A growing organism

Are libraries up for e-science?

Posted in In English, Konferenzberichte by Anne Christensen on 28. Juli 2010

So, e-Science and libraries. Maybe I was having a bad day, but I left the course on  on “The Library in the Scholar’s Workflow and Research Data” at the Ticer Summer School with a distinct sense of despair: Not only did it stay unclear to me what the role of libraries and librarians might be. Also I could not help but wonder:  Isn’t  the search of libraries for new services to deliver in order to prevent their much-feared fall into into insignificance just  pathetic? Although I am usually quite enthusiastic when it comes to unusual or time-consuming measures to make a difference, both for libraries and the profession. What happened to me?

At the course, I have seen terrific examples and overviews of virtual research environments (VREs) and learned of projects that try to internationally aggregate research data. But what can we as librarians contribute to that? Of course: We provide metadata on printed material and as much full text as our funding stretches to. We have some expertise in the organisation of knowledge (though mainly in form of printed material) and care about archiving. But does that mean we should take the lead on the building of the actual tools that researchers require in order to collaborate and share? Carole Goble from Manchester gave a demo of a platform in systems biology that allows researchers not only to share data, but also to rate research and thus help to build enough trust to foster even more sharing. But Goble, despite all her brilliant ideas for features of e-research frameworks, seemed hard-pushed when she was asked to come up with ideas for the role that libraries might play here. Andrew Treloar from Australia’s National Data service took the same line in his presentation “Data, librarians, and services”: While very respectful of the knowledge of librarians regarding metadata creation, he felt that the librarians’ ideas for metadata schemes and interface design were too complicated and “purist”.

I am not saying that the library profession should not care. Big libraries like the British Library or, in Germany, the TIB/UB Hannover have initiated Datacite, an international consortium for the collection and archiving of research data, for which they have just been rewarded with an award for “Rethinking Resource Sharing Innovation” (Congrats! Seriously!). But the average subject specialists will probably have neither enough time nor know-how to start leveraging e-research, even if they did have excellent contact with the communities they serve. And even if a local group of researchers got the ball rolling and approached their library for support in the VRE-building, would the library be able to give them want they need?

  • The content libraries offer is oftentimes not ready for re-use. Catalogs, repositories and other databases lack APIs which would be needed for an automated integration of metadata and fulltext into the VREs. And we are very reluctant to give up on our established metadata schemes and models (not to speak of licensing models). So before we can start playing the field of e-science, maybe we should ultimately decide to open up the silos that are our information services and prepare to let go of whatever “purist” views on metadata that we might indeed have.
  • Librarians are trained to gather and collect information. But I suspect many librarians would feel uncomfortable to be cast into the role of content curators or even arbiters, which is actually one of the few roles that researchers seem to have in mind for us when it comes to VREs. We are all about neutrality. Our subject headings describe content in the most non-judgemental fashion. Are we prepared to make decisions about which datasets to archive?

I am particularly concerned about the lack of openness of our information systems, both in a technical and conceptual sense. If we don’t fix this, I don’t think that engaging in e-science is going to make much of a difference, let alone be a safeline for libraries who would otherwise just become the Starbucks with books. On the other hand, it would certainly be inspiring to see a few best practices for e-science projects with significant involvement of librarians and library content. Seeing as some studies seem to indicate that e-science is going to evolve slower than expected, there might be time to prepare – and in spite of all the despair, this is pretty much what the course was all about.

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7 Antworten

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  1. ob said, on 29. Juli 2010 at 9:56 am

    Anne, ein richtiges Statement zu richtigen Zeit. Wenn es zu der Frage kommt, welchen Platz Bibliotheken in der neuen Zeit haben, oder ob es (Library Commons, Living Rooms) noch Bibliotheken sind, wird es wirklich leise im Raum… Ebenso mit den „großen“ Fragen nach Metadaten und Verbünden – Lassen sich diese Kolosse überhaupt in die Zukunft steuern? Die Editorials in Abi-Technik (z.B. http://www.abi-technik.de/index.php?id=detail21000&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=4990) geben ein gutes Bild wieder von dem aktuellen Beharrungsvermögen im Lande…

  2. Will Roestenburg said, on 29. Juli 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Hi Anne, just heard today blogging is loosing ground, but please keep on blogging! You have a RSS feed?

    • Anne Christensen said, on 29. Juli 2010 at 3:21 pm

      Thank you, Will. This blog is brand new, so I will have to see how it goes. Probably most of the posts will be in German though. If you still want to subscribe, here’s the link, but I put it in the sidebar now as well:


  3. Dale A said, on 30. Juli 2010 at 9:13 am

    You hit a lot of points here that trouble me, too. I have attended a couple of conference in the US (one co-sponsored by JISC) on content curation, and left with more doubts and questions than I had when I arrived. We champion our expertise amongst ourselves, but really, the kind of expertise needed to play in the e-science arena is highly technical and complex. We both know how many librarians are engaged in highly technical (i.e.- IT-centric) work and how many fear and loathe it. That ratio is not good for us. Those with the skills will likely just leave their MLS program and go straight to work for other orgs, not libraries.

    Still, I am not entirely pessimistic, for some odd reason that I cannot entirely explain.

    Glad to see this blog, by the way.

  4. Martin Lewis said, on 30. Juli 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Anne, I enjoyed reading this post especially in the context of the Ticer lectures from Tony Hey and Carole Goble. I think you’re right to suggest that the contribution that academic libraries can make to e-science and data curation is less than clear. But I also think we shouldn’t get too despondent about that.

    Some thought leaders in this area don’t recognise the exciting and innovative work that libraries are doing elsewhere; some of them go further, and suggest that because we’re not rushing to embrace e-science we’re doomed to future irrelevance. It’s important to reject this view firmly and assert libraries‘ continuing success at supporting the academy whether through the provision of digital research content, engagement in new pedagogies, or the development of new learning spaces.

    I think actually there’s a lot that academic librarians *can* do to support e-escience and the effective management of research data outputs without needing to become overnight domain or curation experts – from adding data management to our existing research training interventions, to raising awareness among researchers through our university research committees.

    BTW I’ve written about this at more length in a chapter in Sue McKnight’s recent book „Envisioning future academic library services“ (Facet, 2010)


    (this isn’t a sales pitch – happy to send you an author preprint)

  5. Anne Christensen said, on 1. August 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, Dale and Martin! It is good to read about your optimism in this matter. I have shaken off the slightly my slightly cynical feelings in the meantime. So while still being concerned about expertise and openness, I am looking forward to see the first real cooperations of libraries and research in the field of e-science so that we will all get a better grasp of what is ahead of us here.

  6. […] Anne: Are libraries up for e-science? In: A growing organism 28.7.2010 https://xenzen.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/are-libraries-up-for-e-science (Abrufdatum […]

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