<span class="padlock_text"></span> v26 #2 Basic Biomedical Scientists: The Rediscovered Library Users

by | May 12, 2014 | 0 comments

by Susan K. Kendall  (Health Sciences Coordinator and Biology Librarian, Michigan State University Libraries)

Not that long ago, maybe 10-15 years, most academic health sciences librarians seemed focused almost exclusively on the professional colleges that they served:  medical and nursing, perhaps pharmacy, dentistry, or veterinary.  In 2002, a Journal of the Medical Library Association paper on new roles for health sciences librarians mentioned several new opportunities for working with clinical patrons:  participating in grand rounds and continuing medical education, working with community health professionals, filtering quality sources in the clinical environment, and incorporating more library instruction into the medical curriculum.1  I was a new health sciences librarian in 2002, and it certainly seemed to me, when looking at programs, papers, and posters at the Medical Library Association conference, that the clinical areas were where librarians were having an impact.  Very little mention was made of that whole other set of library users making up a large percentage of the people working in academic medical centers:  the basic biomedical scientists, the PhD researchers, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and research assistants working in laboratories.  It wasn’t hard to guess why.  In large part, these researchers were self-sufficient.  Their happiness with the library seemed entirely dependent on an extensive journal collection.  Other than that, they did not feel they needed the library.  They did their own Medline searches, rarely consulted any reference books that they did not own, and passed down information seeking and management behavior along with scientific knowledge and laboratory skills from professor to student.  During the past decade, however, several changes in the information environment for basic scientists have created new opportunities for librarians to interact with basic scientists, and they have become the rediscovered library users for many health sciences libraries.  A 2002 “Informationist Conference” at the National Library of Medicine discussed expanding the concept of embedded informationists beyond the clinical setting to the research setting.2  Many of the ideas from that meeting have become trends for health sciences libraries in the decade since.


In 1997, the 21 original members of the newly formed Molecular Biology and Genomics Special Interest Group of the Medical Library Association began to talk about marketing librarian services to laboratory-based library users.  Their focus was on teaching users how to search the scientific molecular and genetic databases from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a departure from strictly bibliographic databases.  The first library-based bioinformatics service teaching these molecular databases was reported in the literature in 2000.3  Novelties at the time, more and more library positions for researcher bioinformatics support began to be advertised and filled either by librarians with specialized knowledge or non-librarian PhD biologists.  By 2006, a special focus issue of the Journal of the Medical Library Association published 8 case studies of library bioinformatics services.4  Now, this type of position has become almost de rigueur for academic health sciences libraries, and a survey of medical school-affiliated libraries in the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) in 2010 showed that 46% of respondents were offering some kind of bioinformatics support, sometimes shared with other libraries or units on campus.  Another significant percentage were considering offering such a service in the future, either with a librarian or a non-librarian specialist.5, 6  The number of bioinformatics data resources has grown far beyond the publically available NCBI databases to include a number of commercial subscription-based bioinformatics products for statistical analysis or data mining as well as other open source software.  Interestingly, the same survey showed that only about 12% of AAHSL libraries in 2010 were coordinating institutional licenses for these bioinformatics databases, so the focus for most is primarily on service rather than an expansion of collection policies to include these new types of resources.

