Employing field research to shape the library’s direction: The changing needs of the liaison

Ashley L. Downs; Kelee Pacion

In the last several years, technologies have become ubiquitous in most academic disciplines. Collaborations between the engineers and computer scientists that create these technologies and the humanists, social scientists, scientists, and other practitioners that use and add meaning to them have grown.

Despite growing collaboration, the need for an information scientist at the intersection of construction and practice is very clear. Patrons routinely visit the library for assistance navigating databases, evaluating online resources, using citation management software, and creating multimedia projects. And as these technologies evolve at a clipping rate, the mode and frequency in which librarians learn and teach the skills sought by patrons is changing.

Whereas we were once able to derive skills from static workshops or webinars to provide patron assistance in standard unilateral formats, many of us now partner with peers across campus units, even external to our institutions, to remain adept with the array of tools supportive of scholarship.1

As librarians become increasingly interdependent on the technical knowledge and skills of one another, we are capable of playing more customizable roles for our patrons. Many of us transfer the style used when learning from peers into the classroom environment, thereby facilitating active learning with new technologies among students.2 Formal channels should be routinely strengthened to encourage these deep sharing networks among colleagues.

Encouraging field research

Field research is a common component of the undergraduate and graduate experience in the sciences. The use of exploratory, handson study is driven by understanding the process of experiential learning as a means of developing new skills and insights. Time spent in the field has long been incorporated into many professional training programs, most notably in medical professions where applied skills are essential to an effective career.3 Increasingly in many library schools as well, internships and applied projects are incorporated into curricula for students as a core component to a well-rounded education.4 Arguably, obtaining applied experience in a library—especially one that values new technologies and takes a nuanced approach to instruction strategies—is a fundamental component of obtaining a job in a competitive market.

Interestingly, despite recognizing the importance of field research for students preparing to enter the field, a review of the library literature yields little mention of the importance of experiential observations for librarians once fully within the profession.5 Further, with research competency and prolificacy often prized skills in the academic promotion process for librarians, the dearth of literature on exploratory interinstitutional field research is surprising.

Staff members at the Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library have long benefitted from a staff development fund that facilitates the very kind of internetwork knowledge seeking and sharing that is crucial for the modern librarian. Endowed by a former Cornell professor for nearly 30 years, the fund has enabled many Mann staff to explore and develop desired skills and projects from a variety of functional areas that also benefit our colleagues and patrons. Unlike professional development funds that reserve monies for conference travel, this fund encourages the form of field research that yields highly specific, structured, and topical knowledge about the issues that we’re currently grappling with in our library.

In addition to asking what the travel award would be used for, the application asks why we aim to explore the issue, and how we intend to use the knowledge garnered for the maximum benefit of our patrons. By asking such questions, the grant primes us to seek the very members of the profession that are grappling with the same issues. The contact is therefore all the more meaningful by encouraging idea sharing in both formal and informal settings and encouraging the development of networks that extend beyond individual institutional boundaries.

Throughout the three decades in which the fund has been active, project proposals have ranged from the exploration of library learning spaces to the investigation of linked data web applications, with each representing the pressure points in the library environment at the time of submission. With each academic library across the country inevitably boasting different strengths, our library has benefitted from sending librarians to visit the leaders who are addressing the particular pressure points commonly experienced at our own institution.

For example, at times when it was infeasible to conduct our own institutional research to identify the correct solution to a problem, the grant has encouraged a scholarly network in which initial decisions are built upon by others, then built upon again for maximum benefit, fortuitously mirroring the evolving nature of scholarship that librarians are so eager to support.

In one recent example, a previous award recipient traveled to Penn State to visit the Media Commons, a joint library and IT initiative that works to enhance teaching and learning through multimedia technology, instruction, and one-on-one support for faculty and students. After this trip, our colleague returned to our library with a clearer understanding of the work involved in the development of a collaborative, universitywide, pedagogically sound multimedia support service, as well as the specifications for building a simplified video creation studio. The development of multimedia services have led to collaborations with faculty and teaching staff to provide customized workshops related to video production.

In a second example, two librarians from our institution visited a variety of academic libraries that had recently undergone space renovations. After engaging in formal and informal discussions with other librarians regarding usage and space design, our colleagues returned with strong assessment strategies as well as best practices to consider when embarking on an internal space redesign, all of which has effectively increased library usage on our campus.

