v32#4 Engaged Librarianship at the NC State University Libraries

by | Sep 30, 2020 | 0 comments


by Shaun Bennett  (Research Librarian for Business, Education, & Data Literacy, NCSU Libraries) 

and Karen Ciccone  (Head, Data & Visualization Services, NCSU Libraries) 

and Hilary Davis (Head, Collections & Research Strategy, NCSU Libraries) 


What does it mean to be an engaged research librarian?  In this article we focus on the evolution of collections, instruction, consultation, and data-centric librarian roles at the NC State University Libraries as a case study, including efforts designed to increase engagement with the campus population.  We explore questions such as:  How do we hire for skills gaps to meet current and emerging researcher needs?  How should we be organized to be more engaged with researchers?  How should our teams function to be more responsive and agile to emerging needs?  How do we partner across campus to extend library expertise and capacity?  These questions are at the core of our everyday work, and we discuss some of the approaches that have worked for our library. 


Libraries have always been dedicated to reducing barriers to information and facilitating the creation of new knowledge.  As the nature of research evolves, librarian roles are evolving to enable us to continue to fulfil these missions.  New roles supporting research data management and curation, open knowledge and reproducible workflows, data science and visualization, and new digital forms of scholarship are growing in importance. 

At the NC State University Libraries, we use the term “research librarian” to communicate this broad support for all aspects of research.  Terms such as “subject librarian” and “subject specialist” falsely imply a depth of knowledge, perhaps even an advanced degree in a particular subject area, when in reality we are generalists who support many areas of research.  The term “functional specialist” is sometimes used to describe librarians whose primary responsibilities lie in providing service around an area of expertise such as geospatial analytics or data visualization.  However, these specialists are also expected to have general knowledge of a breadth of research support topics coupled with strong consultancy skills.  In lieu of the false subject librarian/functional specialist dichotomy we choose to focus on a model of engaged research librarianship.  This model puts relationship building, communication, and collaboration with university partners at the forefront. 

Hiring for Skills Gaps and Working Collaboratively

Our blending of subject and functional specialist roles begins with the hiring process.  While subject background is considered in creating and advertising positions, it is not prioritized above other requirements.  A survey of research librarians at NC State conducted at the time of writing found that slightly fewer than half (47%) were liaising in an area related to their degree.  A background in the subject matter of the position is usually listed as a preferred qualification, not a requirement.  This opens up the field to a wider set of applicants and encourages those with useful functional skills to apply. 

This focus on skills rather than subject background allows the Libraries to hire for skills gaps within the organization.  As an example, the Libraries recently advertised for a Research Librarian for Life Sciences & Research Metrics.  The only required degree was a Masters of Library Science or equivalent, while the preferred qualifications focused on faculty engagement, experience with research impact metrics, and data management skills.  The librarian hired for that position has filled a needed niche in the Libraries’ organization by acting not only as the subject specialist for the Life Sciences, but also as a cross-departmental expert for research impact metrics.

This model of complementary skills gaps only works because of our highly collaborative work environment.  The Libraries are split into numerous departments and divisions, but those lines are not regarded as barriers to collaborative work.  Librarians are encouraged to become familiar with the various skill sets available across the Libraries and to take advantage of that expertise when needed.  This collaborative environment affects every aspect of the library’s functions, from answering patron reference questions to bringing together different expertise and departments into committees and project teams.

