgent issues of reduced budgets. This last not only threatens the ability to retain “collections” strength but also inhibits innovation.

Key aspects of the changing research environment:

  • the researcher’s need for speed and convenience in identifying and accessing information
  • the growth of, and demand for, digital content
  • developments in scholarly communications and , including funder’s requirements
  • the development and management of data sets
  • information-seeking behaviour centred on mobile technology
  • direct paid- for access to journal content
  • reliance on fast, easy and cheap commercial search engines
  • commercial approaches to managing information-related elements of the research process (e.g. Ovid)
  • the need to capture research output and disseminate it more widely
  • the need to develop metadata standards for effective access to information and its communication
  • writing grant applications for multi-disciplinary and international research and with open access mandates
  • the need to digitise archive material and to collaboratively develop preservation and access modes

How might libraries respond?

  1. Some of the above developments are significantly affecting the way researchers find information and it is unlikely that this tide can be stemmed. However there are opportunities for libraries to grasp the initiative on behalf of the researchers. These are the broad and complex areas of data management, digitisation and preservation, publication and access.  All of these require the development of specific skills and partnership working within and between institutions.  As Kroll and Forsman (3)see it “…universities are doing a uniformly poor job of storing, maintaining and providing access to the discoveries they are asking their faculty to pursue”.

Researchers are aware of the resonance of these issues but unwilling and unlikely to play a proactive part in resolving them.  If librarians can do it and provide standardised and simple approaches, researchers will benefit greatly and recognise the value.

Such work would continue the role which libraries have recently played in helping to transform the information landscape through e-access.  Much of this effort, and its resulting value, are hidden both from researchers and institutional administrators.  Involvement in more wide-ranging infrastructural issues, developed on a large scale and in partnership with other experts, could evidence and substantiate the professional librarian’s contribution to the management of research.

  1. Allied to this is the potential for librarians to contribute to formal training programmes for doctoral students and early career researchers.  Again this would involve advocacy and partnership at a local and national level.  Many organisations (JISC, Vitae, RIN, RLUK the UK Graduate Centre) are recommending such a development and many universities have begun programmes although approaches vary as do contributors. The Researcher Development Framework put forward by Vitae (4) offers a model which contains specific “Domains” such as “Knowledge Base” and “Professional Conduct” to which librarians could make an informed and experienced contribution.  Some libraries contribute to institutional researcher training programmes, some do not.  Although individual, experienced researchers, immersed in funded projects, are not hospitable to structured training these programmes do offer libraries a chance to make a recognised contribution, with institutional backing, at specific points in the development of researchers.
  1. Another, slightly more innovative approach to research support suggested by some writers (5, 6), is for liaison librarians to become integral to the research process.  (Academic) liaison librarians pride themselves on their core, defining, role in relating to academic staff.  They would welcome more involvement as a natural extension of this role.

Enriching though this experience may be, there are a number of stumbling blocks to consider before embarking on a wholesale commitment.  First and foremost is the resource- intensive nature of pro-active partnership and the likely scale, variability, and scope of demand.  Secondly there will be a need to move away from the library’s traditional service culture to ask “What can researchers get out of this?” rather than “what can we offer?”  Thirdly is the need for liaison librarians to fully appreciate the culture and values of each discipline and adapt their approach accordingly.  There may be discipline differences with regard to the generation of ideas, the information base, funder’s methods and requirements, publication and promotion channels, the possible application of commercial value, and the culture of sharing results.  Some disciplines are also proprietorial about the conduct of their research and have never relied on library support (7).

Some writers (1,7,6) advocate the need for librarians to understand the research life-cycle in order to offer relevant support.  Kroll and Forsman (3) suggest a pathway through the cycle as follows:

  • idea generation – identifying funders and understanding their requirements (especially important for multi-disciplinary and international research)
  • writing grant applications
  • resource-finding,
  • managing information and data (acquiring, storing, analysing),
  • report writing
  • choosing publication modes.

Some libraries have already aligned their liaison staff with some aspects of the process.  Some have re-structured to support such activity, sent people out into departments, surveyed needs and responded to them.  Services have been developed in the areas of bibliometrics, institutional repositories, data management, publication policies, IPR, digitised special collections etc.  Some of these initiatives have been a response to institutional lacunae; some have arisen through a serendipitous meeting of departmental need and available library expertise.  Although general statements have been made about the need for liaison staff to re-skill, be adaptable, be able to work in multi-specialist teams, have deep subject knowledge and informatics skills etc., there is, at present, no consolidated professional library approach to mapping library skills and knowledge in detail, onto the requirements of the research process.  Auckland (5) has pointed out that there are already competitors in the field of research support, sometimes through specially appointed staff within a department, or through commercial products.

The reality may be that most researchers are unaware of what professional library staff have to offer and are not convinced of their relevance or likely value (8,10,5,11).

———————-

Q.  If research support libraries are to move away from a collection-centred approach to one focussing on service, which services are likely to be, economically feasible, sustainable in terms of need and value, and consolidate the library’s position in the essential academic infrastructure of a university ?


  1.  Anderson, R.  (2011)  The Crisis in Research Librarianship.  The Journal of Academic Librarianship.  37 (4), 289-290.
  2. Stewart, C.  (2011)  The Next Chapter: Measuring the Pace of Change for Print Monograph Collections.  Journal of Academic  Librarianship.  37 (4), 355-357.
  3. Kroll, S & Forsman, R.  (2010)   A Slice of Research Life: Information Support for Research in the United States. Report commissioned by OCLC Research in support of the RLG partnership.  Ohio: OCLC.
  4. Vitae.  (2011)  The Researcher Development Framework.  Cambridge:  Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) Limited.
  5. Auckland, M.  (2011)  Reskilling for Research: An Investigation into the Roles and Skills of Subject Liaison Librarians Required to Effectively Support the Evolving Needs of Researchers.  London: RLUK (unpublished).
  6. Williams, K.  (2009)  A Framework for Articulating New Library Roles.  Research Library Issues: a bi-monthly Report from ARL, CNI and SPARC, No. 265, 3 – 8.
  7. Cooke, L. et al. (2011) Evaluating the Impact of Academic Liaison Librarians on Their User Community: A Review and Case Study.   New Review of Academic Librarianship.  17 (1), 5-30.
  8. Curtis+Carwright Consulting Limited.  (2011)  The Value of Libraries for Research and  Researchers: A RIN and RLUK Report.  London: RIN/RLUK.
  9. Association of College and Research Libraries.  (2010)  The Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive  Review and Report.  Researched by Megan Oakleaf.  Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.
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