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!

9 Responses to “Cashing In: Social Capital and the Informationist”

  1. Carrie Moran March 3, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I adore your blog and think you are doing some amazing work. I went to brunch with some colleagues yesterday. We all work on different campuses for the same institution and in the course of our discussion we delved in to outreach and how we get buy in from faculty. I was actually considering a post on the topic myself, and I think social capital is the foundation of our outreach efforts. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can show my value to faculty and students and my number one strategy is to try to find problems and fix them. This has worked to some degree, and I’m glad to see that others are working on similar issues. Thanks!

    • salgore March 3, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

      Thanks so much, Carrie. Such kind words.

      Finding problems to solve is a different mindset, but I agree with you that it’s well worth the time and effort. Keep on keeping on!

      • Kerry March 3, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

        This blog post really resonated with me. One of my fellow students in our last semester in Library school a few years ago said, “Don’t be afraid to try new things.” Her comment has stuck with me for the last couple of years and I reference it in times where I need a little more confidence to set out in a new direction. This blog post provides another example of how I can go forth with confidence and try new things. Thanks!

  2. Regina Raboin March 4, 2014 at 8:06 am #

    I really liked this week’s blog post and am forwarding to my work colleagues. I’ve always felt that the ‘social capital’ that has been accrued, goes very far when building or expanding new relationships and services.

  3. nclairoux March 4, 2014 at 9:14 am #

    Thoughtful post as usual, Sally! Although I played the game before becoming a librarian, I still find it difficult to communicate the value of my services to researchers. One of the things I do to try to build social capital is to volunteer for jury duty at student poster competitions in departmental research days. I always get the puzzled look when I introduce myself as a librarian, but when I ask a relevant question about a recent concurrent paper, I see a shift in the conversation: oh, this lady does know what I’m talking about! (I do a small literature search beforehand to try to understand what’s going on for each poster I judge).
    You are right when you propose that we breach the door by finding out about researchers’ specific information needs. I believe that providing data management services will be the key to walk in.

    • salgore March 4, 2014 at 9:55 am #

      Thanks, Natalie! You offer another GREAT example of taking advantage of your personal skills and expertise, be they within the traditional library realm or not, and using them to your advantage to raise the profile of librarians and the services we can offer.


  1. Spring Break + Social Capital | Digital Carrie - March 10, 2014

    […] I happened to read a post by my current favorite library blogger Sally at Librarian Hats titled “Cashing In: Social Capital and the Informationist”. The post was about how we can use social capital to build relationships between libraries and […]

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    […] gets my creative juices flowing and as I was doodling some drawings for my talk (along with reading more about social capital), I thought of how long we librarians have been at the business of solving problems. More, I […]

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