How librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams

By Kelly Miller and Kineret Ben-Knaan

mosaic_kelly-miller_kineret-ben-knaan
1. Kelly Miller (biography)
2. Kineret Ben-Knaan (biography)

What can librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams working on complex problems? We suggest that librarians add value in the following three ways:

  1. finding and accessing information resources across disciplines
  2. connecting teams to experts and resources, and
  3. improving collaboration and communication strategies.

Our experience comes from being part of the University of Miami’s Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge initiative, also known as U-LINK, which aims to address the world’s most compelling problems through interdisciplinary inquiry. From 2018-2020, teams of scholars from multiple disciplines have received funding to pursue solutions to global challenges.

Librarians have been embedded in each of the teams. This opportunity has provided librarians with direct knowledge of the needs and demands of interdisciplinary teams. It has also allowed them to deepen their relationships with research faculty members and experiment with new ways to share their expertise and skills for the benefit of all.

Of the three contributions that librarians make to interdisciplinary research teams, the first―finding and accessing information resources across disciplines―is not surprising. The other two―connecting teams to experts and resources, and improving collaboration and communication strategies―show that librarians are serving as connectors and also helping the teams cohere and engage more meaningfully.

Examples of how these three contributions have manifested in individual projects include librarians conducting extensive literature searches, connecting their team to community stakeholders, and identifying and managing project collaboration software for the team.

Our experience and the literature demonstrate that, with their unique skill sets and neutral vantage points, librarians can help teams address some common challenges, including how to:

  • manage large teams
  • navigate difficulty communicating with team members, and
  • find a common language with which to address the proposed problem.

Librarians also found that participation on interdisciplinary research teams was personally rewarding and helped them grow professionally. For instance, James Sobczak, who served as the librarian on a U-LINK team addressing the need for improved coastal resilience in the face of climate change, commented that:

“Not only did U-LINK provide me with a direct opportunity to learn and engage with new science and engineering faculty, but it also allowed me to learn more about research practices and information needs across the wider university. I could then translate this ‘hands-on’ experience with faculty conducting active research into my daily practice as a librarian. Helping to organize, collect, and communicate a variety of research outputs generated by the team provided a testing ground to experiment with new collaboration tools and workflows.”

To get the most value from librarian involvement, we recommend that interdisciplinary researchers:

  • include librarians on teams as early as possible in the team-formation process
  • involve librarians in all team meetings and interactions, and
  • value the librarians’ skills in listening, connection-making and collaboration, as well as their expertise in information and information-seeking behaviors.

What has your experience been with librarians participating in interdisciplinary research teams? Are there additional contributions that librarians can make? Are you aware of any pitfalls to be avoided?

To find out more about U-Link, the University of Miami’s Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge initiative, see: https://ulink.miami.edu/

This blog post is based on a lightning talk presented at the 11th Annual International Science of Team Science Conference, in June 2020, which was a virtual conference. For more on the conference see: Applying human-centered design to virtual conference planning by Kristine Glauber, Ben Miller and Christine Ogilvie Hendren https://i2insights.org/2020/09/15/human-centered-conference-design/.

Biography: Kelly Miller PhD is Associate Dean for Learning and Research Services at University of Miami Libraries in Coral Gables, Florida, USA. Her interests include emerging librarian roles, designing library spaces and services to support learning and research, and the beneficial role that libraries can play in supporting health and well-being.

Biography: Kineret Ben-Knaan MA MIS is Research and Assessment Librarian at University of Miami Libraries in Coral Gables, Florida, USA. Her interests include understanding, predicting, and accommodating user needs, as well as enhancing organizational effectiveness.

18 thoughts on “How librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams”

  1. I appreciated this post about the role of librarians in research teams. The journal (I co-edit) “Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies” regularly publishes on teams, but none has included a librarian that I can recall. It makes so much sense. In another vein, when my undergraduate program started including regular planned sessions with a librarian in our required interdisciplinary courses, the courses and student learning got better. The librarian now knows our courses and has become a critical part in their delivery.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Sven, for making the connection with the journal, “Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies.” We think this is an area for further inquiry, so perhaps there is an opportunity for future publications on the topic?

      And it’s wonderful to hear that the presence of a librarian in your undergraduate program has made such a difference. Here’s to ongoing collaboration that benefits student learning!

