Tag Archives: data services

Cashing In: Social Capital and the Informationist

3 Mar
Social Networks = Social Capital

Social Networks = Social Capital

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.

Widen-Wulff et al, 2008.

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”

March Madness!

March Madness!

Fitting the Bill

2 Aug
Sweet, old Zeb loved to listen to the band.

Sweet, old Zeb loved to listen to the band.

This was a pretty rotten week. It started off fantastically as I met a bunch of my favorite colleagues for fun and games (aka brunch) in Boston, saw Alison Krauss give a freebie concert at Copley Square, and dusted off my old seminary skills to deliver a summer sermon at my church. And that was all on Sunday. But driving home from the big city, I began to have the worst toothache. I stopped at the rest area on the Mass Pike to take some extra-strength something or other, and by Monday, the throbbing reached that horrible place that it seems only toothaches and earaches can ever reach. Tuesday morning found me in my dentist’s chair for 3 hours undergoing an emergency root canal. The rest of the day and the better part of Wednesday was spent lying on the couch, praying that the penicillin would start working soon.

It did. Thankfully. Just in time to receive a phone call from my dad’s wife telling me that my dad was back in the hospital. He lives in San Antonio, Texas. I live in Massachusetts. As you might imagine, this doesn’t make for smooth and/or easy communication about all that’s going on for him.

And then my mother-in-law decided that it’s time for her to move to another state. This month. That took my spouse away for a couple of days this week and likely more in the weeks ahead.

By the time I went to the hospital cafeteria yesterday morning, simply looking for some nice, soft, scrambled eggs to eat, only to find that they’d pulled all of the breakfast foods and were setting up lunch (and it wasn’t even 10:30 in the morning)… well, I admit that I almost cried right there in the hallway. It seemed like just one too many things for the week’s pile-on.

And today marks the one-year anniversary of saying goodbye to our sweet, old dog, Zebediah. He was special in so many ways. We miss him a lot, still.

HOWEVER, not to be lost in this story of the sad and pitiful week is the fact that on Monday, after months of waiting and searching and hoping and juggling, we FINALLY filled my former position of Head of Research and Scholarly Communication Services at my library. Rebecca Reznik-Zellen joins us, bringing our staff up to the full-staff number of 3! It might not sound like much, but as the Schoolhouse Rock classic reminds us, “Three is a Magic Number.”

Rebecca comes to us from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she was the Digital Strategies Coordinator for the W.E.B. DuBois Library. I’ve been lucky to call Rebecca a colleague for the past few years and feel even luckier now to have her as a co-worker. I once wrote a letter of recommendation for her and in it I summed up my feelings for her work abilities by saying, “If I was ever in a position to build a library staff, Rebecca would be the very first person that I would hire.” As you might imagine, I was pretty happy when she first talked to me about the possibility of applying for the position, and even more delighted when she applied and the search committee decided to hire her (let it be known that I was not part of that committee).

Of course, when someone is hired to take your former position – the one that you’ve been managing, along with your new role, for months on end – you naturally assume that it means at least part of your current workload will finally ease. Something in the back of my mind knew that this wasn’t likely the case with Rebecca’s hire, though. I’ve worked for my library director too long to know that while the job title remains the same, the person filling that role brings with him/her a set of skills that may well be utilized in a completely different way. Rebecca has a skill set much different from mine (hence the reason I’d hire her to be on my Fantasy Library Team) and thus the things that I did well when I was the Head of Research and Scholarly Communications aren’t necessarily the things she’ll do well.

Similarly, the department is at a very different place today than it was when I assumed that role. At that time, it was a brand new role and the kind of services that we needed to develop were based a lot upon establishing relationships, making contacts, and raising awareness of the things that the Library could provide while utilizing our current resources (like our institutional repository, my expertise in the issues surrounding the NIH Public Access Mandate, our push towards open access, etc.). Today, the Library has very solid relationships with many research departments on campus, the kind of relationships that have allowed me to move into the informationist and embedded librarian role that I’m so enjoying. We still have work to do in the promotion of our now-traditional services to this population, but it’s also time to begin boosting up the new areas and roles that we’ve hoped to do for awhile, namely, data services.

