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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2016

Tips from the Experts

Make an Exhibit of Yourself: Reaching Out to Faculty and Students Through Exhibits

Dorothy Barr
Research Librarian, Liaison to Molecular & Cellular Biology
Ernst Mary Library
Museum of Comparative Zoology
Harvard University
Cambridge Massachusetts


There is general agreement among librarians today that we need to rethink our roles, find new ways to reach out to our patrons, and raise our library's profile in the wider community. Showcasing library resources is an important way to demonstrate our relevance to our wider institutions. One way this has traditionally been done has been through exhibits. These have usually been within or right outside the library and have displayed treasures such as old books, manuscripts, prints, or other objects from the collections, new books or ones written by faculty at the institution. Today, however, many science librarians find that with so much now available online, a substantial proportion of their patrons rarely if ever set foot in the physical library, making it important to find new ways to raise awareness of library resources and services. Creating exhibits outside the physical library and involving faculty and students in their creation is one way to make the library more visible. Adding an online component such as an accompanying LibGuide further enhances the library's profile.


"Librarians need to reinvent themselves and their profession and align what they do with what their communities need from them" (Palfrey 2015). John Palfrey states it well in his recent book BiblioTech : Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google. Other articles repeat this theme, for example "Reimagining, Reinventing, Rethinking, Revisiting, and Revising Reference" (Devar 2015). We are all thinking of re-doing what we do.

Redesigned web pages help increase the library's visibility. So do blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and other social media. Stepping outside the physical library is also increasingly popular. For instance, much has been written about embedded librarianship and there are even books on the subject (Daugherty & Russo 2013; Kvenild, Calkins, & Garson 2011; Shumaker 2012). In 2010, Public Services Quarterly devoted an entire issue to embedded librarianship (volume 6, issue 2-3). However, the term is used to describe a wide variety of services. It may be used of an online presence within a class web site, or of librarians who spend large amounts of time physically present in a department outside the library, and everything in between (Schulte 2012). A great deal of the literature has concentrated on course-related activities (Kline 2015) or teaching information literacy (Meulemans & Carr 2013).

Another term that has been used is "blended librarian" (Shank & Bell 2011). Shank and Bell note that blended librarians "need to be knowledge-able...[and] must partner with faculty and staff to embed themselves and their instruction, as well as services, in courses and the campus curriculum (Shank & Bell 2011). The focus is again on blending in with courses to enhance teaching and learning.

Whatever we do, we need to find ways to be relevant and to show our patrons that old perceptions of librarians primarily as curators of materials are no longer true. To do this we must engage constantly with our users, reminding them of the value the library provided, and this takes much more effort and thought (Choy 2011). We need to be aware of trends such as new forms of scholarly communication like open access and altmetrics (Delaney & Bates 2015), and help our patrons make the most of these. Creaser and Spezi note that it is vital to "reach out to users by improving communication, building personal relationships, using appropriate language, and following through to build on success" (Creaser & Spezi 2012).

All this means that marketing is more and more essential for librarians, though some of us may be uncomfortable with the idea. But marketing doesn't have to mean high powered advertising; it can be effectively accomplished through informal communication, even though this too may require sometimes stepping outside one's comfort zone (Creaser & Spezi 2012; Delaney & Bates 2015).

In any case, clearly we are challenged to reach out to our patrons in new ways. With so many resources available online, the library itself may be less and less visible. Our users may not even connect the library with the electronic resources they use daily. We need to find ways to adapt our traditional roles to the changing information universe; it is no longer enough to sit at the reference desk and wait for people to come to us (Corwin, Hartley, & Hawkes 2014). Hines asks what libraries will be when they grow up, and suggests that perhaps "the answer is that the librarian becomes the library" (Hines 2013).

New Ways to Reach Out

The author was hired in 2007 to be liaison to Harvard University's Molecular and Cellular Biology Department (MCB), which had been underserved for some time. Originally there had been a separate library for MCB patrons housed in the Biolabs, one of the research buildings on campus. Over time the space allocated to the library had been eroded until by 2006 it was reduced to one room. The long-time librarian had retired and her replacement soon transferred to another library, so the decision was made to merge the Biolabs library (as it was known) with the Ernst Mayr Library - Museum of Comparative Zoology (EML), which served primarily the Museum (MCZ) and the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department (OEB). Patrons who wanted a book in the Biolabs library could call or come to the EML and request it; a librarian would then go across to fetch the desired item. MCB faculty and students, however, were unfamiliar with the EML, which is in a separate building that has no MCB researchers in it, so they rarely came and probably sometimes went without items they wanted. With the library no longer prominent and convenient, their needs in general were not being met; for instance, Interlibrary Loan requests and other queries were sometime overlooked. I was brought in specifically to serve the department in the spring of 2007.

During the first couple of years I was able to forge relationships with a few of the MCB faculty, staff and graduate students in various ways, including involvement with the orientation of new graduate students and hand-delivering books and other needed items to offices and labs. However, it is a large and diverse department and is housed in three separate buildings, and since very few MCB people ever came to the physical library, they tended to forget that it even existed. It was tough slogging in the beginning to convince the department that the library was relevant when for the most part they had no need to visit the physical space. I obviously needed to find ways to increase the library's visibility.

