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Should librarians look to gain skills in research support?

“As the nature of research within our institutions changes; so must the role of the library in supporting research.” The opening lines from Re-skilling for Research, the latest report from Research Libraries UK is clear in its intent. Librarians in universities see scientists drowning in data and they watch with fear as researchers compete in the funding arena. They want to know what they can do to help and their report is a well-intentioned response. However, it isn’t the right one.

To help compile its report, RLUK asked librarians to outline what they see as the information needs of researchers, and if they (the librarians) possessed the right skills to provide that information. The report lists 32 different kinds of skills and knowledge areas that librarians say they need; and it says that librarians need training in nine of them, for example, in being able to advise and support researchers in areas such as research outputs; in finding funding sources; in data management and complying with the publishing requirements of funders.

Herein lies the problem. To us, the items on this list read as if they were a job description for a research support or knowledge-transfer officer. The skills that researchers need to help them with their IP, data or funding queries already exist: they exist in the hundreds of research-management and knowledge-transfer offices in universities.

In these tough economic times, if a researcher has a research-support-related query, rather than create yet another layer of professional intermediary, a better answer is to direct that query to the most appropriate office on campus. In the same way, if a research-support office has a publishing-related query, they would be better off directing it to a relevant expert in a university or departmental library.

It is no secret that librarians are going through difficult times. The role of the public library is continually under question given the quantity of information that a reader can access from home or on a mobile device. Many local authorities have decided to make severe cuts to library services. University librarians are rightly concerned about their own futures.

The answer, however, is not to take on the functions of research support, but if anything to maintain a focus on a library’s core purpose. Libraries are not just repositories of information; they are also places where you will find people who “know” about things; things such as combinatorial chemistry or medicine in the Middle Ages. Libraries are rightly looking for better ways to deliver information to readers and users. But ensuring that librarians do not fall back in their specialist subjects and fields is equally important.

The information and data deluge in research is a cause to celebrate, but the problem is often that there aren’t enough people with a broad enough understanding to make sense of what is going on. Academics and research managers are too busy, and often too specialised, to take the long view; or to see how the big picture might be changing. If subject librarians were given incentives to take on such a role, they would always find their services in demand with researchers.