Enter Rebecca and her strengths in strategic planning, the issues around data, and the library/librarian roles here, and we have a terrific opportunity for expansion. But yes… expansion means just that, i.e. more work to do, not less. I pretty much have to accept that I’m not passing off my old job to someone else. That’s not how things work today in anyone’s work world. And complaining about it is nothing much more than a big waste of time and energy. Instead, what we need to do is find the ways to share roles, morph needs, kill two birds with one stone, so to speak (I love birds and would never do such a thing). That’s the challenge ahead.

In his book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, Keith Sawyer calls this part of “‘problem finding’, creative style.” (p. 25) He says that too often we get stuck asking the wrong questions and that the very first skill to master in developing greater, everyday creativity is to practice finding the right questions. In terms of juggling and managing my workload, both old and new things, the question of “How can I do all of this?” is likely not the right question. Maybe there’s a better solution in asking, “Do I have skills that I’m not taking advantage of?” or “Can I combine x with y when I’m teaching different topics?” or “Can I reach a larger group of people at one time?” or “Can these tasks be broken up into more manageable (i.e. share-able) pieces?” or likely dozens more. I don’t know, but I do know that there is plenty of work to be done and a seemingly limitless list of opportunities that we could take on.* And personally, I find this a much more advantageous position to be in than the one where you have not enough to do and can easily be dismissed.

I also read an interesting editorial last night written by Janice LaChance, the CEO of the Special Libraries Association, in the latest issue of their magazine, Information Outlook. Entitled, “The Promise of Skills and Expertise,” LaChance notes that when it comes to the roles that librarians and information professionals assume, there is much to be said for distinguishing between one’s education and one’s expertise, as well as one’s job title and job role.

Even though the market for jobs is sluggish, the market for expertise is thriving, and there will always be positions for people who know how to identify, use, disseminate, and analyze good information. By learning to highlight and use your expertise rather than depend solely on a job title, you can open doors to roles you may never have considered. (Information Outlook, Vol. 17, No. 4, July/August 2013, p. 2)

I’m seeing this first-hand in my current work. Rebecca was hired to fill the same job title that I held, but the role is quite different. Similarly, my title of informationist or an embedded librarian or a research librarian really is not much more than something to put on my business card or a way to introduce myself to a group. What matters more is what I bring to the role and how well that I can explain this to the people that I wish to form partnerships with.

Case in point, last week I went to a department to teach about issues related to the NIH’s Public Access Mandate. One of the PIs of the group walked in with a printout of the latest RFP from the National Library of Medicine for the next round of informationist grants. “I’ve seen this word, informationist, twice in one week now,” he said to me, indicating that he’d come across both that RFP and my signature line in an email within a few days. “What exactly do you do as an informationist?” he asked, and following the class, we had an introductory discussion about what I’ve been doing the past months in my new role, as well as some ideas he has about how he could use a similar person. Is it a collaboration in the making? I sure hope so, because it’s an awfully interesting project. But more importantly for this post, it’s a great example of how the opportunities to do new things and take on new tasks come to us all of the time. They are rarely limited to any particular job title or job description. And the expansion isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

I’m really happy to have a new co-worker on this adventure and look forward to the questions we’ll come up with together. The everyday work-a-day will continue to be full and yes, sometimes a little frustrating in that I can’t get everything done that I’d like to do, but in all honesty, the diversity of the role is why I became a librarian in the first place. Who wants to do the same old thing over and over and over again?

I’m on vacation next week. I may post a muse that emerges from my relaxation time, or I may just relax. We’ll see! :)

*In that same issue of Information Outlook, there is a thought-provoking (and inspiring, to me) article by Colleen Shannon, manager of technical intelligence at the Hershey Company in Hershey, PA, called “Stop Trying to Serve Everyone.” The story she tells of how she led her group to match its goals with specific corporate initiatives, thus becoming its own functional group as opposed to a support unit is pretty interesting stuff, and a pretty big shift in some of the basic principles of how libraries operate. It also happens to be a thinking that I fully support when it comes to providing embedded librarian and/or informationist services. In other words, I’m perfectly content providing in-depth expertise to a few, rather than a minimal level of service to many. But yes, such work has limitations, I agree.

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