In 2011 the Harvard Libraries received substantial funding from the Arcadia Fund, and part of this was allocated to the "Library Lab," which provided "an opportunity for individuals to make innovative contributions to the way libraries work." Library Lab was based on the principles of entrepreneurialism, scalability, openness and experimentation. Most of the Lab grants were for digital projects or had a digital component, and many centered around applications or software development.

Software design is not one of my skills, but since I wanted a way to reach out to MCB personnel and to raise the library's profile, I hit on the idea of creating exhibits that would feature Harvard research and at the same time raise awareness of the library's resources and the librarians' availability.

Library exhibits are not new. Often they are located inside or near the library and display treasures such as old books, manuscripts, prints or other objects from the library's collections. Exhibits may also feature new books or ones written by faculty at the institution. Especially in the sciences today, however, with so much available online, a substantial proportion of patrons rarely if ever set foot in the physical library. The hope was that by placing an exhibit where users would see it would be a good way to raise awareness of the library and its resources.

There is open space in the lobby of a large new research building known as the Northwest Building that houses many members of MCB as well as other researchers in the life sciences, and since the space is right near a cafeteria and next to stairs leading down to large lecture halls it is heavily trafficked. Our goals in applying for a Library Lab grant included working with other departments and libraries across Harvard and emphasizing the role of libraries in making connections between teaching and research. The application process was rigorous and the review committee included the University Librarian, the directors of two libraries, the head of Research and Learning Technology, the head of the Office for Informational Systems, and the Faculty Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication, who is also a Professor of Computer Science.

The grant application included $14,000 for two display cases; the amount was based on pricing for commercial cases. However, a chance conversation with Jan Sacco, the head of the Exhibits Department of the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH), led to her suggesting that her team could custom build three cases, not two, for the same amount. I eagerly accepted and we were able to specify sizes and materials that would meet the standards necessary for housing specimens from museum collections in terms of stability, security, ultraviolet protection, etc.

Naturally there was a great deal of administrative dealing to be sure that all the parties involved were agreed on the project. Part of the planning process was discussion with administration of the Northwest Building. Although they liked the idea, there was a lot of back and forth over details. For instance, they wanted the cases to have wheels so that they could be moved if necessary since the space is often used for parties and events. The Exhibits staff was not happy with that for both aesthetic and practical reasons; they did not want the cabinets moved because this could cause them to become unstable over time, to say nothing of what might happen to the contents. In the end they did install wheels but they were concealed, and once the cases were in place they were locked down. In fact, events do take place in the space but the cabinets have never been moved, nor has anyone suggested that they should be. If anything the exhibits add to the ambiance of the area during events (and so also to the library's exposure).

There are two flanking cases measuring 1'6" deep by 2'6" wide by 6' tall and one long low middle case 2' deep by 5' wide by 3'7" tall. The case in the middle is under a monitor that displays, among other things, an image from the current exhibit. The covers are uv-resistant plexiglass and it takes two strong men and special tools to remove them, which is important for the protection of specimens and other, often valuable, objects inside. During the day the area is heavily trafficked, and nights and weekends the building is secured with a security guard stationed by the door near the display cases.

The first exhibit was created by Lisa DeCesare of the Botany Libraries, who is experienced in preparing exhibits. The topic was Wood, and in addition to displaying various wooden objects from the Libraries' collections it featured a large piece of wood from a faculty member with a brief explanation of his research.

For the second exhibit I chose the subject of Bioluminescence, highlighting the research of J. Woodland ("Woody") Hastings, a long-time and much loved MCB faculty member who was retiring and had just published a book on the topic (Wilson & Hastings 2013). He was considered the world's foremost expert on bioluminescence (he passed away in 2014). Specimens were provided by Karsten Harter and Andrew Williston of the Ichthyology Department of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), Adam Baldinger and Murat Recevik of MCZ Invertebrates and Mollusks and Rachel Hawkins of the MCZ Entomology Department. Gonzalo Giribet, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Curator of Invertebrates in the Museum of Comparative Zoology gave advice and suggestions. A post-doc in the OEB Ichthyology Department, Chris Kenneally, contributed to the exhibit and provided images. All these people also vetted the LibGuide that was created to accompany the exhibit (

Over time and with the development of further exhibits, I have involved more and more faculty, staff and graduate students in contributing to the displays and the LibGuides; this was one of the purposes of the project and it has been increasingly successful. The exhibits, in order of appearance and with their LibGuides, have been: Time; Brains; Vision; and Smell. All of the people mentioned above continue to be involved, and more have been enlisted. Jeremiah Trimble of Ornithology, Jessica Cundiff of Invertebrate Paleology, Judy Chupasko and Mark Omura of Mammalogy, and Joe Martinez of Herpetology regularly provide specimens from the MCZ collections. The Brains exhibit was in conjunction with one at the Center for Historical Scientific Instruments (CHSI) on Human Anatomy, and also included items from the Center for the History of Medicine (CHoM) at Harvard Medical School's Countway Library in Boston. In fact, I now regularly include items from CHoM, and its librarians have been very helpful and even willing to travel across the Charles River to deliver and pick up the pieces that they provide. I always include a page in the LibGuides about CHoM; it is exposure for their collection, which is always welcome, and builds good relationships in the wider community. There are also references to CHSI's exhibits when they are at all relevant -- for instance, in 2015 their exhibit is on Wayfinding, so for Smell it was easy to find common areas. The next exhibit will be on Hearing, and that will tie in with CHSI's on Radios in 2016.

