A New Role for the Library – Gonzo Librarian Informationista

At the OU’s Future of Academic Libraries a couple of weeks ago, Sheila Corrall introduced a term and newly(?!) emerging role I hadn’t heard before coming out of the medical/health library area: informationist (bleurghh..).

According to a recent job ad (h/t Lorcan Dempsey):

The Nursing Informationist cultivates partnerships between the Biomedical Library and UCLA Nursing community by providing a broad range of information services, including in-depth reference and consultation service, instruction, collection development, and outreach.

Hmm… sounds just like a librarian to me?

Writing in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, The librarian as research informationist: a case study (101(4): 298–302,October, 2013), Lisa Federer described the  role in the following terms:

“The term “informationist” was first coined in 2000 to describe what the authors considered a new health sciences profession that combined expertise in library and information studies with subject matter expertise… Though a single model of informationist services has not been clearly defined, most descriptions of the informationist role assume that (1) informationists are “embedded” at the site where patrons conduct their work or need access to information, such as in a hospital, clinic, or research laboratory; and (2) informationists have academic training or specialized knowledge of their patrons’ fields of practice or research.”

Federer started to tighten up the definition in relation to research in particular:

Whereas traditional library services have generally focused on the “last mile” or finished product of the research process—the peer-reviewed literature—librarians have expertise that can help researchers create better research output in the form of more useful data. … The need for better research data management has given rise to a new role for librarians: the “research informationist.” Research informationists work with research teams at each step of the research process, from project inception and grant seeking to final publication, providing expert guidance on data management and preservation, bibliometric analysis, expert searching, compliance with grant funder policies regarding data management and open access, and other information-related areas.

This view is perhaps shared in a presentation on The Informationist: Pushing the Boundaries by Director of Library Services, Elaine Martin, in a presentation dated on Slideshare as October 2013:


Associated with the role are some competencies you might not normally expect from library staffer:


So – maybe here is the inkling of the idea that there could be a role for librarians skilled in working with information technologies in a more techie way than you might normally expect. (You’d normally expect a librarian to be able to use Boolean search, search limits and advanced search forms. You might not expect them to write their own custom SQL queries, or even build and populate their own databases that they can then query? But perhaps you’d expect a really techie informationist to?) And maybe also the idea that the informationist is a participant in a teaching or research activity?

The embedded nature of the informationist also makes me think of gonzo journalism, a participatory style of narrative journalism written from a first person perspective, often including the reporter as part of the story. Hunter S. Thompson is often held up as some sort of benchmark character for this style of writing, and I’d probably class Louis Theroux as a latter-day exemplar. The reporter as naif participant in which the journalist acts as a proxy for everyman’s – which is to say, our own – direct experience of the reported situation, is also in the gonzo style (see for example Feats of gonzo journalism have lost their lustre since George Plimpton’s pioneering days as a universal amateur).

So I’m wondering: isn’t the informationist actually a gonzo librarian, joining in with some activity and bring the skills of a librarian, or wider information scientist (or information technologist/technician) to the party…?

Another term introduced by Sheila Corrall and again, new to me, was “blended librarian”. According to Steven J. Bell and John Shank writing on The blended librarian in College and Research Libraries News, July/August 2004, pp 3722-375:

We define the “blended librarian” as an academic librarian who combines the traditional skill set of librarianship with the information technologist’s hardware/software skills, and the instructional or educational designer’s ability to apply technology appropriately in the teaching-learning process.

The focus of that paper was in part on defining a new role in which the skills and
knowledge of instructional design are wedded to our existing library and information technology skills
, but that doesn’t quite hit the spot for me. The paper also described six principles of blended librarianship, which are repeated on the LIS Wiki :

  1. Taking a leadership position as campus innovators and change agents is critical to the success of delivering library services in today’s “information society”.
  2. Committing to developing campus-wide information literacy initiatives on our campuses in order to facilitate our ongoing involvement in the teaching and learning process.
  3. Designing instructional and educational programs and classes to assist patrons in using library services and learning information literacy that is absolutely essential to gaining the necessary skills (trade) and knowledge (profession) for lifelong success.
  4. Collaborating and engaging in dialogue with instructional technologists and designers which is vital to the development of programs, services and resources needed to facilitate the instructional mission of academic libraries.
  5. Implementing adaptive, creative, proactive, and innovative change in library instruction can be enhanced by communicating and collaborating with newly created Instructional Technology/Design librarians and existing instructional designers and technologists.
  6. Transforming our relationship with faculty to emphasize our ability to assist them with integrating information technology and library resources into courses, but adding to that traditional role a new capacity to collaborate on enhancing student learning and outcome assessment in the area of information access, retrieval and integration.

Again, the emphasis on being able to work with current forms of instructional technology falls short of the mark for me.

But there is perhaps a glimmer of light in the principle associated with “assist[ing faculty] with integrating information technology and library resources into courses“, if we broaden that principle to include researchers as well as teachers, and then add in the idea that the informationist should also be helping explore, evaluate, advocate and teach on how to use emerging information technologies (including technologies associated with information and data processing, analysis an communication (that is, presentation; so things like data visualisation).

So I propose a new take on the informationist, adopting the term proposed in a second take tweet from Lorcan Dempsey: the informationista (which is far more playful, if nothing else, than informationist).

The informationista is someone like I, who tries share contemporary information skills (such as these), through participatory as well as teaching activities, blending techie skills with a library attitude. The informationista is also a hopeful and enthusiastic amateur (in the professional sense…) who explores ways in which new and emerging skills and technologies may be applied to the current situation.