Scholarly Communication Issues

The past decade or so has seen changes in the research publishing environment that have brought basic researchers and librarians together, and health sciences libraries and librarians have been in the vanguard of these trends.  The late 1990s rising cost of scholarly journal subscriptions, particularly in the sciences, spurred much discussion of the “scholarly communication crisis” and the sustainability of various models for dissemination of scholarly information.  The open access movement grew from the Budapest initiative in 2001 to the Berlin and Bethesda Declarations of 2003 to being a mainstream part of scholarly publishing today.  Almost all major biomedical publishers now offer open access journals among their suite of publications and open access options for publishing individual articles.  Public access to biomedical research has been a major topic of discussion in the academic and research communities, and several funding bodies now have access policies for research publication.  Librarians and researchers have come together in workshops and symposia to discuss these issues at their institutions, and the sharing of information related to these publishing issues has led many researchers to contact their librarians as the identified experts on copyright, journal policies, how to self-archive, and how to access funds for author-paid open access publishing.   While this trend does not only involve basic biomedical researchers, they are one of the larger groups impacted by scholarly publishing issues.  New roles for collections and liaison librarians and new librarian positions are being created to revolve around publishing and open access issues.  Another AAHSL survey in 2010 showed that 75% of academic health sciences libraries are supporting faculty or working with another library or department on campus to support faculty with NIH public access policy manuscript submission, and over 50% of health sciences libraries have at least shared responsibility on their campuses for their institutional repository.6  Two other articles in this issue of Against the Grain address librarian support for open access policies and institutional repositories in greater depth.

Clinical and Translational Research Institutes

At many universities and medical centers, the building of clinical and translational research institutes funded by the National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program has been another occasion of renewed interest in researchers by health sciences librarians.  These new institutes pull researchers from the clinical and basic sciences together to foster interdisciplinary collaboration, more communication, and faster translation of knowledge from scientific findings to clinical relevance.  The research emphasis is new for many libraries that had recently focused many of their new initiatives on supporting clinical care and medical/nursing education.  For a while now, health science librarians have been strategizing among themselves about how to work with these institutes.  A new Translational Sciences Collaboration Special Interest Group of the Medical Library Association was formed in 2011 to help foster these discussions, and a recent short communication in the Journal of the Medical Library Association detailed many different library-based support efforts for clinical and translational research.7  As they work more closely with clinical researchers, basic science researchers are starting to learn about library services they did not know existed, like the professional-level searching librarians can provide to support grant proposals.  Librarians are taking opportunities to communicate the services they can provide to support research design, bioinformatics education, information management, and data management.  In fact, this last service, that of helping with scientific data management, is becoming yet another new role for health sciences librarians.  The increase in amount of data that researchers in large interdisciplinary groups may generate (sometimes called e-science) and new federal policies requiring data management plans in grants have left many scientists seeking help and expertise in subjects that librarians have traditionally understood, like long-term preservation and access issues.  Job descriptions of several newly posted librarian positions in the health sciences specify that the librarian will help research faculty create data management and curation plans and identify institutional and subject specific data repositories.  A new focus on open data has grown naturally out of the last decade’s focus on open access for research publication.  So new are data management services for health sciences libraries that they were not included in the 2010 AAHSL survey of services being offered in health sciences libraries.

Research Networking

The development of clinical and translational research institutes and other interdisciplinary research institutes has also been the impetus for institutions to invest in some kind of online research networking tool.  These are designed to create profiles of researchers at any given institution by pulling information from publications, grants, and other sources to display research expertise by way of keywords and descriptors.  The profiles display research expertise and interest to others outside or inside the institution who may want to set up collaborations.  VIVO is one of these tools, and it was developed through a grant from the National Institutes of Health.  But research profiling/networking has been discovered by many major commercial vendors, and now several different tools are available by subscription and more are being developed.  So far, they have been most popular in medical schools and biomedical research centers.  While librarians are not usually involved in the licensing or payment for these tools, they have worked on their implementation to varying degrees with others in their institutions.  Librarians can bring to the table their understanding of the workings of bibliographic databases, controlled vocabularies, and research citation, all of which are used by these tools and are important for the accuracy of the research profiles.  To the extent that librarians have been able to be involved, they have found these occasions to be opportunities to demonstrate their expertise to faculty and administrators and their commitment to furthering the research missions of their institutions.