Our project

As highly specific instruction requests at Mann have increased in the last several years, the need to structure an effective yet sustainable information literacy program that is grounded in the latest technologies and software has become clear. In looking at the existing program at Mann Library, a team formed to consider sustainability and scalability of our program. In addition, the buzz surrounding ACRL’s new threshold concepts in early 2014, coupled with internal staff changes at Mann that same year, created an environment conducive of revisiting liaison instruction. With this backdrop, we proposed, and were granted, funds to visit three libraries that were recognized in the ACRL Information Literacy Best Practices report.6 We sought to learn from the successes of these programs, hear about the latest technologies used by their instructors, and return home with tangible ideas for implementation.

Moving into the field

The University of Rhode Island Library, Neilson Library at Smith College, and Lied Library at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas were recognized by the ACRL Information Literacy Best Practices report for successfully articulating the library’s role within a curriculum, collaborating across institutional departments, and using modern pedagogical principles within instruction sessions. Visiting each provided a more intimate interaction than often possible at national conferences and enabled in-depth conversations with members of the instruction and research services units. With a full day spent at each institution, it was possible to participate in classes, participate in “show and tell” with new technologies and software, enjoy lunch with colleagues, and discuss the common challenges of building a highly relevant instruction program during a time of rapid technological change. Visiting campuses that prize quality instruction was invaluable, particularly coming from a research intensive university, where our information literacy instruction efforts remain in infancy. Even after leaving each campus, developed connections with colleagues led to sustained pathways for communication.

Contributing to our library

The research made possible by the award has resulted in three immediate actions at our library. First, we are devoting more effort to create sustained, meaningful interactions with students that persist beyond a single session. As we toured each campus and reflected on our experiences at home, it was clear that students are more likely to benefit from information literacy instruction if content and assessment varies across time. To foster such meaningful exchanges, we are looking to develop or strengthen relationships with instructors in credit-bearing courses and strategically plan the time(s) at which we meet with students.

Second, we have integrated ourselves more deeply with our university’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) workshops to both take advantage of new pedagogical strategies but also position ourselves collaboratively with faculty in the early stages of course design. We saw the success of similar programs at several of the campuses that we visited and have received enthusiasm from the center’s staff. Recently, a reoccurring once-per-semester instruction event for faculty opened to librarians and the CTE planning team devoted the lunch hour to pairing faculty members with liaison librarians to stimulate initial instruction planning discussions.

Finally, we intend to “flip” the creation of teaching tools traditionally used by librarians (like LibGuides) by asking students to develop them to aid their personal learning. In the process, we hope to learn more about how students use software for scholarship while cultivating highly relevant tools that will later benefit peers in subsequent semesters.

Review of other professional development programs

Many academic libraries encourage professional development with various means. In other disciplines, field research is considered an essential form of professional development when quality information is gathered, observations are considered, and conclusions based on the experience are synthesized and shared for the benefit of others in the field.

In the library field, blogs, webinars, MOOCS, conferences, and even mentor-mentee partnerships seem readily supported by library administrations. Unfortunately, upon reviewing these programs, rarely did we see mention of the type of field research that we have benefitted from. Field research occurs outside the library, is often cross-disciplinary, and uses mixed methods (such as interviews, observations, participation, and discussion) to gather the most information possible. We hope that this articles serves to demonstrate the merits of a professional development program that encourages a sharing community among institutions. While strengthening the greater librarian community, it also promises to deliver a highly relevant return on investment for your local library.

1. Hahn, K. , “Introduction: Positioning Liaison Librarians for the 21st Century. ,” Research Library Issues: A Bimonthly Report from ARL, CNI, and SPARC 265: 1, 2009 .
2. Kenney, A. , “From Engaging Liaison Librarians to Engaging Communities. ,” College & Research Libraries 76, no. 3 ( 2015 ) : 386-91 –, doi: [CrossRef] .
3. Rickert, E. McDonald, PL.. Birkmeier, M. Walker, B. Cotton, L. Lyons, LB.. Straker, HO.. Plack, MM.. , “Using Technology to Promote Active and Social Learning Experiences in Health Professions Education. ,” Online Learning 18, no. 4 ( 2014 ): 23 .
4. Berg, SA.. Hoffman, K. Dawson, D. , “Perspectives on Integrating Research into LIS Field Experiences in Academic Libraries. ,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, 35 ( 2009 ): 591 .
5. Wilkinson, Z. Skill, J. , “The use of librarians as occupational study populations in social science research. ,” Library Review 63 ( 2014 ): 2-14 –. Doi: [CrossRef] .
6. ACRL Instruction Section ILBP Committee, “Information Literacy Best Practices: Exemplary Programs. ,” www.ala.org/acrl/aboutacrl/directoryofleadership/sections/is/iswebsite/projpubs/bestpractices-exemplary.
Copyright © 2016 Ashley L. Downs and Kelee Pacion

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