v32#1 ATG Interviews Carol Tenopir, Chancellor’s Professor and Board of Visitors Professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 0 comments

by Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) 

Carol Tenopir

and Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain) 

ATG:  You were recently named the University of Tennessee’s Macebearer, which is the university’s highest faculty award, celebrating and honoring a distinguished career.  As you look back on your achievements, are there particular contributions that make you most proud? 

CT:  From the beginning of my academic career in the early 1980’s I have tried to keep good relationships with the professional communities that employ our graduates (libraries, scholarly publishers, secondary publishers, government agencies, and others) that are responsible for the scholarly communication infrastructure.  I listen to their concerns, focus my research on issues that are important to scholarly communication now and in the future, and, in turn, I think these organizations listen to findings from my research. Focusing on how researchers use information in their work has been central in all of this. This commitment to all participants in the scholarly communication ecosystem has driven the accomplishments in research, teaching, and service that I am most proud of. 

ATG:  And obviously, you haven’t slowed down!  What research projects are you currently working on?  What other exciting projects are on the horizon?

CT:  My view of the information that researchers need to do their work has gradually expanded over the years, from A&I databases, to journal articles and other formal information sources, to less formal sources, to research data.  Currently I am finishing up some decade-long research projects on how scientists’ and academic libraries’ practices and perceptions regarding research data have changed over the decade. I am also finishing the latest results that build on the multiple decades long work on the role of research information sources for work-related purposes that Donald W. King and I worked together on for many years.  Don died in fall 2019 and I owe him a debt of gratitude for his mentorship and collaboration for so many years.

Upcoming, I would like to continue with some of the work I did with my colleagues at CIBER (UK) a few years ago on how the nature of trust of various types of research information resources may be changing. 

ATG:  We notice that you frequently work with other researchers.  Can you talk about the value of collaboration in your research?

CT:  Before I became an academic I started my LIS career working in a consulting company.  Collaboration between clients and staff and between staff members with different expertise was essential in juggling a variety of projects and finding the best way to proceed.  This means that I got into the collaboration habit early on. Besides the fact that I just like to work with other people, in collaborations each person brings a different perspective and different strength that improves the project as a whole.  As an academic I have the opportunity to work with teams of researchers and students from around the world and from many different disciplines. It just makes sense to work with researchers from Finland, for example, when I am studying how Finnish researchers use information, or with librarians when we are studying library research data services, or with engineers when we look at how to improve information instruction for engineering students.  I have also been blessed with strong mentors over the years and I try to repay that by serving as a mentor to others.

ATG:  How do you and your collaborators decide on your next project?  How many assistants do you typically employ?

CT:  The fun thing about research is that one answer leads to many more questions and one project often leads to another.  Because we look at current practices and future trends, every few years I feel the need to see how things have changed and to see if there are new trends or new behaviors in how researchers use and disseminate information.  The world of scholarly publishing has changed in many ways over the four decades I have been doing research (and not changed in many other ways, such as scientists’ motivations for publishing), so there is always something new to look at or old issues to revisit.  The number of assistants I employ depends on the scope of the project (national or international, for example, or short-term or long-term) and the funding available. I try to always have one funded research assistant who works with me on multiple projects and then we hire others for specific projects as funding allows.  Several years ago, Don King and I established the Tenopir-King Research Excellence Fund in the UT Center for Information and Communication Studies.  I want to thank those organizations and individuals who have helped this fund grow so I can employ a research assistant, typically a recent graduate from the School of Information Sciences who is interested in getting experience in research activities.

ATG:  More broadly, we wonder where you see the future of library research going?  Are there specific issues that you see as most critical and worthy of exploration?  

CT:  The research that I am most interested in that is relevant to libraries and librarians often involves the motivations and behaviors of the people who use information products and services, as well as the value and role of the library now and into the future.  This means not only measuring behaviors now, but also figuring out ways to anticipate changes in the future based on technological and societal changes. Libraries and publishers have to anticipate needs and test services or products that may meet those needs.  With the pace of technological change now, that means research is a constant need, not a one-time project. Although there are studies on the topic, we still need more and larger-scale research on the role of specific functions of the library in student and faculty success and what services libraries are missing that may help more in the future.  The same goes for research relevant to publishing. 

ATG:  How can library researchers like yourself help the profession come to terms with the transitional and disruptive changes that seem to be all around us?

CT:  In the 1990s, librarian colleagues and I did a series of studies of how reference librarians dealt with change (leading up to the new millennium).  We found a lot of stress over change expressed in the early years of the decade, but by the end of the 1990s that stress was often replaced with excitement and the attitude that change is a part of the job.  Part of that change no doubt had to do with the fact that those who were most stressed retired before 1999 (!), but it also was a realization by those who stayed in the job or were new to it that disruptive changes are an opportunity for the library to try new things.  Librarians have to always be on the look-out for potential ways to change services and products to better serve their users, whether that is new technology or new possibilities for collaboration with other groups. I think research can help librarians realize that it is better to lead information services changes throughout their organizations than to work at merely justifying or maintaining the status quo.