Realignment to be More Outward Facing and Engaged

A major focus of the NC State University Libraries is to seek strategic alignment of resources to advance the capacity of our researchers and partners.  To support this strategic focus, a series of organizational realignments facilitated a shift towards liaison roles that are more engaged with current researcher needs.  Research librarians work across the organization to:

• Track trends in academia, research, and industry that will benefit the institution

• Explore how the Libraries can integrate and improve research workflows and impact

• Develop new, collaborative, strategic relationships with campus and industry partners

• Build expertise in data management, data manipulation, data visualization, and data analysis

As part of this realignment effort, a new library department called Research Engagement was created to provide a center of gravity for research impact and analytics support, digital information literacy, and graduate student research productivity.  This new department collaborates closely with an existing department called Collections & Research Strategy, which has a central focus of developing and connecting users with network-based collections that are responsive to campus needs.  Research librarians from both departments also collaborate with librarians in Data & Visualization Services and the Copyright and Digital Scholarship Center to support our stakeholders, from undergraduate students to senior researchers.  No one unit provides end-to-end research support services, but all work together to provide skills and assistance.

Some examples of cross-departmental collaboration include:

• Negotiating content mining rights for datasets needed by researchers and students, and helping researchers learn new methods for working with data such as text mining, natural language processing, and machine learning.

• Providing course-integrated data literacy instruction for undergraduates, as well as custom workshops for graduate students, lab groups, and centers and institutes.

• Implementing a Textbook Program to save students money and help create a sustainable textbook ecosystem that is paired with an AltTextbook program for faculty to create free or low-cost alternatives to expensive textbooks.

• Integrating librarians into faculty clusters and research labs to get a pulse on specific researcher needs and expectations, while also creating library advocates within the researcher community.

• Collaborating with campus partners on community-wide citizen science initiatives.

• Working with researchers to showcase their research and integrating student course projects and collections into immersive spaces provided by the Libraries.

Forming Committees and Teams for Agile Responses to Emerging Needs

The research and teaching needs of university students and faculty can evolve with surprising rapidity, and NC State has been no exception.  As patron needs have changed over time, the NC State University Libraries has grappled with the best way to respond to those rapid changes.  One of our more successful approaches has been the creation of agile committees and ad-hoc teams.  Committees tend to be formed at a higher level by the administration of the Libraries, while ad-hoc teams can form naturally around identified areas of need. 

The Research Data Committee is an example of a committee that grew out of an expressed need for research data support at the university.  We participated in the ARL/DLF E-Science Institute, which provided the foundation for our strategic agenda and led to charging a formal library committee in August 2012.  Because we did not have a full-time position dedicated to research data support or a campus-wide data repository, we gathered experts from across the Libraries who could work together to share knowledge and creative solutions.  The committee has a rotating membership of librarians with expertise in copyright and digital scholarship, grant funding, geospatial and numerical data, and digital humanities, and research librarians who bring diversity of expertise across multiple disciplines.  A core activity of the Research Data Committee is the Data Management Plan (DMP) Review service, which serves the dual purpose of developing competencies within our librarians to understand research data issues and supporting researchers’ needs to manage, preserve, and share research assets.  Because of the diverse composition of our committee, when DMP drafts are submitted for our review, we are prepared to assess technical specifications, legal challenges, compliance with funding expectations, and discipline-specific norms.  The DMP Review service has also enabled us to establish relationships with other units on campus that are dedicated to supporting the research enterprise including IT units for data security and infrastructure, the institutional review board (IRB) for human subjects research compliance, and the sponsored programs and contracts unit for grantseeking and grant management.

The Libraries’ Data & Visualization Services department is an example of a new department that grew out of an ad-hoc team.  The Visualization Services Team was formed to respond to growing interest in data visualization and to better support the Libraries’ new large-scale visualization spaces.  The committee included visualization specialists and data librarians from multiple departments.  As demand for data and visualization workshops, consultations, and instruction increased, it became more challenging to coordinate this support across departments.  Providing these services within a departmental structure enabled us to better respond to the growth in demand, scale up these services, and ultimately support two new service points focused on data science and visualization support and community building, the James B. Hunt Library Dataspace and D.H. Hill Jr. Library Data Experience Lab

While librarians in Data & Visualization Services have deep expertise in areas such as geospatial analysis, visualization design, machine learning, and data analysis, people in multiple departments have expertise in these areas and sometimes also provide data- and visualization-related research and instructional support.  When responding to requests for instruction or assistance, we work together to assemble a team of the people best able to help, including the research librarian when appropriate.  Pairs of librarians often co-consult or co-teach, combining their technical and disciplinary expertise while also learning from each other.