At last, I have found my calling!;-)

See also: Infoskills for the Future – If You Can’t Handle Information, Get Out of the Library (this has dated a bit but there is still quite a bit that can be retrieved from that sort of take, I think…)

PS see also notes on embedded librarians in the comments below.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

One thought on “A New Role for the Library – Gonzo Librarian Informationista”

  1. Notes on: Exploring New Roles for Librarians, Federer, Lisa

    p1: “At the most basic level, a research informationist can be defined as an embedded information professional who provides specialized services to researchers at their point of need, such as in a laboratory or clinical research setting. These specialized services may include a variety of activities spanning the research life cycle, including expert searching, data curation (defined broadly as the various activities required to preserve data for reuse on a long-term basis), and guidance on scholarly communications.”

    p2-3: “As the ways that science is practiced evolve, so too do the information needs of those engaged in research, underscoring the need for information professionals with specialized expertise to help researchers navigate the vast universe of available information.”

    p6: “[A] library is not just a building with many books and journals in it—the library offers services that make research easier and enhance the user experience. Perhaps one of the most important resources in the research library is the reference librarian, who can guide users to information, teach them how to use bibliographic databases, and help give them the skills they need to be lifelong learners.” [TH: Do reference librarians need to expand their role, providing services that show patrons how to use other information discovery services and tools/services that support information discovery, collection and curation in a more general sense?]

    p10: “Research informationists also have a role in the research team as instructors of information and data literacy. Very few academic science programs teach their students data management; it is assumed that they will learn these practices hands-on from their mentors as they work in labs. However, these more senior scientists have rarely received any formal training in data management either, and instead have developed ad hoc practices for lab organization. While some labs follow good data management practices, many do not, such as by failing to back up their data on a regular basis or naming their files and coding their data in ways that make sense to them but would be impossible for others to understand. Research informationists who spend time in the lab have an opportunity to provide on-the-spot instruction to the research team on best practices for data management. Working with students in the lab is particularly important in helping to create a new generation of scientists who are trained in proper techniques for managing their data.”

    p14-15 Emphasis on the “data reference interview”, coming to an understanding of the data collection, metadata and preservation needs of the user. So this is like helping a user get their head around managing a bibliography in the sense of both citation as well as physical/digital copies, perhaps as well as version control. (Do libraries teach document version control?) Data Reference Librarian may also support in discovery of relevant legacy datasets. [TH: but there is nothing here about skills in general sense associated with making sense of data, “critical reading” of data wares, effective querying of datasets (going from Boolean search to SQL etc?]

    s3.2 Data Literacy – seems to be an emphasis on /data management/? But: p16: ‘The Association of College & Research Libraries defines information literacy as “the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information” (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014). Traditional information literacy instruction focuses on teaching students how to be information literate so that they are confident in their ability to independently address their own information needs. In the same sense, an individual who is data literate has learned the skills to gather, organize, describe, analyze, preserve, and share data.’

    p24-25 ‘Most librarians have enough experience with literature searching that they can generally find their way around even when presented with a bibliographic database they’ve never used before. However, bibliographic databases are not the only information resources that researchers use in their daily work. Researchers in many fields rely on specialized databases containing information such as chemical structures, genetic sequences, and other types of data. Informationists should familiarize themselves with the information resources that may be applicable to researchers they assist.
    It may not be feasible for informationists without a background in science to use these resources to the same extent that a well-versed researcher can….However, informationists should at least familiarize themselves with what kinds of questions each resource can answer and any additional search features available, such as controlled vocabularies or ontologies used in the database, whether Boolean searches can be used, and whether specific fields are searchable. Many researchers do not use the full range of features available in a database, instead simply typing their query in natural language into the basic search box. While such simplistic searches may retrieve some information, consultation from an informationist who can provide guidance on use of advanced search features will likely yield more satisfying results.
    Advances in technology also provide new and more powerful methods for searching the scientific literature. Resources that utilize semantic web and natural language processing technologies allow researchers to uncover previously unnoticed associations within a body of literature. … The complexity of language…makes natural language processing challenging, and most technology has not yet reached the point that text can be automatically interpreted with the necessary degree of accuracy. Informationists should remain aware of developments in these fields and related areas so as to be prepared to advise researchers of emerging technologies that may be of relevance to their work.’

    p27: ‘In an age when digital communication provides instant access to a whole world of information, libraries and librarians must evolve to remain relevant and meet the changing needs of their users. Most importantly, librarians must recognize that they cannot wait for their users to come to them—they must go to their users and make a compelling case for what the library can do for the users. The traditional tasks of the academic library must continue—reference services, maintaining the collection, cataloging and organizing information, and preserving valuable intellectual and cultural resources—but the 21st century library must also find new ways to engage their users and hire information professionals with the skills to do so.’

    p28: ‘With budget cuts becoming increasingly common and with many hospital libraries shuttering their doors for good, it is essential that libraries demonstrate their value. Providing research informationist services brings visibility to the library by sending an individual out into the spaces where users are doing their work. Research informationist services also help change users’ perception of the library—rather than simply a place that holds books, the library provides valuable, cutting-edge services to solve problems for which users would not typically look to the library. ‘

    p29: “Libraries must seek out new opportunities for collaboration and create new relationships and alliances. Library directors should encourage their librarians to explore new opportunities and create an environment that fosters creativity and inventiveness. Librarians also must be willing to step outside of their usual roles and explore new venues in which their skills would be needed. Rather than viewing the changing information landscape as a threat, librarians should challenge themselves to look for new ways to use their expertise and engage with their users.
    As the ways that users find, access, and use information evolves, libraries must remain agile and respond to the changing needs of their users. One of the key points to remember in a reference interview is that the user may not be able to articulate or even be aware of his or her true information need. That same awareness should be brought to the development of new library services, addressing users’ needs even if they are not aware that they had the need. Whether they are called librarians or informationists or something else entirely, information professionals must think about new ways to apply their skills and keep in mind their own advice to be lifelong learners.”

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