Academic Libraries: Under-Used & Under-Appreciated

I’m guilty. I often admit this when I meet librarians at conferences and workshops – I’m guilty of never using my librarians as a resource in my 13 years of higher ed, spread across seven academic institutions.  At the very impressive MBL-WHOI Library in Woods Hole MA, there are quite a few friendly librarians that make their presence known to visitors.  They certainly offered to help me, but it never occurred to me that they might be useful beyond telling me on what floor I can find the journal Limnology and Oceanography.

In hindsight, I didn’t know any better.  Yes, we took the requisite library tour in grad school, and yes, I certainly used the libraries for research and access to books and journals, but no, I never talked to the librarians.  Why is this? I have a few theories:

Librarians are terrible at self promotion.  Every time I meet librarian, I’m awed and amazed by the vast quantities of knowledge they hold about all kinds of information.  But most of the librarians I’ve encountered are unwilling to own up to their vast skill set.  These humble folks assume scientists will come to them, completely underestimating the average academic’s stubbornness and propensity for self-sufficiency.  In my opinion, librarians should stake out the popular coffee spot on campus and wear sandwich boards saying things like “You have no idea how to do research” or “Five minutes with me can change your <research> life“.  Come on, librarians – toot your own horns!

Academics are trained to be self-sufficient.  Every grad student has probably gotten the talk from their advisor at some point in their grad education.  In my case the talk had phrases like these:

  • “You don’t have to ask me EVERY time you want to run down to the supply room”
  • “Which method do YOU think would work best?”
  • “How should I know how to dilute that acid? Go figure it out!”

It only takes a couple of brush-offs from your advisor before you realize that part of learning to be scientist involves solving problems all by yourself.  This bodes well for future academic success, but does not allow us to entertain the idea that librarians might be helpful and save us oodles of time.

Google gives academics a false sense of security. Yes, I spend a lot of time Googling things.  Many of this Googling occurs while having a drink with friends – some hotly debated item of trivia comes up, which requires that we pull out our smart phones to find out who’s right (it’s usually me).  But Google can’t answer everything.  Yes, it’s wonderful for figuring out who that actor in that movie was, or for showing a latecomer the amazing honey badger video.  But Google is not necessarily the most efficient way to go about scholarly research.  Librarians know this – they have entire schools dedicated to figuring out how to deal with information.  The field of information science, which encompasses librarians, gives out graduate degrees in information.  Do you really think that you know more about research than someone with a grad degree in information??  Extremely unlikely.  Learn more about Information Science here.

Sterotype alert: there's a lot of knowledge hiding behind librarians' sensible shoes. From Flickr by Kingston Information & LIbrary Service

This post does, in fact, relate to the DCXL project.  If you weren’t aware, the DCXL project is based out of California Digital Library.  It turns out that librarians are quite good at being stewards of scholarly communication; who better to help us navigate the tricky world of digital data curation than librarians?

This post was inspired by a great blog posted yesterday from CogSci Librarian: How Librarians Can Help in Real Life, at #Sci013, and more

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