Collection Management

The trends discussed here involve new roles for librarians working with basic scientists, but more traditional collections management librarians should not be left out.  While, in the past, the basic biomedical sciences collection consisted mainly of journals plus a few books, new types of products have recently become available.  In the past decade, laboratory protocols books have gone online to become protocols databases with new bells and whistles.  Video protocols databases are a recent new invention.  The online versions of reference materials for scientists no longer look like books but have become continually updated databases.  In response, librarians find themselves asking questions about their collection policies.  Should libraries provide primarily bibliographic information or should they also provide raw scientific datasets?  And licensing is another consideration, particularly when vendors unused to working with libraries do not understand library values.  How do we encourage licensing that perpetuates the values of information sharing, public access, and interlibrary loan when a product consists of datasets or streaming video?  In the case of bioinformatics software and data, only a minority of health sciences libraries have decided to pay for institutional access.5  More libraries seem to be subscribing to the new protocols databases and hybrid reference databases.  Other types of potential library purchases are the numerous new products to help scientists keep up with the scientific literature and manage the vast number of articles they are reading.  Many libraries already provide institutional access to reference management software that also allows researchers to store and mark up their pdfs.  They are also starting to provide institutional access to new productivity tools and apps that allow researchers to easily access and read favorite journals and other content on their tablets and phones.  While some question whether precious collection dollars should be spent on resources that do not provide content, many librarians see providing access to and training on these new tools as a way to demonstrate continuing support and value to the research scientist community.


Today librarians are finding many opportunities for points of contact and engagement with basic biomedical researchers.  A recent systematic review of the changing roles of health sciences librarians found that many of the new roles I’ve mentioned here are described in the literature and in recent job postings.8  A survey of library directors and other librarians in biomedical settings published at the same time by the same authors found that many of the roles for librarians that are “trending up,” that is, more likely to be planned than already in place, relate to support for research.9  Some of these new roles do require specialized knowledge and new skills, but others use the skills that librarians have always had but may only now be appreciated by these patrons.  There can be some tension as librarians begin to negotiate with non-librarians in their institutions as to who should perform which roles.  Some of these services might be performed by a librarian at one institution but someone with a different background at a different institution.  Health sciences library directors are making individual decisions, based on their situations and budgets, about which of these services their libraries will offer, and librarian roles will look different from place to place.  I think that librarians do bring a unique perspective and skill set to all of these different kinds of roles and that it will be apparent to whomever they collaborate with that they can provide valuable and needed support for the research enterprise.


1.  Scherrer, C. S. and S. Jacobson. “New Measures for New Roles: Defining and Measuring the Current Practices of Health Sciences Librarians.”  Journal of the Medical Library Association 90, no. 2 (2002): 164-72.

2.  Shipman, J. P., D. J. Cunningham, R. Holst, and L. A. Watson.  “The Informationist Conference: Report.”  Journal of the Medical Library Association 90, no. 4 (2002): 458-64.

3.  Yarfitz, S. and D. S. Ketchell.  “A Library-Based Bioinformatics Services Program.” Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 88, no. 1 (2000): 36-48.

4.  Journal of the Medical Library Association 94, no. 3 (2006).

5.  Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries.  Annual Statistics of Medical School Libraries in the United States and Canada, 33rd Edition:  Services and Resources Survey.  (2010), http://aahsl.ccr.buffalo.edu/ (Accessed December 19, 2013).

6.  Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries.  Annual Statistics of Medical School Libraries in the United States and Canada, 33rd Edition:  Descriptive Statistics Survey.  (2010), http://aahsl.ccr.buffalo.edu/ (Accessed December 19, 2013).

7.  Holmes, K. L., J. A. Lyon, L. M. Johnson, C. C. Sarli, and M. R. Tennant.  “Library-Based Clinical and Translational Research Support.”  Journal of the Medical Library Association 101, no. 4 (2013): 326-35.

8.  Cooper, I. D. and J. A. Crum. “New Activities and Changing Roles of Health Sciences Librarians: A Systematic Review, 1990-2012.”  Journal of the Medical Library Association 101, no. 4 (2013): 268-77.

9.  Crum, J. A. and I. D. Cooper.  “Emerging Roles for Biomedical Librarians: A Survey of Current Practice, Challenges, and Changes.”  J Med Libr Assoc 101, no. 4 (2013): 278-86.

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