The Interdisciplinary Science Library

Information experts consider how shifts in research change their role.
June 17, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Carol Tenopir envisions academe as entirely connected. With interdisciplinary research creating more and more fields of study throughout higher education, university libraries are becoming the hub of the growing body of academic work spawned by these new disciplines. In a session here at the Special Libraries Association annual meeting, she told the audience that information professionals should embrace these new bodies of interdisciplinary thought both by helping scholars to access them and by taking an active role in compiling them.

Tenopir, who is a professor and director of research for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's communication and information college, spoke of her research over the past 30 years, noting that between the 1960s and 1990s, the number of peer-reviewed science journals doubled -- following the same growth in scientific disciplines.

"If you draw a line between the growth of science journals and the growth of science, it's almost an exact match," she said.

With the accessibility of the Internet intersecting with the growth of interdisciplinary study, scientists are now reading a much wider array of journals than ever before. Whereas in 1977 scientists on average read at least one article in 13 journals per year, in 1995 scientists read 18, in 2003 they read 23, and in 2005 they read 33. An increase in the number of journals and articles read, she said, means that scientists are now reading each article much more quickly than before.

Tenopir spoke of a 2007 survey conducted in Finland that asked academics to classify themselves as either interdisciplinary or single-disciplinary scholars. Interdisciplinary scholars were more likely to read journal articles on the computer screen or print them out from the Internet, and the library was also by far their biggest source of information. They were also least likely to use a personal source to find their readings, showing that their scholarly information was more accessible to the general population.

Furthermore, interdisciplinary scholars were likely to find sources in other disciplines based on linked citations or other networked sources. Tenopir called this a snowball effect, since accelerating the use of interdisciplinary sources also advances thought in the two fields themselves. These scholars were described as valuing textbooks and conference proceedings less, as well as being older.

Amid all of these advances, though, institutional libraries remain the biggest source of information in interdisciplinary research, she said. For this reason, they play a large role in how the tree of science continues to branch out. While helping researchers to navigate their way through these fields is a more "passive" task that information professionals should take on, Tenopir outlined an opportunity for libraries to lead the way in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Data Observation Network for Earth, headed by Bill Michener of the University of New Mexico and funded by the National Science Foundation, is Tenopir's most recent project. The idea behind DataONE is to compile all research data into select cyberinfrastructure around the world in order to avoid losing it when researchers retire or natural disasters occur. The data would combine resources from libraries, scientific expertise, and even personal records by citizen collectors. The data would be cataloged in order to ensure easy replication and noted with the ways it should be used. Tenopir encouraged all information professionals in the audience to get involved by providing access to library collections and leading the way in establishing a framework for this new project.

"This is an NSF initiative that not only demands inter-disciplinary work, but recognizes information professionals and libraries as leaders in this type of work," she said. "The belief is that libraries should take a key role in bringing these groups together."

DataONE has not officially begun collecting data, but will be publicly announcing its goals soon, Tenopir said. In the meantime, some institutions have already taken on the task of collecting academic work and data on a smaller scale. In response to an audience question, Daureen Nesdill, interim head of the Science and Engineering Library at the University of Utah and a panelist at the talk, noted that Utah had already set up a similar network for academic work within the university.

"I brought the idea to our vice president, and he said this was something we actually need. Since then, I have promoted it to other faculty," she said, noting that Google Scholar studies come from institutional repositories.

Multiple audience members asked how libraries can respond to the changing needs of interdisciplinary scholars.

Nesdill noted that three years ago Utah replaced departments with interdisciplinary teams in the library system. Researchers need to know where they can find necessary resources, she said, a service better provided by a team of people who know the entire library system. Kevin Lindstrom, reference librarian at the University of British Columbia and another panelist at the talk, said that his institution has similarly begun less formal collaborative efforts between library staff.

But with many universities in dire economic states, the panelists lamented that they were somewhat limited by a shortage of librarians on staff. "The word library seems like it's always a target for being cut," said Brandy King, the librarian for Harvard's Center for on Media and Child Health and one of the panelists.

Nonetheless, Tenopir sees interdisciplinary research -- and eventually transdisciplinary work, which moves past discipline-specific theories and concepts -- as a trend likely to increase in the academic world. In the closing of her talk, she expressed that information professionals need to "reach across the aisle and help others to do so."


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