March 21, 2018

No Library is an Island | Peer to Peer Review

In December, Ithaka S+R released a study on Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. It’s the result of interviews with history professors, graduate students, archivists, and librarians, as well as other “research support professionals.” It has advice for librarians and archivists on supporting research that’s worth reading. There has been some public anxiety from the library world, such as this blog post by a curator friend of mine that concludes: “What I’m hearing here is that history subject specialists are viewed as fairly useless to historians when it comes to their research. Does that frighten anyone else? How do we combat this perception? …And should we bother?” Good questions that I might address in a future column. For now, I want to take a look at parts of the document that confirm my belief that we’re all in this together. But what can that mean in practice?

Librarians often tend to think of their library as an island, which makes sense for a lot of activities. If I’m buying books, typically I would buy books because I thought they were appropriate for my library, my campus, and my users, not someone across town or across the country. That’s not always the case with my own work, but most of the time I operate as if I’m on an island, buying stuff that makes sense for the collection and guiding students to that stuff.

That’s not the way historians work, though. It’s not just that a lot of scholars see themselves as loyal to a profession rather than an institution, although I believe that’s true. It’s in the way they go about doing their research as well. Consider this passage from the Ithaka S+R report on historians and archives:

Typically, historians reported traveling to the archives they were working with, with a very small minority relying on local resources. None of the scholars included in these interviews were actively using the collections held at their local institutions. For the most part, scholars indicated that they had explored their campus special collections holdings upon arrival, [and] took note of relevant and potentially interesting sources. However, they generally have to look much farther afield for primary sources, and the campus collections are not a primary resource. (15-16)

The local collections that no scholars were using are the archives for primary resources, not necessarily the secondary sources in the circulating collections. This makes a certain amount of sense, because the uniqueness of archives compared to books in the regular stacks means that an archive can’t have the general campus appeal and adaptability of the ordinary book collection.

However, it turns out that it’s not just the archives and primary sources that send historians elsewhere. The report also claims that,

Among scholars, using a number of libraries, academic libraries are likely providing research support services to faculty from other institutions with all of their materials, not just the rare or unique materials. It was clear that history researchers are not solely reliant on the campus library for access to collections or research support services. (23)

It seems this is especially true of historians at smaller teaching-oriented colleges. One of the interviewees accepted a position at a small liberal arts college partly because of the proximity of a large research university library. Yet, despite the obvious fact that universities often send their PhD graduates off to jobs at colleges without research collections, it’s still usually the case that librarians at large libraries buy stuff for the library mostly with the thought of their own users in mind, and not the scholar who works at a small college with a tiny library and who thus relies on another library’s collection to do the research that’s still required for tenure.

In some cases, ILL can suffice to extend a library’s collection, and most libraries take advantage of it. My library, as large as it is, still borrows thousands and thousands of items every year. But ILL can only work for discrete, known items. If your research would benefit from searching Early American Imprints, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, or the Making of the Modern World databases, you need to be at a library that subscribes to them. It’s a small irony once pointed out to me by a visiting scholar that sometimes the people who could most benefit from having virtual access to a library’s digital resources are those who aren’t allowed such access.

The study concludes with some recommendations to libraries. For example, because “access to collections not available locally is an especially vital service for historians,” and, I would add, scholars in other fields as well, “libraries should continue to advance their borrowing partnerships and joint collection management plans” (43). Such partnerships are complicated affairs, but build on the strong tradition of resource sharing that academic libraries have developed over the last century.

Another suggestion for sharing is more complicated, though. One of the issues historians had was that librarians were rarely experts in their particular subfield, and thus supposedly of little use for research help. The first part is undoubtedly true for obvious reasons, but the inference is debatable. Nevertheless, building on that interpretation, the report suggests that in addition to collaboration around collections, libraries “may want to consider opportunities to make other types of services – such as staff expertise – more readily available to those at other institutions who can benefit from them,” claiming that “for historians, this would be beneficial if it were to allow institutions to develop deep specializations in discrete sub-fields of history” (43).

Leaving aside the benefits to historians or other scholars, the first question is, how would libraries do this? How could this be an organized project for a group of libraries for any subject? Would libraries hire for subfields, like departments do? Could there be a formal or informal network for every academic subject? I’m still questioning the premise that this would be beneficial, but before considering whether it would be beneficial, we have to question whether it’s even possible. No library is an island, but can everything really be shared?

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Fascinating issue. Libraries need to think more along the lines of disciplines – that is, making scholarly connections that reduce the island-ishness of our local settings. But we can best do that by being damned good librarians who work on the technologies, social sciences, and legal realities of sharing, not by becoming historians. (I mean, if you’re a historian as well as a librarian, super. But I don’ t know of any library that can provide a personal library concierge for every scholar.)

    The assistance we can without apology provide scholars is becoming broadly aware of the infrastructures, traditional and emerging, that will help scholars do their work. That is our subject expertise. We also need to get better at making this expertise useful to people working in different fields. That does not, however, mean we will become experts in those fields.

    The problem scholars appear to be having is one I had as an undergrad. I didn’t ask librarians questions because I didn’t think my questions were library questions. What would a librarian know about Russian Futurism? Possibly not a lot, but she would have been able to help me find people who did. I didn’t know, for example, that the MLA Bibliography existed. I would have been over the moon if I had gotten my hands on it. (Yes, I was a nerd.)

    Scholars who think librarians can’t be helpful because they haven’t been trained in field X are making the same mistake. The last think librarians should do, though, is patiently wait for a scholar to ask us for help. We need to get out more.

  2. Wayne Bivens-Tatum says:

    I agree, Barbara. Were I to write on this further, I would try to make the case that librarians having specific expertise on every subfield of every subject is impossible and unnecessary, much along the lines you’ve laid out. Librarians with advanced degrees can offer some subject expertise, and are usually valued for that, but to expect librarians to be intimately familiar with the scholarship in every subfield is absurd. We do need to get out more, but we also need to articulate better to both ourselves and our users just what the expertise of librarians is. [I’m thinking something like Lane Wilkinson’s posts on librarian expertise at Sense and Reference:

  3. Thank you for covering our recent report, and for raising the extremely important questions about perceptions of librarian role and expertise in the support of research.

    Historians value archivist expertise through knowledge of particular special collections, but they find the ability for subject specialists to support their research to be in many ways limited due to the perceived lack of expertise in their subfield. As several people have pointed out, libraries may not prioritize the provision of the type of expertise that historians seem to seek, for a variety of reasons that are in many cases quite understandable. Still, I have been wondering whether there are mechanisms to organize the provision of librarian and archivist expertise that would better match with the expressed needs of historians.

    In thinking about your feasibility question, I recall that the Columbia/Cornell approach to Slavic / Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia has provided for the coordination of collections development, but the announcements also indicate that the universities will receive research support in these fields from a shared librarian. Perhaps this model could scale beyond two institutions for more granular subfields, especially in the context of a university system or tightly linked consortium.

    I would be very curious for your further thoughts and those of other readers about this approach to feasibility, or others that might arise. Thank you again.

  4. Kirstin Dougan says:

    In terms of formalized shared reference service, there are models like Illinois’ Slavic Reference Service, which helps scholars all over the world. Informally, subject specialists often use their listservs to help local researchers when they don’t have the collections or expertise to answer the questions (at least we do this sort of thing on the Music Library Association’s list with some frequency).

    I particularly like Barbara’s comments (and WBT’s replies) about articulating what librarians can do for researchers. Even if I don’t know the subfield in depth I can still help them be a more productive scholar by helping them use information resources as well as informing them about new ones, as well as connecting them with other experts. I know–I’m preaching to the choir here.