November 16, 2017

Connecting Researchers to New Digital Tools | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaA couple of months ago I got an email from my colleague Chris Erdmann (Data Scientist Training for Librarians) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He wanted to talk about ways librarians could help keep the scholarly community informed about new and developing technologies that could affect its work. He’s been following Thomas Crouzier’s blog, Connected Researchers, and talking with other interested, interesting folks such as Amy Brand at Digital Science. Chris and Amy thought that a discussion among a group of librarians and other stakeholders in the scholarly process could be a promising beginning for brainstorming ideas and strategies.

So a group of us from around Harvard; Digital Science; the University of Hertfordshire; the University of California, Berkeley; the Berkman Center for Internet & Society; and PLoS Labs met in July (in person and via Skype) to talk about what we’re doing now, and what we could be doing, to keep faculty at our schools and organizations on top of new and developing resources that can assist and ease their research. It was a very stimulating conversation: there were humanities, sciences, and social sciences folks in the room, and the topics bounced around constantly, as they do when a group of highly motivated individuals come together to talk ideas. Here’s my shot at summarizing the discussion.

What’s happening now

We started by talking about some of the things we’re doing now to keep faculty informed, such as providing them with current awareness and “concierge” services. There is a growing movement to explore new tools and resources such as GitHub and the DiRT Directory, and these are being introduced through existing library liaison relationships.

Some interesting, and apparently contradictory, information surfaced during this part of the discussion. A couple of people noted that their faculty and researchers had indicated they think “the library is very Victorian,” because they’re not aware that librarians do know about these tools. Meanwhile, others in the group noted that they’ve been trying to keep faculty up-to-date with information on such tools as Zotero and Mendeley, only to find that faculty members indicated they were experiencing information overload from the plethora of new tools, and instead of making them aware of all the options out there, they wanted librarians to tell them which specific tools they should use.

One discussant, who previously had not thought of librarians in connection with learning about new tools to ease his research, was part of a “Meet Your Librarian” event at his institution. It informed him of librarians’ interest in new resources and that they are good contacts for learning about those resources. In addition to it being good PR for the librarians, he noted that the event gave faculty members the opportunity to meet colleagues who are interested in similar issues, something that in many places doesn’t happen otherwise. That led the discussion into how useful it could be to offer general faculty sessions on how to use research tools and social media effectively in research.

Also discussed were some institutions’ “Monthly Meetups”—informal meetings in an unintimidating library environment for people from different departments and disciplines to demonstrate projects on which they’re working. One of the challenges we talked about is that at some institutions there is no single email list available to librarians who want to advertise research-related events to faculty; it was suggested that an “opt-in” list could address this. Although many librarians do have communication channels at the local level, it’s challenging to communicate within the larger community of an institution—and even if you can send messages, there’s the added challenge of getting members of the community to read them.

Student awareness…and boredom

The group discussed how much local culture influences how receptive faculty are to learning about new tools; that self-selection takes place, with many newer faculty and graduate students more receptive to attending sessions about new resources than some seasoned faculty. To change the local culture, some of those present said, librarians can start by investing knowledge about new tools with the students—then word of mouth will spread.

Graduate students tend to be among the more receptive groups for trying, and using, new online technologies. Although many students may be receptive to using new tools in doing their research, others are not aware of these resources, nor are they aware of how to go about looking for them. Librarian-taught sessions are necessarily geared toward reaching those at very different levels, from the novice to the expert, and that bores some students. Advanced-level drop-in sessions, or meet-ups, led by the library, could be geared toward the more experienced and digitally adventurous student.


It’s quite well acknowledged that libraries need to create a new means of serving the burgeoning needs for data management. The Data Scientist Training for Librarians (DST4L) course is one means of learning how to respond to the growing data needs of our communities. The New England Collaborative Data Management Curriculum, meant to teach best practices to undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers in the health sciences, sciences, and engineering disciplines, may also be found useful by librarians. Software carpentry boot camps can also help; although they only last two days each, they can help librarians learn how researchers are working, so that the librarians can then build a workflow environment that meets their patrons’ needs.

