At the RLG Partnership Annual Meeting in 2007, Timothy Burke told the assembled research librarians ‘you have to figure out how to be hydraulic engineers of information flow rather than the guardians of the fortress’. It’s an image that has stuck with me. Everywhere now in our professional literature we see the challenges of our work represented by the imagery of flow and fluidity. We try to scope and identify workflows that are changing or need to change. The platform of the web dips and peaks faster and differently than we can predict, and as it does so content suddenly flows in different directions, taking new channels. Stability in this environment is rare, and a relief when we find it, even though it may lie in places that librarians take some time to trust – like Google and Wikipedia.
I often show a slide produced by Rick Luce, Vice-Provost and Director of Libraries at Emory University, when describing the territory of our Research Information Management (RIM) programme. This appeals to me because it indicates that library attention needs to be focused on the workflow layer, rather than the repository layer that sits below it.
Understanding the particular environments of researchers, and the flows that matter to them, is perhaps not a new challenge for research libraries, but it is a newly urgent one. In the pre-digital world the flows were not digital flows, with the capture challenges and opportunities that now exist. The library dealt mainly in the solid world of published literature. It collected from the physical outputs that emerged at the end of flow processes, and could structure its operations around that bounded reality (within its ‘fortress’ print stores, to use Tim Burke’s analogy). Now, we see potential for library services everywhere, because we have systems that capture flows, and allow them to combine, split and replicate wherever it is useful for them to do so, and legal barriers do not obstruct. But to do so optimally, we need to understand researchers’ worlds at a level of detail that is still not familiar to libraries. Two weeks ago the UK’s Research Information Network (RIN) and the British Library launched a very detailed report into the terrain of life scientists, Patterns of information use and exchange: case studies of researchers in the life sciences. The consultants adopted a social scientific ethnographic approach to studying researchers’ information practices, and produced fascinating flow maps like the one that contains this detail:
In RIM we talk about the environments that surround researchers, the need for libraries to be aware of them, and the ways in which they operate as sources of pressure upon researchers, as well as providers of benefit to them in their research and their careers. We use the following model to represent these environments at a broad level.
As Rick Luce’s graphic shows, repositories, rather like print libraries, sit at the level below flow. Nonetheless, their very materiality means that they are pulled into discussions about it because they are reservoirs within its network, and contribute to flow efficiencies. A debate about this has recently been created by Chris Armbruster and Laurent Romary in their paper Comparing Repository Types: Challenges and Barriers for Subject-Based Repositories, Research Repositories, National Repository Systems and Institutional Repositories in Serving Scholarly Communication. In arguing over the optimal repository environment to serve research, using the authors’ four ideal types of subject-based, research, national and institutional, contributors to this debate have stepped into questions about the relative importance of these researcher environments. For Stevan Harnad, addressing the environments of institution, assessment and discipline, the relativities are like this:
Researchers are answerable to their own institutions (employers) when it comes to the tallying of their research output for research performance assessment. (You may be more loyal to “Physics” than to Cornell University, but it is Cornell, not “Physics,” that hires you, pays your salary, and evaluates your productivity; it is “for” Cornell that you “publish or perish” even if your heart belongs to “Physics.”)
(Message to American Scientist Open Access Forum list, 25 November 2009)
The debate will go on. Libraries need to fathom this sea-change in the climate, as it produces something rich and strange. Studies like the one produced by RIN, and a group emerging from our RIM programme, are essential. One of the most recent outputs from that programme was our Academic Library Manifesto described by Ricky here. Note its first injunction: Commit to continual study of the ever-changing work patterns and needs of researchers.