Re-skilling for research - observations on an RLUK report

6 February, 2012

The Preface to this new RLUK report opens by declaring how it “is clear that as the nature of research within our institutions changes, so must the role of the library in supporting research”. I don’t believe there are many who would challenge this argument, since it has already been said many times over when considering the view from the other side of the researcher/librarian fence, most recently in the December 2011 RIN report on information practices in the physical sciences, which claims with urgency that the “need for librarians to reinvent their roles as partners in the scientific and research process is acute”.

What concerns me most about the RLUK report is that it seems to have been based on the returns from surveys of predominantly library staff. Notwithstanding there is input from RCUK and the ESRC’s Researcher Development Section, as well as reference to the RIN’s earlier studies of researcher practices and preferences, my feeling is that it would have lent greater credence to the conclusions were there to have been some more direct gathering of contemporary researcher opinion.

Librarians have successfully reinvented themselves again and again across the centuries to meet cultural and technological change. Their demise was predicted not so long ago in 1979, when the then Director of Aslib warned in his Doomsday Scenario that the traditional information professional risked having vanished by the year 2000. Well, instead, these highly sustainable professionals transformed themselves into digital and systems librarians, they learned how to teach information literacy to students of the digital age and they became the stalwarts of institutional repositories.

But what is perhaps different now - and the RLUK report does not really address this shift with any substance - is that technology has enabled data to become the prevalent material and currency of research. Data, not information, not publications, is rapidly becoming the accepted deliverable of research.

On the cusp of the e-Science revolution, just six years ago, Hey and Hey saw in this emergence of the power of data an opportunity for libraries to place themselves “centre stage in the development of the next generation research infrastructure”. But their key message was that “to organize, curate and preserve this data will require collaboration between scientists and librarians”.  The RLUK report does admit that services to support the management and curation of data are for the most part in their infancy, although it finds examples of subject librarians providing advice and referral to researchers, but it is really this sense of a collaboration that is missing from its over-riding message.

Yet from the DCC’s perspective we are daily aware, through our programme of institutional engagements, how important is the inclusion of library expertise to those working parties and steering groups bent on designing the institutional strategies and infrastructure necessary to meet operational and regulatory requirements. We are already engaging with mixed collaborations of senior researchers, IT support and librarians working in parity to address the data management challenge.

The RLUK report admirably concludes by remarking that “Building on existing competencies may only be part of the picture”.  It describes a shift that “can be seen which takes Subject Librarians into a world beyond information discovery and management, collection development and information literacy training, to one in which they play a much greater part in the research process and in particular in the management, curation and preservation of research data”. But they need much more quickly than is implied here to be a conspicuous part of that picture themselves, to redefine themselves in its context, not just develop their roles a little further from their comfort zone.

The field is still wide open and there is a space to occupy. Either that or the Doomsday Scenario may yet just catch up.