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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2015

Tips from the Experts

Personal Outreach in a Virtual World

A. Ben Wagner
Chemistry and Physics Librarian
Science and Engineering Information Center
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, New York

For all the wonders of social media and other forms of virtual communications, I still find the most successful outreach programs are face to face. The power of personal contact is as old as the human race. In today's world, think of the impact a hand-written letter or a phone call has in the midst of our daily flood of e-mail and cell phone texts. In the same way, I am convinced that face-to-face outreach usually has the same high impact because it is increasingly rare. Is not one of the main objectives of the current interest in embedded librarians direct personal contact with patrons?

Let me describe the three most successful outreach programs I have engaged in during my 15-year career as an academic science librarian.

  1. One-on-One New Faculty Lunches
  2. On-site Departmental Reference Hours
  3. Focused Outreach to Research Teams

One-on-One New Faculty Lunches

New faculty lunches are not a new idea (Isaacson 2001). I find them not just important, but so essential that I insist on them. I don't ask new faculty if they are interested; I tell them that we must have lunch together. The best time to engage them is during their first few weeks on campus before the semester begins. In preparation, I read their resume. I ask them to come to my office so they know where I live. In about 20 minutes, I present an overview of the library web site, do a search related to their current research, and finish with a brief facility tour. Then we head out to lunch, paid for by the library. Don't tell my library, but this is so valuable, I would pay for it myself if needed.

My objectives for lunch are the following:

LEARN about:

  1. Their research interests, where they publish, and their teaching assignments
  2. Any questions they have about library resources, services, and the university
  3. How they got interested in their discipline
  4. Their non-work interests and what they've seen in the area

TELL them about:

  1. Key library services and resources
  2. My background and special skills such as citation metrics
  3. My research & publications, that I too have to publish or perish
  4. My willingness to help at any level they need

I stress that the proof is in the pudding -- try me out and see if I deliver. Perhaps my situation is unusual, but I have yet to have a faculty member, given the obvious interest I show in them, refuse a free lunch!

On-Site Departmental Reference Hours

A number of articles discuss on-site reference hours, some within the larger context of embedded librarians (Brandenburg and others 2010; Clyde and Lee 2011; MaCeachern and others 2011; Tao and others 2009). Our experiences here at the University at Buffalo were described in a 2007 article (Wagner and Tysick 2007) that has lots of practical advice. I have spent three hours a week in the physics department for a number of years and recently began hours in the chemistry department. The chemistry building is a challenge, being vertically oriented without natural gathering places. Being visible and in a high traffic corridor is essential. Otherwise, one trades off sitting in a library office where few people seek you out for a departmental place equally out of sight and mind.

Some other pointers based on my experience:

  1. Guard office hours from scheduling conflicts.
  2. Start small. It is easier to add than subtract times.
  3. Be patient as it takes time to build clientele.
  4. Be bold! Ask leading questions of those that pass by like "Have you seen the new features of SciFinder?"
  5. Don't be afraid to change up times and places. I have even sat out in a hallway with my laptop.
  6. Use enticements such as food for those asking a question or spending a few minutes on database demo.
  7. Be visible. Hang a "shingle" out into the hallway with flashing lights or use a portable roll-up banner.

I have found that these few on-site office hours generate an outsized impact and significant good will from faculty, even those that seldom stop by. My faculty take obvious pride in their librarian spending time in the department, frequently mentioning it when they introduce me to guests. Interestingly, there often are opportunities to reach students in other majors passing by. Finally, it is clear that many questions would never have been asked if a trip to the library or writing an e-mail had been required.

Focused Outreach to Research Teams

Many research-oriented institutions are organized into research teams. In universities, these teams are the graduate students and post-docs, perhaps a few undergraduate students, supervised by a faculty member. Although much has been written about librarians embedding themselves in a particular research team, until recently, little has been published about outreach focused on all research teams within a department (Fong and Hansen 2012; MacKenzie 2014; Somerville and Carr 1997; Wilson 2013).

