The Researcher’s Guide to Making the Most of Your Librarian

I bet this is what you think of when you hear "librarian," but the 21st century academic librarian does a lot more than shelving books, and is one of the most valuable research tools out there. Image attribution: David Rees (1943—), Environmental Protection Agency derivative work: Andrzej 22 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The way I see it, if you’re a researcher, your librarian should be your best friend.  Maybe I’m biased, but I think that, no matter what field you’re in, you are doing yourself a favor if you get to know your librarian. If you don’t know who your librarian is, or (gasp) don’t even know where you library is, read on to find out how to make your life and research easier, and then stop what you’re doing and meet your librarian!

When I meet researchers who haven’t worked much with librarians, I can tell what they’re thinking.  They consider me a person to call when their library card isn’t working, their electronic access to a journal article is down, or they want to contest a fine.  I know that’s kind of what most people think librarians do, but in fact, I have nothing to do with any of that and I couldn’t actually answer any of those questions for you (although I could point you in the right direction).  To be honest, I went into library school kind of thinking that this was what librarians did, too.  I remember worrying that I might have to memorize the Dewey Decimal System (which, by the way, I also know very little about, as it’s not used in most academic or medical libraries).

As it turns out, librarians are experts in a lot more than just how books and journals are arranged.  I didn’t end up learning the Dewey Decimal System in library school, but I did learn some of the librarian-y things you’d expect, like how to conduct a reference interview, about information-seeking behaviors, how to do information literacy instruction, and the like.  However, I also learned about database construction, user experience design and information architecture, grant-writing, metadata standards, data curation and management, and a ton of other things that make librarians invaluable assets to researchers.

In my job, I work with researchers in many capacities – assisting with search strategies for literature searches, helping them figure out how to use citation management software like EndNote and Mendeley, and yes, sometimes helping people when electronic access to journals breaks.  I teach people how to find information more easily, or to put it another way, where to look for what you want (hint: it’s not Google) and how to word your search so that the results will be what you’re looking for and you won’t have to sift through 20 pages of crap articles to get to the one you want. Sometimes researchers come to me after spending several frustrating hours trying unsuccessfully to find something, and I can find it in under ten minutes.  Searching is a skill, and it’s not one that most people learn, unless they go to library school or get a librarian to teach it to them.  Of course there’s a lot I’m also doing behind the scenes, like selecting resources to purchase and fighting for open access and against things like the Research Works Act.

One of the things that I find most interesting in my interactions with researchers is helping them with their data.  I think a lot of researchers still don’t realize that the library (at least this is true at UCLA) is equipped to help with NSF data management plans, data management, storage and preservation of data, and the like.  Sometimes I sit down with researchers and look at their data sets and point out things they could do or change to make that data set not only useful for other people, assuming the data will be shared, but also things that will make it easier for the original researcher.  If you’re a researcher working with any sort of data, from a simple little Excel spreadsheet up to some massive data set, there are probably things that you could be doing better with it, and a librarian could help you with that.

Now that you know about some of the hidden talents of the librarian and you want to get yours working for you, here’s how to do it:

  • Find out who your librarian is.  In many academic libraries, librarians are assigned liaison areas, so figure out who covers your area.  This person will be knowledgeable about the kinds of resources people in your field use, and will almost certainly be able to teach you some tricks for using those resources more efficiently.
  • Meet or email your librarian.  Many librarians are introverts, so they’re not necessarily the kind of people who are going to be showing up and being vocal all over the place, but most of the librarians I know love hearing from patrons and are happy to help.
  • Let your librarian know what you’re researching and what you’re interested in. I certainly can’t speak for all librarians, but I remember the patrons I help, and when I run across an article or resource that seems relevant to their search, I email it to them.
  • Ask your librarian about data services on your campus.  Here at UCLA, we have tons of cool services that can make people’s research lives so much easier, but a lot of researchers have no idea any of this stuff exists, much less how to use it.
  • When you’re going to start a new research project, consult your librarian early in the process.  Chances are good that he or she will have some ideas that will save you lots of time and trouble.  The help a librarian can give you will leave you more time to work on your actual research rather than doing something like formatting citations, and wouldn’t you rather be working on your research?

So there you go.  Well, what are you still doing here?  Go talk to your librarian! 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Researcher’s Guide to Making the Most of Your Librarian

  1. Good post! I work for a pharmaceutical company and I am the only person in the very small library. It gets very frustrating when I hear employees say, "I didn't even know we had a library!" Ugh. I am working on getting the word out, but it's difficult to get the scientific researchers in the company to trust me to help them with their research. Granted, I have only been in the library field for a few years and I have not graduated from the ILS program yet, but I feel that I could contribute some knowledge and experience and reduce the research task burden a bit if allowed to. I also found out that most of our researchers ARE using Google! We do have a limited budget, but there's better resources out there. I want to give your blog post to some of the researchers so they can seek me out to find resources that are suited to their research needs without putting in the work to find things like chemical compounds or methods of administration or other indications on their own. I will keep reading your blog!

    • Wow, hope my post can help get you some new friends of the library among your researchers! You're right that getting the word out is difficult. Are you in an ILS program now?

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