      Reply
      • Although it does not deal specifically with teamwork, the 1992 volume of the AIS journal focused on information access. It was rich in librarians’ insights about interdisciplinary. Would be great to think about another special issue on the role of librarians since it’s nearly 20 years later now (Gasp!). Here’s the link to ISSUES publication:

        https://interdisciplinarystudies.org/volume-10-1992/

        Reply
      • Future publications? Absolutely Kelly. My co-editor and I would be happy to see ideas or submissions from you or others reading this. And thanks for the shout-out dighummama. The journal website is here: https://interdisciplinarystudies.org/issues/.
        You will see a stellar international editorial board (incl. Gabriele 🙂 and instructions for authors. We are looking for submissions now to peer-review for the 2021 volumes (we are published by Texas Tech UP).

        Reply
  2. I join others in being pleased to see this posting about librarians. If I may, I’d add a fourth attribute. They are bellwethers of change. Users from multiple disciplines, fields, professions, and communities arrive at their doorsteps and screens with needs and interests at the forefront of change. That puts librarians on the frontline of addressing complex problems and questions through crossdisciplinary searching and collection building. I’d add that when I wanted to start a crossdisciplinary Digital Humanities Collaboratory on my campus I located it wthin the library. The Technology Resource Center at the time had a talented team of web designers who were working with other specialist librarians to craft forward-looking research projects and educational resources.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your insights and experience with us. Yes, I agree that librarians serve as “bellwethers,” in part, due to their position at the crossroads of campus intellectual life and technological change. And it’s wonderful that you found a home in the library for your Digital Humanities Collaboratory and were able to get the expert support you needed there.

      Reply
    • Excellent point! Librarians definitely have a unique vantage point for recognising innovations and trends as they are happening and pollenating other domains with these developments.

      Reply
  3. Thank you so much for all the beautiful comments.
    Librarians hold unique qualities and have experience that can help interdisciplinary research teams overcome challenges.
    In addition, librarians play a dual role in research teams. They function both as contributors and coordinators, connecting their team members to resources and the array of services and spaces that libraries have to offer.

    Reply
  4. This work was such a great contribution to the 2020 SciTS Conference. The concept of librarians “serving as connectors and…helping the teams cohere and engage more meaningfully” really strikes a chord for me. As a science communicator, I try to perform this role as well, in my own way. I think more and more researchers are coming to understand that including professionals like librarians and communicators in their teams can add immense value!

    Reply
  5. I am so pleased to see this post about librarians and interdisciplinary research. Based on my experience developing libraries all over the world, editing a library & information science research journal, and teaching many aspects of librarianship, I agree whole-heartedly with the points made by these authors and previous commenter.

    I would like to dive a little deeper on two reasons why librarians are uniquely trained and experienced to make the contributions mentioned.

    Librarians are rarely fully appreciated for their skills as “knowledge brokers” and not just knowledge finders. Brokering is about facilitating the exchange of resources and providing connections, which requires broad networks of both information and people. Academic libraries, even specialist ones, provide specific and personal services to hundreds, if not thousands, of scholars, students, and teaching faculty each semester. As a result, most librarians have some of the largest and most diverse personal networks in the university and experience with a large variety of research scenarios. This is what makes them valuable assets for connecting research teams to experts and resources across disciplines.

    Another important librarian skill rarely discussed outside our field, can be summed up in what we call “the reference interview”: determining what information is really needed by the patron/scholar. As all librarians know, the question someone asks is frequently very different from the information they actually need. Every accredited librarian has completed a required course in “Reference”, much of which trains librarians in how to communicate with people in order to identify what their real information need is, regardless of what question they start with.

    In many ways, we librarians are like psychologists. We know how to use iterative communication processes to ask the right questions and interpret language, behaviour, and context in order to determine what the real problem is. As such, most librarians are exceptionally skilled in “reading” a variety of personality types and circumstances. Like a parent who can instantly determine whether their child is crying because they are hurt, hungry, frustrated or tired, identifying fundamental information needs is second nature for librarians.

    Combine these interpretative and problem-solving communication skills with librarians’ vast networks, and it is easier to see how and why librarians can be so valuable in connecting interdisciplinary teams with valuable experts and resources, in facilitating more effective collaboration and communication, and in providing useful insight from a much larger and holistic view of the research.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Caryn, for sharing your thoughtful observations on our post! We agree that librarians’ networks, experience, and reference-interview training add to their value as team members on interdisciplinary research teams.

      Reply
  6. Thank you for this post. I am a librarian who has worked with a number of research teams. And I wholeheartedly agree with everything written. Another advantage of working with librarians is that we often have a more holistic view of the research being conducted by the team. This big picture view can be helpful and can be used to see connections and solutions to problems that aren’t always obvious to someone immersed in the research being conducted.

    Reply

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