What Faculty Want Librarians to Know

by | Nov 8, 2014 | 1 comment


Faculty panel

Faculty panel: (L-R) James O’Donnell (moderator), Tim Johnson, Phil Richerme, Christine Fair

At the past two Charleston Conferences, university provosts told us what they wanted librarians to know.  This year, it was the faculty’s turn.  Phil Richerme, an atomic physicist began with a description of a typical day.  His first stop in the morning is the Arxiv preprint server (he called it the “Arxiv-ology of Knowledge”) which has been transformative in the physics community. There could be 10 to as many as 100 new papers per day. He looks at abstracts of new papers and can download a PDF of the paper. The archive has always been and always will be free. (Some open access journals have sprung up, but they cost about $2,000 for authors to publish in). The archive saves lots of time because papers appear when they are submitted, several months before publication.  Roles have been switched: the archive has now become the means of communication, and the journals have become the archive.

Most physicists publish their results in Physical Review Letters, Nature, or Science and not books.  Books would be better utilized if their full text were available online. However, the most leading-edge thoughts are found at conferences.

After perusing his e-mail and new preprints, Richerme goes to the lab and sometimes does a literature search, often using Google Scholar, the Web of Science, or AIP’s site. The university library is not consulted because it often is too comprehensive. Every so often, a book appears in reference lists. Books are not the means of breaking new ground in physics, so most researchers look at Google Books first, then go to Amazon and use the “look inside” feature if it is available to search for the equation or passage of interest.

Richerme asked colleagues if they know how to get to the library, with these results.

Where is the library?

Data archiving is not typically done by libraries. A typical experimental group’s results take up about 100 GB which is easily stored on a hard drive. If libraries want to fill in the role of backup, that’s OK, but scientists do not have a need for that.

Richerme was followed by Tim Johnson, Chair of Classics, College of Charleston, who spoke on “Books, Databases, and Bodies”.  In 1966, the entire act of using a library was physical, but now we can put libraries in places where they never used to exist. Research is a collaborative act among the senses. Johnson wants most to be provided with things to save him from the disaster of a solitary cell: other people’s research touches him, and he needs to touch it. Research begs to be handled: it is tactile.

Research now feels different and is much easier to share; we have e-books, Kindles, etc. The stacks that Johnson browses most often are digital, with access driven by search engines. This is part of the challenge; students are surprisingly unsophisticated in constructing meaningful search queries. Arrangement of items matters more than it ever did. Searching is not just about finding, but what searchers can find in the vicinity of the desired item without their searches becoming increasingly diffuse. So by default, students tend to use JSTOR or other e-sources and let the rest of the books go.

When links between instutions are nonexistent or broken, researchers are forced to make their own connections. ILL is not useful because the books must be returned not long after being received. The push for access is a fight worth picking and winning. High school or public libraries cannot come close to providing students with resources they need, so the students therefore must depend on online resources. Since remote university students taking an online course are not physically at the university, they are essentially shut out of access. There are too few links between public or high school libraries and university libraries. Boundaries are artificial and must be questioned, challenged, and breached. We want to put books in content with human bodies.

Johnson’s wishes for bringing his body of work in contact with others include:

  1. Space in libraries for writing and collaboration, so he can be uninterrupted. This is not possible in a crowded office.
  2. More database projects specifically designed for his research interests. Many databases assume fields are stable, so students’ perspectives are limited. For example, see the Homer Multitext Project.
  3. For now, more money. Nothing makes collaborative partners fight quicker than a poor funding supply. Colleges need to realize that research is the very life source of our culture.

The final speaker was Christine Fair, Assistant Professor of Security Studies, Georgetown University. She needs physical books even though gets a lot of information from journals. Often the books are in libraries to which she has no access. She loves librarians, especially reference librarians, and is a big beneficiary of the Public Law 480 program which supports library collections.

Sometimes one must become a master of multiple types of literature (ads, economics, military manpower documents, etc.). Librarians became her collaborators (when she worked at RAND, library users had to pay for services which was a good way to make efficient use of time). There is no way of valuing library transactions in academic environments and ensuring that students get value. The big mission of librarians must be serving the customer who pays the bills by having the resources they need. Local resources are extremely important.

At Georgetown, the library is not very useful to her because its collections do not include what she needs. Special collections for scholars are very expensive, but she does expect her university to have better relations with those universities that have the materials she needs. PL480 programs are very useful. She uses Amazon heavily because few people want the same books that she does, so she gets them very cheaply and has essentially built her own library.

Her wish list:

  • If a library specializes, it is creating a public good. It should understand that and allow access to its collections. She misses wandering the stacks to see what the library has.
  • Organize databases by subject; alphabetically makes it impossible to find valuable information.
  • One of the jobs of a librarian should be helping students understand the value of the library.


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