Defining Public Services for large research libraries

For the meeting of the ACRL Public Services Directors of Large Research Libraries Discussion Group at ALA Annual this year, I volunteered to kick off a discussion on how we define “public services”. The topic got listed on our agenda as “Defining Public Service in Large ARL Libraries”, which makes it that much more interesting for someone from Stanford to lead the discussion ;-).

Here are my notes so far (meeting starts in 3 hours):

How should we define Public Services for ARL institutions?

While I’m not one to avoid controversy, as the only non-ARL institution in the group, it would take far more hubris than even I can conjure up for me to suggest how public services ought to be defined for the rest of you. So what I will do instead is talk about what I want out of this group, in the hopes that enough of us have similar aspirations for this group that we can reach some consensus on our boundaries and our value to one another.

There are literally hundreds of conversations, meetings, presentations, discussion groups at every ALA convention related to public services, so the big question for me is what is the unique value of gathering as Heads of Public Services at Large Research libraries? Or what could be our unique value?

For me, the unique value is in talking to peers – peers in terms of kinds of institutions (research libraries — very, very large research libraries), and peers in terms of scope of responsibilities.

With that in mind, I think for large research libraries public services are research services; and as AULs, or directors, or whatever our titles are, we should be talking at the strategic level

Rusty spoon

Rusty spoon from Flickr user Quasimondo

What does that mean? One thing it means, is I don’t want to spend an hour talking about laptop lending policies – which is what happened at my 1st one of these, and I wanted to gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon. I don’t want to talk about course reserves, or how to staff the reference desk, or text-a-librarian services. And, yes, I’ll say it — I don’t particularly want to talk about undergraduates — not in this group. Again, there are hundreds of other groups and places where we can talk about library services for undergraduates. But this is the only group with a focus on publics services for research.

Some things I do want to talk about:

  • Digital humanities support—what are you doing, where in the organization does it happen, how are you coordinating it and sustaining it?
  • What skills, education, knowledge do you expect from your subject librarians and how is that reflected in hiring, professional development, etc.?
  • Data support – not just data management plans, but actual data acquisition, management, analysis, publishing/sharing, and preservation.  Big data. Confidential data. Proprietary data.
  • What is the changing (or not) relationship between collection development and research support at your institution?
  • GIS support, visualization tools, the creation of online exhibits and archives, online collaborative research environments
  • Support for creating digital data – how do you support faculty who want to do text-mining on set of print materials not yet digitized? What is the service model? What is your funding model?
  • What is your experience in negotiating with vendors to give researchers specialized access to data?
  • What are you doing about providing information and options/platforms for alternative publishing models for scholars?
  • What are some successful models for providing reference and instruction for graduate students? How many of you have subject librarians teaching or co-teaching in methods classes (in humanities and social sciences especially)?

Bottom line is I want this group to focus its discussions and sharing on our unique challenges as AULs at research-intensive universities – which as far as I can tell is RESEARCH SUPPORT. There are hundreds of other groups and sessions and sets of people I can talk to about teaching, about information commons, and reference, and course reserves, and all manner of support for undergraduates. And god forbid I even need to talk to someone about laptop lending policies, it doesn’t have to be someone at a research library. But, this is the only group that shares my focus on supporting scholarly research.  For me personally, I need that kind of group – I need a place I can go where we can wrestle together with the changing nature of research and the role libraries and librarians can play.

9 Responses to “Defining Public Services for large research libraries”

  1. 2 gold account July 10, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    To better serve the faculty and researchers working in the Mississippi State University Extension Service (MSU-ES) and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES) the MSU Library created a program called ELL (Electronic Library Link ). The program brings together services (including research assistance, news, and online training) for faculty and researchers in these areas and provides them with a central point of contact.


  2. 3 Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 7:29 am


    These are really great questions, and I’m glad someone’s asking them (it’s definitely not happening at my institution). It seems to me that the future of large research libraries best lies in moving toward more subject expertise and engagement with research and researchers, not less. Under the stress of budgets and time, academic libraries have pulled back to focus on their lowest common denominator, that vague notion of “instruction” that attempts to span multiple disciplines without really engaging any of them.

    Did you actually get to discuss any of these questions in your group?


    • 4 Chris Bourg June 28, 2012 at 7:46 am

      Thx for the comment. I agree that discipline specific research support is certainly in high demand at Stanford — and I expect is welcome by faculty and grad students at other large research institutions.
      We didn’t talk in depth about any of the topics, this was more of a “group identity” kind of meeting. And of course, many of the members who do have significantly large undergraduate populations pushed back (rightly so).


  3. 5 Chris Bourg June 26, 2012 at 11:48 am

    The part of this post/discussion that seems to have sparked the most conversation is this “And, yes, I’ll say it — I don’t particularly want to talk about undergraduates — not in this group.”
    Let me clear — I love undergraduates (I suspect I may be one of the only AULs at a big research library who puts in some hours at the reference desk, and teaches information literacy workshops for freshmen). Stanford Libraries love undergraduates. We do lots of stuff to support undergraduates in both their classes and their research. I’m not saying that librarians at research libraries shouldn’t talk about undergraduates. I’m not even saying this group shouldn’t talk about undergraduates.
    I’m just saying that for me, this group would be most useful if we focused on research support for graduate students and faculty — because that is a focus that I can’t find elsewhere; and it is a topic that members of this group might just be uniquely situated to provide useful dialog on.


  4. 6 StevenB June 25, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Hi Chris. Thanks for taking the time to articulate your vision for what you’d like to get out of the group. I do see the value of your topics, though given where my library is at and our priorities right now, I don’t think I could add much to the conversation on about half of them – but I would want to hear what others are doing and what is working or not working. I thought our brief conversation on shared services had some promise.

    I would argue that even as research universities that teaching and learning is still part of the core mission of most of our libraries. Penn State, UIUC, UCLA and other have huge investments in the educational role at all levels. I work with many doctoral students who need extensive help navigating the research environment, as do my colleagues. It’s not just undergrads – and trying to integrate the library into the teaching and learning process at a research university is different – along with working on the assessment side.
    Yes, there are many other places where there are conversations about instruction, but I’d want to hear what challenges others are facing, and what programs are working.

    I’ll just finish with a story. You didn’t get much out of the discussion about course reserves, but it was a pretty animated conversation in which many attendees participated. It was helpful to hear how other research libraries were dealing with some of the issues. I mentioned what we had just launched with alternate textbooks. Afterwards Marilyn Billings of U Mass contacted me. She decided to launch it at her library using some of the resources I’d already created. Now her faculty are really activated by this project -and we’re both using it to build support for open ed resources at our institutions. Sure, there are other meetings where course reserves are being discussed. But that seems besides the point. What matters is that we came together and discussed it -and there was a positive impact. It wouldn’t have happened elsewhere.

    The group can certainly move to become more research support intensive, but I’d hope we’d continue to talk about some of these other issues as well that though they happen elsewhere – can have a unique quality in the research library setting. As I mentioned, perhaps that can be where the discussion list plays a more significant role. I would certainly like to hear what others think.


    • 7 Chris Bourg June 25, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      Hi Steven-
      Thanks for the comment. To be honest, one of the thing that concerns me about groups like ours is that we may be so big that we have less in common than we think


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