Libraries Rebound – A Personal Partial Recap

In the three earlier posts Merrilee did a great job of summarizing the content of the three different themes – directly supporting researchers, special collections and institutional mission and space as a distinctive asset. The important things to take away were captured in those posts which reflect the attendees highlights as captured in the twitter stream (which has increasingly become the record of conference events).

For those who want a short list of action items from the conference here are mine:

Examine the full research life cycle for one or more disciplines at your institution to identify gaps and pain points where the library could be a continuing source of support. (See the DeBelder slides .pptx

Consider assessing special collections via a task force composed of individuals external to the department to look for alignment with university strategy. (See the Pyatt slides .pptx)

Create a long-term library space plan even if you don’t have current funding or immediate renovation opportunity. (See the Pritchard .pptx and Group4 .pptx slides)

For me the best frame for the event was provided by something taken from a presentation by Wendy Lougee (discussed in an earlier post) in which she characterized future library services as built around local priorities (cf. research support), local infrastructure (space and buildings) and unique institutional assets (special collections). Mixed together thoughtfully these three would result in a portfolio of distinctive services.

Scott Walter introduced this word and its associated phrases early in the conference. Distinctiveness framed the presentations and the discussions along with concern for story, for community and a frank exploration of the tensions associated with progress on any of these three themes. I was particularly taken with Scott’s challenge to consider whether a local service was a lighthouse – something acknowledged by the broader community of libraries, taken up and modified by other libraries and valued by the local constituents. One of the key elements in building a sustaining local distinctive service was the willingness to make it a source of shared distinction by partnering with other campus units. The local value is only enhanced by being seen as the product of joint effort and the leveraging of skills.

The discussion of research support was good but after a whole morning of it I couldn’t help but observe that the phrase ‘embedded librarian’ is an unfortunate one that we shouldn’t use outside of conversations with other librarians. It’s hard for me to imagine a researcher or scientist with whom we want to work as a partner or team member being encouraged by the presence of an embedded librarian. The phrase enshrines ‘other-ness’. I proposed that we should adopt and expand the phrase ‘liaison librarian’ as the descriptor for all the types of research support work done by librarians.

There was good practical advice about offering this kind of liaison support for research. Looking at the entire local research life cycle to identify gaps or areas of difficulty where the library could offer something valuable was a very sensible starting place. Being reminded that liaison librarians needed a lot of management support – they are after all a scattered virtual team that needs reinforcing – was important. As was the admonition to leverage existing relationships to create a support service.

The discussion usefully challenged whether this kind of support from the library was something new or something that we’ve always done and renamed (it’s new), debated what kind of preparation was crucial to liaison support (domain knowledge) and concluded that not every liaison should be expected to deliver the full range of support (they need to be able to call on the capacities resident in the entire team). There seemed to be sentiment that it was a local decision about whether the liaison emphasis should be to connect researchers to collections, to a place or to a broader range of services like publishing advice. For me this local choice dimension was the dynamic through which a distinctive service portfolio emerges.

From the special collections presentations and discussions I took away two big points – alignment with mission could occur in more than one way and distinguished collections needed to have local impact to be important. For mission alignment to occur you had to be pretty clear-eyed about where institutional research and teaching priorities were as well as honest about how well the library’s collections would match up. In some institutions the potential for collections to engage external communities would be as valued as research and teaching support. A case was also made that fund-raising and other development opportunities often accrued to special collections and that you could pro-actively enhance their effectiveness in support of that goal. Everyone agreed that the value of the collections to the institution could only be actualized through visible engagement – the collections need to be supplemented by expert research consultation, a recognized classroom presence and be used to establish a library role in the local academic discourse.

Finally we focused on space as a way to create new partnerships with the library and raise the perceived value the library provides to the campus, faculty and students. It was a very good session which Merrilee summarized very nicely in her final post on the conference. In this session good practical experience was shared, personal insights into an enviably ambitious new integrated building project and planning advice from two very experienced architects.

This was a very well-prepared group of presenters and panelists interacting with an engaged audience. I’m grateful to everybody who attended and participated. All the sessions provided OCLC Research with ideas for projects and events that would productively expand on the opportunities to support the creation of a distinctive local portfolio of services. Just what we’d hoped for.

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