I heard a great presentation last week by a recent library school graduate on the topic of social capital and its role in relationship-building between academic libraries and faculty. The idea of building trust in groups, what it takes to do that, and how it affects knowledge sharing piqued my interest. Knowledge sharing is collaborative, we were told, and thus I began to think about how the concept of social capital plays out in the role of an informationist and/or embedded librarian. If we want to be successful in building these collaborative relationships, what might we learn from the study of social capital?
The intangible and vague nature of social capital compared to other forms of capital has naturally been contested. Whereas economic capital can be estimated on the basis of supply and demand in the market, and human capital is an asset people have ‘inside their heads’, social capital is a product of their social relations. To possess social capital an individual must be in contact with other individuals who, in fact, form the source of potential benefits. Social capital can thus best be viewed as a structural asset based on relations between people.
Libraries have identified research teams as sources of potential benefit, thus what are the steps that librarians need to take in order to build some social capital with them? Being in contact with the researchers directly seems a good start, but casual acquaintance likely isn’t enough. What else builds capital? What else builds trust? I suspect there are a few things. Common ground, that place where researchers and librarians can come together is important. Such ground can be based on common experiences, shared interests, and shared knowledge. Is this, perhaps, the biggest advantage of and/or argument for librarians having subject knowledge in the areas they seek to work? I jotted this question down in my notes during the talk, thinking that it could lead to an interesting research project.
During lunch today, I read an article on espnW entitled “Tracking NFL Opportunities for Women.” While professional football remains an almost-exclusive men’s club, some women have found careers in representing players as agents, in marketing departments, and in other legal aspects of team management. A very few have carved out careers as scouts. Looking past the gender issue, though, one point made by Mark Bartelstein, an agent for both NFL and NBA players, resonated with me in terms of social capital:
From our standpoint, there is some innate advantage to having played the game. People in our office played or coached at a high level, which is an advantage from a player’s standpoint, that the person representing them really gets it, has been there and understands the little nuances.
If you haven’t played, it’s hard to overcome that hurdle. But it doesn’t mean you can’t. With intelligence and creativity, you can overcome it. But it is a hurdle.
I can easily hear a scientist say the same thing about librarians becoming embedded in his/her research team. “Have you played the game?”
Experience playing the game gives you some social capital to cash in. It’s not the only means of gaining acceptance and trust, but it certainly counts for something. But so do intelligence, creativity, interest in the subject area, and a record of success. The hardest part about building and promoting new library services around data is that we don’t yet have a track record. We can see (and often say) that we have the expertise to do x, y, or z, but we don’t yet have much of a body of evidence to prove that we can provide what we’re claiming we can provide. The body is growing slowly but surely, like women in NFL positions, but until it reaches a certain degree, we lack that piece of social capital.
Similarly, until it reaches that point, we need to utilize our creativity and intelligence, leverage the social capital that we have through established relationships, become aware of and interested in the research going on around us, and take advantage of opportunities to do new things that bring us into contact with those whom we wish to collaborate. Maybe you don’t have enough established trust with a research team to provide data services, but you can probably find some information need that they have that matches your skills and knowledge to meet it.
This happened to me last week as I went with my colleague, Donna, to interview a couple of our researchers who work in the area of gene therapy. This is an area way beyond my scope of knowledge, but as we talked about what the Library might do for them related to their research data, they began to describe certain scenarios where their work gets bogged down because they don’t know how to do something and the time needed to learn the new skill just isn’t worth it. For example, one of the researchers told us how he had tried in vain to figure out how to draw figures in Adobe Illustrator. He had studied tutorials and read some online manuals and worked through the “Help” provided with the product, but it was too much. All he really wants is to know the very select few features/tools within Illustrator that will allow him to do this pretty simple task. (For those unaware, Illustrator is a powerful, professional graphics tool that, like our brains, has way more capability than we ever tap into.)
The next morning, I sent Dr. Esteves an email telling him that I do know how to use Illustrator and if he wanted to share a couple of examples of the kinds of figures he typically draws, I could work up a simple “Here’s how you do it” lesson for him. He replied later that day, filled with gratitude, and copying a bunch of other people in his lab on the reply. Now I have a task to undertake and if I can give him something helpful … KA-CHING! … I’ll have some social capital for potential future projects with him.
Bottom line, I believe that if we put forth efforts now to creatively grow our banks of social capital in different ways, in different areas, and at different levels, over time we will be able to cash some of it in on some new services.
Next week… “Time Management is a Team Sport”