In the humanities, knowing about a data tool is only half the battle. There’s a huge problem in getting access to large amounts of textual data. Librarians can help advance the cause for sharing data by using indirect ways in their library presentations to get researchers thinking about data resource issues. To give context to this issue, for instance, librarians can ask researchers, “If I asked for your data set, would you share it with me?” The researcher will likely say, “Yes.” But if the librarian then asked, “Would you email it to me right now?, the answer would likely be, “No.”

Metadata and Web-scale discovery solutions

The SciPy Conferences encourage researchers to build tools using Python and encourage best practices by modeling the attachment of quality metadata to data. The Programming Historian provides similar help for humanists. Good metadata is the key to good discovery now and in the future.

Using web-scale discovery, libraries can integrate new digital projects into their discovery systems and can establish standards for metadata to be included in listings. NISO’s Open Discovery Initiative, DataCite, bibframe, and CrossRef will help with this. As librarians, we need to get researchers thinking about searching library sites to get this kind of information; it will increase our value to the organization, and, more important, will enhance and improve the overall quality of research.

Librarian “impact and value”

The discussion then progressed into wondering whether researchers go on using new tools that we demonstrate and if our help had any impact on the research. Librarians usually find this out indirectly or by word of mouth. For example, a researcher tells the librarian about how another researcher told them about a tool a librarian recommended.

Sometimes librarians discover they’ve helped researchers through acknowledgments in researchers’ publications. However, a couple of discussants talked about having asked for acknowledgment of the value of their help in the researcher’s publication, only to have the faculty member express shock at the request. It was noted just how difficult it is for librarians to have to ask researchers to do this, but just as faculty members are increasingly having to measure the “impact” of their publications, so, too, are librarians having to justify their value: administrators are increasingly asking librarians for “proof of their value.”

Where do librarians fit into research projects? Are librarians included in research project teams? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In some cases it was noted that, because of our information and organizational skills, librarians are looked to to organize entire projects.


Libraries must undertake professional-level marketing to make researchers more aware of what the library supports and can do for them. Integration of research management and what the library has to offer is crucial; systems solutions sometimes don’t even take us—and what we have to offer—into account. Resources need to be integrated into library discovery systems, and library communications must emphasize to the institutional community that librarians are knowledge managers and can help them carry out, organize, and disseminate their work.

In some cases, participants said, libraries are using antediluvian methods of outreach (reiterating that there is no way to email all the faculty at some institutions). Curiously enough, bathroom postering (it reaches a captive audience!) has been used successfully by some librarians to get word out about library workshops, programs, and services. Outreach to students and faculty, others noted, should include what a tool is and what it can do for them (lots of communications to students don’t do this).

Several Yale graduates noted that embedded librarians and embedded students (student ambassadors/library advisers) can be useful in reaching students, letting them know how a tool can improve their workflow. It was also noted that student advising should include information about libraries and what we really have to offer students.

Assessment and usability

Through assessment and usability sessions, those present noted, libraries can disseminate information about previously lesser-known programs and services and increase interest in them. Although there has been interest in using such sessions to educate researchers in the use of new tools, one librarian noted, the institution in question had no good space for doing this on an ongoing basis. A need for space to conduct such library research was expressed.

Moving forward

It’s clear that, moving forward, it will be necessary for librarians to be able to help researchers make decisions about what tools to use. A large, well-informed library community will be needed to be able to do this. Presently, a lot of the information on library websites is redundant; what if some of this valuable space could be devoted to messages about and links to sites like DiRT, instead, connecting the library much more closely to its researcher community?

It’s difficult for researchers to filter the resources available to them. We know it takes a lot of energy to keep up with the multiplying numbers of research tools, and the case needs to be very convincing to have researchers invest in new learning tools. Providing context for resources and letting researchers know how a tool is going to save them time would be very useful and is very much the purview of libraries. One discussant noted that librarians need to know about tools like The IPython Notebook and communicate with faculty about it. It was generally agreed that the key to effective outreach is to identify the “moment of need”; in-department office hours could help librarians learn about ongoing research and be there at the crucial time.

