My sabbatical at OCLC Research

The following post is part of a series  based upon the OCLC Research Information Management in the US reports and was written by Jan Fransen.

In December 2021 Scholarly communications thought leader Aaron Tay listed our report, Research Information Management in the United States, as one of the readings that cleared the mental fog for him on the topic of research information management. I can’t remember a time when I’ve been so delighted by a blog post. That’s exactly the impact we were hoping for when we conceived of the RIM in the US project in 2019.

Guest author, Jan Fransen, University of Minnesota

And I’m not sure we would have gotten there had it not been for a benefit offered to librarians at the University of Minnesota and many other academic institutions: the sabbatical. (Technically at the University of Minnesota it’s a Professional Development Leave, because librarians here are “faculty-like” rather than faculty. But the differences are too small to discuss here.)

I’ve been working in the Research Information Management (RIM) space since 2014 when I took on the role of Service Lead for Discovery and RIM Systems at the University of Minnesota Libraries. In that role, I’ve overseen the implementation, migration, growth, and success of our system-wide RIM system, Experts@Minnesota, which now includes more than 310,000 research outputs for more than 8,000 individuals across more than 750 academic units. Throughout that time, the quantity and quality of the data in Experts has grown substantially, and we have responded to opportunities for using that data for purposes not previously imagined. I’ve observed the RIM landscape in the US grow and change rapidly during this time, as new platforms have emerged and existing platforms have expanded to meet RIM use cases. The RIM ecosystem is complex, exciting … and confusing.

Several years ago, Rebecca Bryant invited me to be part of a team designing and conducting a global survey of institutions using RIM systems, a joint effort between OCLC Research and euroCRIS. The resulting report, Practices and Patterns in Research Information Management: Findings from a Global Survey, provided useful insights on RIM in general, but low participation from US institutions left us with little to say about the institutions we knew best. We brainstormed ideas for how we could follow up the survey with a qualitative study, perhaps by interviewing practitioners at different institutions. One immense barrier stood in our way: time. Projects like this are a key part of Rebecca’s role at OCLC Research, in service to the library community. On the other hand, other other potential collaborators, myself included, have full time jobs in busy libraries. It would be difficult for us to squeeze in not just the interviews but also the analysis required to identify patterns, make recommendations, and put it all into a report others would want to read.

That’s where the sabbatical comes in. At Minnesota, librarians can apply for leaves ranging from six weeks to one year. In my case, I submitted an application outlining the project Rebecca and I were considering, scoping out the case study approach to explore the practices at 4-5 institutions, and including an estimated timeline for interviews, analysis, and publication. I was awarded a 12 week leave at full pay and benefits. Thank you, Minnesota! 

Conducting the RIM in the US research project

Rebecca took the lead on arranging and facilitating interviews, beginning in December of 2020. The rest of us–Pablo de Castro, Brenna Helmstutler, David Scherer, and myself–participated in whatever interviews we could fit into our schedules. 

By the time my leave began in February 2021 most interviews were complete and I could concentrate on synthesizing the information we had gathered, identifying common themes as well as dissimilarities among the case studies, and determining how to present the case studies and findings in a consistent, useful, and readable format. Rebecca and I were in near-daily (and often hourly!) communication: editing each other’s drafts, reminding each other of what we had heard from one interview or another, developing our list of recommendations for RIM stakeholders. The entire team met weekly to discuss what we were learning and for Rebecca and me to receive feedback on what we had written. 

Once we had a final draft, the report went through an internal review at OCLC, and we worked with OCLC’s editors and designers as they turned our prose, timelines, and figures into professional images and publications. I participate in conversations and presentations about our work whenever possible, but Rebecca and OCLC Research are the primary communicators, getting our work in front of the people who will benefit from reading it–and ultimately influencing practice in libraries and their parent institutions.

By the time the report was published, two things were very clear to me: 

  • This is not the kind of project anyone could pull off on their own. The resources OCLC Research brought to the project, including Rebecca’s leadership, enabled the rest of us to make a contribution to our profession that we believe will have lasting impact.
  • I would not have been able to participate in the project at the level I wanted to if I were also fulfilling my day to day responsibilities in the Libraries. We would have gotten something done, but it would have taken much longer and probably wouldn’t have included things like the RIM System Framework that helped pull the five case studies together and clear the fog away for ourselves and others.

Collaborate with OCLC Research

Do you have an idea that fits with any of OCLC’s research areas and that might be an opportunity for collaboration? Are you eligible for a sabbatical or research leave but not sure how you’d accomplish what you want to do, even given the time? Consider that partnering with OCLC Research might be an option to help you make an impact you couldn’t imagine on your own.