A few years ago, I was reflecting on my departmental outreach. I realized that few used the reference desk, came to general workshops, or carefully read my e-mail. I decided to systematically contact every faculty member to schedule a session of at least 45 minutes with their research group, preferably during their regular meeting times. It took persistence, good record keeping, and patience, but, over a two year period, I succeeded in wrangling an invitation to every research group. This has turned out to be the most effective outreach I had ever done. Why?

All my search examples were drawn directly from their current research and focused on the rich features of just one or two prime databases. I noted that I was the most important science information resource in the entire library. Finally, I made sure that I answered all their questions about library resources and services and offered to do individual follow up sessions on their current projects.

My teaching points were:

  1. A good scientist has more than one tool in their tool belt. Databases are tools.
  2. Asking for help is not a sign of failure, but a sign of intelligence!
  3. Our databases not just finding tools they are analytical/research tools as much as any instrument in their labs.

This last point I really pound home, proving it by showing at length the power of the analyze/refine columns available on high-level platforms like Web of Science and Engineering Village. For example, in SciFinder, I show how to analyze the results of a substructure search by attachments at any given atom or analyze by organization to identify collaborators, post-doc positions, or employment opportunities. Patrons seldom explore the text mining power of these interfaces. I tell them if they need some good articles on any topic or full text for a known item, Google Scholar is a good tool. However, if they want an analytic tool that provides both a comprehensive road map and the ability to narrow down to exactly what they need, then they should use one of these subscription tools.

There were both expected and unexpected benefits to this outreach:

  1. I snuck in training the faculty member under guise of training their students. Faculty may not attend workshops, but they always come to their team meeting.
  2. The informal small group setting and undivided attention enhanced learning.
  3. They learned who I was and what I do.
  4. I learned what their team was doing and what they needed.
  5. The invitation by the team leader established my credibility and importance.

In short, face-to-face outreach is still one of the most effective ways to serve many of our patrons. I often say that these days you can be guaranteed of one thing when a patron asks for help, Google has failed them. We must demonstrate the value of library resources and the value we add, or we might as well give up and go home.

Let me end with a brief story. I was on site during regular office hours when a professor passed by and greeted me. He off handedly mentioned he was working on a simple, but little known, semiconductor containing just two elements. I seized the opportunity and suggested we take a few minutes to check SciFinder. It was a trivial matter to retrieve the substance record and, with one click, retrieve over 200 literature references about the material. He remarked, "Gee, that's a lot more than my graduate student found." I did not know whether to laugh or cry. After all, I have been a science librarian for over 40 years; I should have some expertise the average grad student doesn't. The point is simply this: What do we have to offer that Google doesn't? Can we prove it? Target your outreach!


Brandenburg, M.D., Doss A., & Frederick, T.E. 2010. Evaluation of a library outreach program to research labs. Medical Reference Services Quarterly 29(3):249-259.

Clyde, J. & Lee, J. 2011. Embedded reference to embedded librarianship: 6 years at the University of Calgary. Journal of Library Administration 51(4):389-402.

Fong, B.L. & Hansen, D.B. 2012. Engaging research groups: rethinking information literacy for graduate students. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship (71). DOI: 10.5062/F4V122Q6

Isaacson, D. 2001. Librarians who lunch: liaisons with new faculty. College & Research Libraries News 62(5):532-533.

MaCeachern, M., Conte, M., Townsend, W., & Woody, L. 2011. Using on-site office hours to connect with health care professionals. Journal of Hospital Librarianship 11(3):269-279.

MacKenzie, E. 2014. Academic libraries and outreach to the ociences: taking a closer look at research groups. Science & Technology Libraries 33(2):165-175.

Somerville, A.N. & Carr, C.. 1997. Chemistry librarians as teachers: new partnerships for a new environment. Science & Technology Libraries 16(3-4): 3-30.

Tao, D., McCarthy, P.G., Krieger, M.M., & Webb, A.B. 2009. The mobile reference service: a case study of an onsite reference service program at the school of public health. Journal of the Medical Library Association 97(1):34-40.

Wagner, A.B. & Tysick, C. 2007. Onsite reference and instruction services. Reference & User Services Quarterly 46(4):60-65.

Wilson, J. 2013. Ultimate outreach: exploring the outreach sea within the engineering, math and physical sciences libraries at Cornell University. Science & Technology Libraries 32(1):68-83.

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