ATG:  As far as library education goes, what modifications, if any, has the University of Tennessee’s iSchool made in coursework and teaching to adjust to these transitional and disruptive changes?  Are other iSchools making similar modifications?

CT:  Almost every iSchool has changed curriculum and teaching methods to adapt to change.  It starts with changes in the realities of our master’s students — most schools now offer either synchronous or asynchronous online options for students in addition to face-to-face so students don’t have to relocate and can work full or part time while getting their degrees.  For coursework, it is a continual process of updating course content and adding new courses or special topics. The need to update isn’t new (technology in LIS programs before typewriters included handwriting in “the library hand”), but the pace has accelerated. Students say they value skills that will help them get a job — good curriculum must balance these skills with foundational knowledge, contemporary issues, and ethics.  New content reflects both societal issues (for example, homelessness and the public library), as well as technological changes (for example, data visualization and analytics) or both (for example, impacts of social media). 

Another change is the need to cover too much content in a reasonable time if we try to educate library generalists.  More focus on specialization is inevitable with technological and societal disruptions. At the University of Tennessee we just changed our three required courses (Information Concepts and Foundations, Information Organization and Retrieval, Information Technology Foundations) to better reflect the issues, technology, and needs of all students, while offering additional differentiated pathways so students can specialize in a particular area.  These are as diverse as user experience, youth services, data curation, science information, digital collections, academic libraries, public libraries, assessment, and others. 

ATG:  Can you give us a sense of University of Tennessee iSchools student body?  How many students are enrolled — are they online or in person? How many international students?  And what are their nationalities, primarily? Is this a growth area?

CT:  The UT iSchool’s master’s degree program has about 280 students, who are studying for careers in all types of libraries and other information-intensive environments.  About 2/3 of our master’s students are distance education students from Tennessee and around the U.S. The master’s degree program has been growing over the past decade.  Our d.e. classes are synchronous online, so they meet each other in class. Our PhD students are from a variety of countries and regions, including Asia, the Middle East, and the U.S. Students in our Bachelor’s degree program are all on-campus students, although some of the classes are online.

ATG:  When you look into your crystal ball, what do you see iSchools looking like in five to ten years?  What type of professional training will they be providing? Will the MLS still be relevant?  

CT:  Like many before us, at UT we now offer a Bachelor’s degree in addition to our Master’s degree.  The MSIS (MLS) degree is still the first professional degree for librarians and for management positions, but the Bachelor’s of Science degree fills a need for entry level information technology and information design positions outside libraries.  So my crystal ball tells me that iSchools will have a wider diversity of students going into a more diverse range of jobs.

ATG:  We weren’t aware that the iSchool had expanded into undergraduate programming that significantly.  Can you tell us more about how that works at the University of Tennessee? What type entry level positions are students getting with these degrees?  What has been the response in terms of student interest?

CT:  Our master’s degree students go into positions in libraries and in management level positions in information areas in other types of organizations.  Placement rates are quite robust. The job market goals for undergraduates are different. Our bachelor’s degree has two initial concentrations — a User Experience Design (UXD) concentration and a Data, Information Management, and Analytics (DIMA) concentration.  BSIS students can also select a General concentration, which is a customized course plan not in either of the concentrations. We did an extensive jobs analysis before launching the degree this year. To quote our website, “There are a wide variety of jobs that can be pursued with the degree, which include UX Designer/Researcher, Data Analyst/Scientist, Metadata Specialist, IT Analyst, Information Manager, Web Content Analyst, and more!  Information science is a broad field which can be taken in a variety of directions and settings; often the only limit is your imagination and willingness to try out a new role.” 

We are currently hiring three faculty positions to teach primarily in the undergraduate degree program (although our existing faculty of 13 and doctoral students also teach some in the UG program) so we did a “soft launch” until faculty are in place.  Still, with little advertising we have 20 majors and over 700 students in our various UG courses.

ATG:  As you think about academic libraries, where do you see them fitting in the future of higher education?  Do you think libraries and librarians will have a significant role as you see things evolving? If so, what does that role look like?  What changes will be required of libraries and librarians?

CT:  Libraries and librarians that actively seek and take a visible leadership role will have a significant role, but those that remain quiet, invisible, or siloed run the risk of being made obsolete.  Research data services and evaluation/assessment are two examples of areas where the institution has a need and the library can play important roles in leading or fulfilling those needs.

ATG:  Carol, given your highly active research and teaching schedule, making time for fun and relaxation strikes us as being necessary to keep your batteries re-charged.  Are there specific activities that you enjoy when not focused on research and teaching?

CT:  Does it sound like a cliché if I say I like to read?!  I read widely but am particularly interested in arctic and Antarctic exploration (and I have quite a collection of books from and about the golden age of Antarctic exploration), mysteries, and classic fiction.  I travel a lot for work and always try to do one interesting thing on each trip in addition to work, like an extended walk or a concert or a visit to a cultural attraction. I like to explore the countryside and cities on foot and spend lots of time walking in such diverse locales as my family’s home in the rural foothills of California or my adopted home of the city of Helsinki.

ATG:  Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us.  We really appreciate you sharing your perspectives on these key issues.  

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