In the latest in our series of interviews with 2014’s Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic backgrounds, sponsored by SAGE, we talk to University of Alabama (UA) librarian Vincent Scalfani. With a doctorate in chemistry from Colorado State University, Scalfani now serves as the Science and Engineering librarian at UA, where he oversees programs like the university’s 3-D printing studio, while also teaching classes in the chemistry department to help graduate students better understand the research tools available to them, as well as how to more effectively communicate their work in journal articles and presentations.
Your PhD is in chemistry—what attracted you to librarianship?
I always loved the library research end of things, reading literature and putting together a story. I had worked in the library as an undergrad and really liked the atmosphere, and toward the end of my PhD, I decided that things like writing and reading papers and teaching were what really interested me.
Is there that much difference between the lab and the library?
Most people have this idea in their heads of scientists and chemists working in the lab all day long, and that’s not really accurate. About half the work most scientists do is library stuff, reading papers, looking at citations, that sort of thing. I‘ve never viewed moving to the library as leaving my path in the science world, just as putting a focus on the other half of it.
Describe a day in your life at the University of Alabama.
Most days, I start off preparing a lesson on a database or a new research workshop, and help some students out with their reference questions. If everything goes well, I’ll also read some academic journals about chemistry and information science. I also try and set aside 30-60 minutes every day to do a little bit of writing. Staying in the academic publishing ecosystem is pretty important to me; one article I co-authored was just published in the Journal of Chemical Education.
In this interview series, sponsored by SAGE, LJ goes in depth with this year’s Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, delving into just how and why they pulled off the projects that brought them recognition as innovators, change agents, and more.
What are some ways you think libraries can better serve researchers? When you were a PhD student, what were you not getting out of your library that you wanted?
Visibility and advertising is a problem in a lot of libraries. As a grad student, I didn’t know about key services like interlibrary loan until late in my education. I kind of recall a general workshop at the beginning, so reminders about those services would have been helpful to me. What I love to do now is tailor library workshops to a specific group of students. Having a story always helps—not just saying ‘Here’s a database,’ but asking things like ‘How do you do research on a particular subject?’”
You haven’t entirely left the chemistry world behind. Talk about the class you teach in that department.
It’s a class that prepares chemistry graduate students for second year seminar and research presentation, and helps show them how to formulate a good presentation around a research paper. We did the course for the first time last fall and got some great feedback, and this summer will be largely about taking in feedback from those students and improving that class.
Talk about the role that the 3-D printing studio plays in your work, and what it can do for libraries in general?
We launched our 3-D printing studio about 15 months ago, and ever since we’ve been training students. It’s a two-step-process of workshopping about the technology and then printing something with library staff on a one-to-one basis. That way, they get to learn things by doing them, which is a lot of fun. They get to see their successes and failures, and learn from them. It’s another tool people can use to create things and eliminates the barrier of big manufacturing. I’ve seen parts for robots created here, and custom brackets for Raspberry Pi motherboards. We’ve also seen different art sculptures, and those are really cool, as people learn to use the 3-D printers as a new medium.
What are some other technologies you think have the potential to be big in libraries? Anything you’d like to add to the studio?
There’s a ton of different Maker space activities we’d like to get into. Having a laser cutter would be cool. Raspberry Pi boards also have a lot of potential for students to explore, and I think we could come up with a project using those that is tailored to the science and engineering crowd. I’d love to have something where students could use those inexpensive computing tools to create something like a sensor they could take back and use in their work. That’s something we’ll be looking at expanding into in the future.