Needless to say, once established, these relationships have continued to be invaluable. Just contacting faculty involved in relevant research and asking if they have any ideas or can suggest students in their labs who might be interested is in itself an excellent way to make the library more visible. There is always a LibGuide page featuring the work of the participating labs. Sometimes the faculty member himself has taken an active role. For Vision, for instance, Dr. John Dowling, Gordon and Llura Gund Research Professor of Neurosciences, who is well known for his work on the vertebrate retina, met with me more than once and contributed materials and ideas to Vision. Dr. James Mallet, Distinguished Lecturer in OEB, studies evolution and hybridization in butterflies, and was actively involved in selecting specimens and making suggestions for Vision. He also wrote a page for the LibGuide (

The graduate students always enjoy participating and seeing their names in the display cases and in the LibGuides (sometimes their photos as well). One, Emily Hager of Hopi Hoekstra's lab, actually designed and arranged one case (Figure 1) in the Vision exhibit and expressed strong interest in helping with future exhibits. Smell involved four students from three different labs -- Vivian Hemmelder of Venkatesh Murthy's lab (she is now in the Uchida Lab), Simon Sin of the Scott Edwards Lab, Jenelle Wallace of the Murthy Lab and Yoh Isogai of Catherine's Dulac's lab (see All these students also vetted and contributed to the LibGuides.

Figure 1. Graduate student Emily Hager from Hopi Hoekstra's lab
With the display that she created for the Vision exhibit

Because the display cases are in a busy area through which members of the public as well as university personnel pass, they get a lot of attention. The displays always have items of general interest to catch the attention of passersby. For example, a T. rex model and braincast have been used in both Brains and Smell, and the T. Rex also made an appearance in Vision to indicate that dinosaurs may have been brightly colored. In the exhibits that have included a Timeline, a small model TARDIS illustrated the passage of time.

Smell highlights the work of Venkatesh Murthy's lab; one of his papers on how mice distinguish odors was the cover article in the September 2014 issue of Nature Neuroscience (Rokni, Hemmelder, Kapoor & Murthy 2014). An enlarged copy of the cartoon that was on the cover of the journal is prominent in the left-hand display case of the exhibit (Figure 2). In front of it are placed three little toy mice holding tiny cocktail glasses. These kinds of touches help catch the attention of passersby. Since NSF and other funders require public outreach components in grants, the exhibits offer an easy way for researchers to showcase their work. Plus, with the growing interest in altmetrics, the more exposure the better for researchers and their students.

Figure 2. Drawing by Mark Heng (
for the cover of Nature Neuroscience, September 2014, Volume 17 No 9:
Dan Rokni, Vivian Hemmelder, Vikrant Kapoor, & Venkatesh N Murthy. (2014).
An olfactory cocktail party: Figure-ground segregation of odorants in rodents.


The physical exhibits are in themselves important for making the library more visible to our users. As the exhibits have evolved, I have involved more and more faculty and students in the planning, preparation and creation of the LibGuides, and this has again raised the library's profile. Asking for advice, suggestions and materials has changed perceptions of the library from simply a repository of needed materials. I have also learned a great deal about the various subjects, and being able to converse intelligently on their subjects of interest is a good way to improve the perceptions of researchers about the library. Hopefully this helps them see us as more than just keepers of books.

In addition, I hope to work closely with colleagues in other libraries on campus – for instance, with the Music Library for the upcoming exhibit on Hearing and with the Schlesinger Library for a future one on Women in Science (for which we will also team with a class on Gender and Culture). Solidifying relationships and making new ones across the institution is always valuable.


Today, with more and more resources available electronically, it is increasingly important for librarians to reach out beyond the walls of the physical building. Creating exhibits in cooperation with researchers and students is not only intrinsically rewarding, but also fosters relationships for the long term. Nor is a big budget necessary; we were lucky to get a grant, and being connected with a natural history museum helps because we can borrow specimens. But there may be an exhibit case already available in departments (or there might be interest among faculty in funding one), or it might be possible to make use of a dedicated bulletin board. Another option would be working with faculty to utilize existing cases within the library to highlight research and library resources. This might also draw more people into the library, as long as the exhibits are advertised (perhaps have an opening reception – food is always a big draw, especially for always-starving graduate students).

In short, creating exhibits in partnership with faculty and students can offer a way to strengthen relationships with patrons and raise the library's profile across the larger institution. We have found that the most important outcome has been enhanced contact with faculty, students and staff who might otherwise only think of the library as a place where books and physical objects are kept. Cooperating on creating exhibits means that we relate to our patrons in new and different ways, as partners in research.


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