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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2009


E-Science and Libraries: Finding the Right Path

Jennifer Haas
Department Head, Information Services and Resources
Davis Centre Library
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Sharon Murphy
Head, Engineering & Science Library
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Copyright 2009, Jennifer Haas and Sharon Murphy. Used with permission.

Re-inventing Science Librarianship, an ARL-sponsored forum held last fall in Arlington, Virginia, featured panels of speakers on e-science trends, data-curation issues, virtual organizations, the experience of health sciences libraries, and library education for new roles. There were many excellent speakers, presentations, and posters designed to raise awareness of issues and opportunities related to data curation. It was a great mix of theoretical, conceptual and practical. And there were lots of opportunities to talk about these issues. We returned home to our respective institutions immediately following the forum with a host of ideas for follow-up with faculty and colleagues in the Library. It makes sense for science and engineering librarians to extend our existing relationships with our researchers, as well as our knowledge about information management, into this frontier. The stuff of science is the results of research and the data on which it is based. The stuff of librarianship is the organization, preservation and dissemination of the same. To date we've been heavy on the results and light on the data.

We have used the time since the forum to scan the local landscape in our respective universities as well as the broader environment. We aren't wagging our data tails quite as briskly as we were six months ago. The truth is that the idea of becoming involved with the management, preservation, curation, and annotation of primary research data at the local level is daunting and particularly so in our current environment. Our current reality is one of finite capacity and shrinking budgets. If collecting, managing, preserving, curating, and annotating data is a priority, what will we stop doing? Clearly we are not in a position to continue doing everything we are currently doing and take on a new venture while dealing with budget cuts. Reduced budgets force us to take a cold look at our activities and priorities. So, we should ask ourselves now -- is this a priority? And if so, how will we allocate resources to get involved? Where will the sustainable funding come from to support the data and human infrastructure required to successfully support the reliable management, preservation, curation, and annotation of data? In the library, is this a high enough priority to make us re-think how our collection budgets are spent and consider earmarking some of these funds to support a sustainable infrastructure? If we are not in a position to hire new staff to support data curation, do we take this on with the knowledge that we may have to cut back services in other areas? Given the complexity of datasets and issues related to data storage and migration, we also need our partners across the university (IT departments for example) to agree that this is a shared priority for resource allocation.

What is the level of commitment of our faculty members? We have started this discussion and responses so far are cautious. A recent conversation with a faculty member is quite telling. He expressed the feeling that preservation of primary research data is yet another responsibility being downloaded to the individual faculty members who are already overloaded with the effort of looking for funding, doing the research, supervising students, writing reports, writing articles, teaching, trying to interpret and comply with nondisclosure agreements as well as requirements for depositing research outputs into open access platforms. Although the idea of saving the data was attractive, the shear effort involved was overwhelming. Also, the suggestion that librarians could act as "middleware" in the process did not produce a "eureka" moment.

So, where should we go from here?

For us there is no doubt that networked, accessible, and re-usable data is good and that librarians can have a role to play. Granted, we will need new skills to complement our existing ones and there appears to be support for this in many library schools. The interesting question is where and how we should be involved.

In landscape architecture there is an appealing method for selecting the site for pedestrian paths. Don't plan or pre-select. Instead, complete all the other landscaping around the building and then wait a year. Watch to see where people walk, where they beat the grass into a path, and that's where you lay the concrete. Now change those sentences to include "scientist, librarian, communication, and data." Data need to be where the scientists have existing (and emerging) communities. The appeal of e-science is the promise of data stored in a networked environment for use and re-use by teams of scientists regardless of geography. Does every research library need to create a data repository? No. Instead we will be much more effective partners if we act as conduits to existing data sites, societies, and publishers. Before we get started, we must know the data options and obligations of the disciplines we serve and be ready to facilitate this communication.

Let's find the paths that exist and join them. This is not so much a vision of reinvention, but of progress and evolution.

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