In some instances, programs are spun up rapidly by librarians in response to an immediate, demonstrated need on campus.  The Personal Librarian program is one such example.  This program connects transfer students, who tend to not feel as connected to the university experience and resources, to librarians during their first semester at NC State.  Students are assigned a “personal librarian” with whom they can schedule an individual appointment to learn more about library resources, spaces, and collections.  The program was formed by librarians in Learning Spaces & Services in collaboration with NC State’s Department of Academic and Student Affairs, but it has the flexibility to ask for expertise and resources from other departments.

Extension of Library Expertise through Campus Partners

Other units on campus share our mission to support researchers and students, and when we get to know the people in those units and work with them as colleagues, we accomplish our missions more effectively.  We are working more closely with these campus units to improve lines of communication, develop cohesive referral systems, and create new positions and services.

As an example, we partnered with our campus’ central Office of Information Technology (OIT) to create a new position supporting researchers in the areas of research data infrastructure, data management, and data storage.  The Research Data & Infrastructure Librarian helps to connect the Libraries with researchers and campus-provided research infrastructure.  Working with teams of librarians with broad subject knowledge and expertise in research data management, this role has led to many opportunities to forge partnerships with campus technology partners and develop unique services for researchers.

The Libraries hires graduate students with expertise in specific areas to offer workshops (through our Peer Scholars program) and consult on data science topics (through our Data Science Consultants program).  In partnership with other university departments, we have also developed assistantships to provide graduate students with tuition and health benefits while working in the library and using their expertise to help us develop new programs and offer new services.  For example, the Statistics Graduate Extension Assistant (GEA) is a 13-hours-per-week position situated in the Libraries’ Data & Visualization Services department.  The Statistics GEA will provide expert peer-to-peer consultations on the use of statistical methods and statistical computing software such as R, SAS, SPSS, and Stata.  In addition, he will serve as a liaison with the Statistical Consulting Core and explore opportunities for offering Statistics-related programming in the library.

Closing Thoughts

We have described several strategies for increasing engagement at the NC State University Libraries:  hiring for skills gaps, aligning to support collaborative work across units within the library, blending functional and traditional liaison roles, forming committees and departments to address emerging research and teaching needs, and forging campus partnerships.  Through each of these strategies, it should be clear that engaged librarianship is about building relationships that provide opportunities to explore areas for potential service expansion and to better understand, support, and collaborate with our campus constituencies.  We will continue to evolve the liaison model, explore how to provide meaningful and impactful consultancy, and seek more effective ways to collaborate with campus partners to better support students and researchers.  Throughout all of our efforts, however, we view communication and relationship building skills, along with expert consultancy skills, broad knowledge of research support areas, and deep expertise in one or more areas, as the requisite skills for an engaged research librarian.  

Name of university or college:  NC State

Website:  https://www.ncsu.edu/

Carnegie classification:  R1  Doctoral University: Very High Research

Number of undergraduates:  25,973 (2019)

Number of graduates:  10,331 (2019)

Number of faculty:  2,372 (2019)

Highest degree offered:  PhD

Name of library:  NC State University Libraries

FTE librarians:  107 (2019)

Other FTE staff:  105 (2019)

Library annual budget:  $36,130,007 (2019 expenditures)

Annual circulation:  408,333 (2019)

Annual gate entries:  2,466,234 (2019)

Hours:  146 per week in academic session (2019)

Physical service points in the library:  1 per library (2019)

Staffing innovation #1:  Hiring for skills gaps and working collaboratively

Staffing innovation #2:  Realignment to be more outward facing and engaged

Staffing innovation #3:  Forming committees and teams for agile responses to emerging needs

Staffing innovation #4:  Extension of library expertise through campus partners


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