A participant wondered if it would be effective to rank digitally connected researchers, musing that impact factors can demonstrate how effectively connected a researcher is. It was also noted that social media can be monitored to follow what others are saying about researchers.

Participants discussed developing a clearinghouse for new tools, to get the word out and connect researchers further. To do this, they said, the Connected Researchers site could be made interactive. A couple of those present pointed to Alyssa Goodman’s “Desk” as a model for such a clearinghouse. Goodman explains, “I use this site to keep track of software and other tools I use in my work. Every once in a while, I also post “related” ideas here…when the display of quantitative information impacts my life.” Considering how much the display of quantitative information increasingly impacts all our lives, such sites are a real boon.

The group as a whole wondered if it would be possible to link the clearinghouses that exist now (most of which are subject/discipline based) into a larger, more extended whole. The question of archiving/preserving sites such as the Connected Researchers was also discussed: Would one want to preserve the text? The Internet Archive and British Library presently take snapshots of sites. Or would one want to preserve the community? That’s a social problem and not one that is easily solvable.

Next steps?

As the discussion came to a close, we pondered next steps for the group. I noted my plans for doing this post, and the group talked about possibly writing a white paper about the importance of good metadata for developing research tools. Several participants indicated their organizations might be interested in hosting some of this information. We agreed that we should be giving vendors content suggestions for inclusion of these kinds of research-enhancing tools in discovery tools. Any suggestions from Not Dead Yet readers?

A final “Not Dead Yet” note

One participant suggested during the discussion that the term librarian has negative connotations for some researchers (print, buns, and shushing). My visceral reaction to this was, ARGGGHHH!!!! But when I thought a bit about it, I realized that was the gauntlet being thrown down for those of us in 21st-century libraries to make the term librarian mean “information and knowledge expert” yet again—in a 21st-century way. If there are others of you out there thinking along these paths, I’d be very interested in hearing about it. Perhaps you’d like to be included in a future Connecting Researchers to New Digital Tools discussion?


Here’s who was at the real and virtual meeting: Susan Berstler, IT Coordinator, Harvard, and artist; Amy Brand, VP Academic & Research Relations, VP North America, Digital Science; Thomas Crouzier, Connected Researchers blog; Adam Crymble, Lecturer of Digital History, University of Hertfordshire, UK; Quinn Dombrowski, Research Applications Developer/Digital Humanities Coordinator, University of California, Berkeley; Chris Erdmann, Head Librarian, Harvard-Smithsonian; Anna Esty, Research Librarian, Harvard; Paulina Haduong, Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society; Odile Harter, Research Librarian, Harvard; Cheryl LaGuardia, Research Librarian, Harvard and Library Journal columnist; Reed Lowrie, Manager, Reference and Information Services, Harvard; Erin Maher, Research Assistant, Berkman Center for Internet & Society; Michelle Pearse, Senior Research Librarian, Harvard Law School; Louise Rubin, Wolbach Library, Harvard; and Elizabeth Seiver, Researcher, PLoS Labs.

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Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. I will be following your challenge with interest, I must add as a school librarian I wear my hair in a bun and have to shhh my kids :-) but I also do crafts with them and build apps with them :-) I would love to know what to recommend and I know what works today changes for next month…

    • I’d love to know if you bring any particular digital tools to your students’ notice now, Ruan. And I’m hoping readers will share any strategies they’ve used successfully with their researchers, too.
      Thanks for writing!

  2. What a great article! The higher the information tide rises the more librarian life preservers will be needed! The tasks are the same, selection-evaluation-utilization, but the volume is exponentially higher. Perhpas we are close to the entrepeneurial-wiki-cooperative-library-development-tools era. All sort of problems are solved by collective on-line collaboration. Most of the library exchanges with which I participate are still list-serv and RSS feed. Maybe we need a virtual war room of reference and instruction? Let’s bunker down, “bun-heads!”