On Bridges and Boundaries

By Christa Williford posted

Last Friday, April 5, I was fortunate to introduce Emory University Anthropology Librarian and former CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow Lori Jahnke and Emory’s current Fellow Katherine Akers in a session at the spring meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). With backgrounds in biological anthropology (Lori) and neuroscience (Katherine), the two have unique perspectives on the recent expansion of our Postdoctoral Fellowship Program to support fellowships in data curation. Their joint presentation, “Mapping Data Curation: Disciplinary Bridges and Boundaries,” made a compelling case for facilitating interdisciplinary exchange through our fellowship in ways that focus on common problems faced by researchers—problems such as a lack of resources, training, and incentives to adopt data management practices that ensure long-term sustainability of those data. (CLIR’s publication, The Problem of Data, explores these issues in more depth and suggests ways that information schools, academic libraries, and other research support units can begin to address them.)

While focusing on common challenges, Lori and Katherine cautioned that we must continue to acknowledge distinct differences between disciplinary cultures as we think about research data curation. Ethical and privacy considerations related to social science or biomedical data, for example, demand that researchers protect, or even destroy, some of the information they collect. Attitudes about the potential costs and benefits of sharing data also vary widely across disciplines, as do researchers’ senses of where they need help.

At the same time as the CNI meeting, I hear that some parallel conversations were taking place at the fourth annual Research Data Access and Preservation Summit (RDAP13) in Baltimore. University of Michigan Fellow Fe Sferdean reports from the Summit:

“It was clear that many information and library professionals are exploring the different disciplinary cultures informing research data curation. Some have even embedded themselves within the research worlds of various disciplines to learn about the nature of researchers’ work directly: collecting water samples with ecologists; studying how lab chemists use electronic notebooks to capture, manage and share their data; and investigating how epidemiologists and clinical researchers treat and share sensitive data. Their efforts to understand researchers’ practices and perspectives toward data curation in different disciplines and identifying researchers’ needs are helping to shape data management services.”

The complexity of research cultures, more than technical or financial obstacles, make the path to establishing institution-wide research data management services, to borrow Katherine’s words from CNI, “neither singular nor straight.” The “map” that Katherine and others of the 2012 fellowship cohort have created to represent this journey shows just how circuitous and confusing it can be.

Reflecting on Lori and Katherine’s presentation and the discussion that ensued, I am struck at how much the experiences of CLIR’s postdoctoral fellows have changed over the course of the program’s now almost ten-year history. By this summer, we will have welcomed almost 90 recent PhDs into positions where they have been challenged to be the human “bridges” between academic and professional cultures, collaborating with librarians, archivists, administrators, technologists, and academics so that each might contribute more efficiently and productively to others’ success. 

In the early years, our program faced a great deal of skepticism, particularly in the library community. Some saw the career trajectories of academics and librarians as distinct, parallel roads, doubting that those fellows who chose to follow a middle path could make their way to long-term, permanent positions. Others saw the incorporation of recent PhDs without significant library experience into library roles as devaluing librarians’ own professional training. Since I was among the first cohort of fellows in 2004, I remember vividly how heated the controversy was.

As on Friday, I still find myself in conversations about shifting roles and boundaries among faculty, librarians, archivists, and academic technologists, but the tone of these conversations has become much more congenial. Perhaps it is the scale and complexity of problems such as implementing research data management services that have brought the diverse subcultures of academe to a shared realization that we will need to work together to find solutions.

Our more recent fellows have every bit as much to learn as the first cohort did in 2004. By grappling with thorny issues such data curation, they arguably inhabit a space that is more multifaceted and confusing than ever before. Despite the increased challenges, my impression is that the librarians with whom our current fellows work find it much easier to incorporate them into collaborative projects. Fewer of our fellows spend their time working independently; more of them work in day-to-day partnerships with groups of professionals who value their disciplinary expertise while being patient with their lack of familiarity with library concepts and practices.

Fe, one of our newest fellows, tells me that she and others in her cohort have found working with their library colleagues to be deeply collaborative and enlightening. She writes:

“Being in the library has inspired fellows to re-examine their own research experiences, which they might otherwise take for granted, in the light of the library’s curation and preservation perspectives. This has yielded new insights that help them connect to librarians and inform how the library may connect to other researchers on campus.”

Librarians as a group seem much more welcoming of a diversity of backgrounds and skills within the library workforce than they did ten years ago. Our fellows are reaping the benefits of this increased openness in having even greater opportunities to help make an impact on their campuses, and beyond. 

This is my sense based upon what I hear from fellows at a relatively limited range of institutions. I am curious to know whether this is in line with others’ experiences. Is the library workforce becoming more open to and accepting of the contributions of non-librarians in their midst?