At the LIBER 2014 conference, as so often, one of the most thought-provoking contributions to the discussion on how libraries can develop their workforces came from Professor Sheila Corrall, in this case suggesting a fresh approach to looking at how existing strengths can be mapped to the new challenges of supporting research in innovative ways (Mobilizing Invisible Library Assets for Innovative Research Support in the 2020 Information Landscape). The main challenges are familiar: networked data-driven science, digital humanities, interdisciplinary research, dealing with policy developments and funding body mandates – open access, data sharing, and research impact. Libraries need to change their offering and move to fill gaps in research support, moving from “service as support” to a deeper and more collaborative relationship.
She put forward two propositions. The first that libraries should use their “intangible” or invisible assets to gain strategic advantage, the second that they should overextend themselves, undertaking activities that require more than their current capabilities. What she meant by “intangible assets” became clearer when they were broken down into human, relational and structural assets and she looked at how they were used at case sites:
- Human assets (in library terms this might be expertise in collection development/archives administration, information organization/retrieval know-how and teaching/training abilities, reference interviewing skills)
- Relational assets (professional networks, trust and credibility built from from previous interactions with researchers, liaison librarians, cross-unit collaborations, e.g. Research Office, Computing Services, )
- Structural assets (Institutional-level commitees/groups endorsed library role in research process, hybrid structure of subject liaison librarians and (new) functional specialists used to provide subject-related support)
This sounds pretty familiar, as does the idea of over-extending the library’s role. The challenges of the previous decade – digital preservation projects, establishing an institutional repository, publishing linked data, digital humanities – all required us to re-deploy existing skills and learn by doing, as well as bringing in staff with new skills. Sheila Corrall argues that “In a dynamic, technology-driven environment, libraries cannot afford to wait until they are completely ready to act” although not advising us to be reckless in the process. We already have some of the assets we will need to meet research support needs, just not all of them.