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Postdocs & Libraries: Resources You May Not Know You Have

17th November 2014
By Phill Jones

Rick Anderson is the Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.  He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and writes an occasional op-ed column for Against the Grain entitled “In My Humble (But Correct) Opinion.” He is also a chef at the Scholarly Kitchen and a popular speaker on subjects related to the future of scholarly communication and information services in higher education.

Like most academic librarians, I tend to refer to the constituency I serve on my campus as “students and faculty.” That phrase is accurate as far as it goes, but in recent months I’ve become increasingly aware that it leaves out what can be a very significant group of library stakeholders, especially on the campuses of research universities: the group commonly known as “postdocs,” or postdoctoral scholars, doctorate-holding researchers who are (according to the definition provided by the National Postdoctoral Association) “engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring scholarly, scientific and/or professional skills needed to pursue… career path[s] of [their] choosing.”

The greatest resources can remain hidden. The treasury at Petra, courtesy of amarune at flickr.

Postdocs are similar to adjunct faculty in that they’re employed contingently and do not hold tenure-track faculty positions. However, unlike adjuncts, postdocs are typically engaged in laboratory or clinical research rather than classroom teaching. For this reason they can be almost invisible on campus, particularly to those of us who work in libraries and may never have a natural opportunity to interact with them directly.

How many postdocs are we talking about? In 2012, the National Science Foundation counted 62,851 in the science, engineering, and health fields at U.S. academic institutions—a 40% increase since 2002.

Earlier this year a science librarian at New Mexico State University named Nirmala Gunapala published a study of postdocs’ research practices and support needs. At the end of the paper, the author recommended several steps libraries can take to provide better support. These include:

  1. Offer library orientation sessions at the beginning of every postdoc’s term, partly to ensure that the postdoc knows what services are available and partly to make his or her needs known to the librarian charged with supporting his or her discipline.
  2. Set up regular librarian visits to the research facility itself.
  3. Offer guidance on the ethical use of information resources and on compliance with federal or funder regulations (such as Open Access deposit requirements).
  4. Create online guides to provide ongoing information and support.
  5. Create and offer library workshops on a regular basis.

The bad news is that it’s so easy for the needs of postdocs to remain below the library’s perceptual horizon, hidden behind those of regular and adjunct faculty and students who frequent the library both physically and virtually. The good news is that librarians will, almost without exception, respond positively and even enthusiastically when such needs are brought to their attention.

If you’re invisible, then you can’t wait around for someone to see you. You have to make some noise. What are your pain points? At what points in your research process do you repeatedly run into roadblocks and frustration? For example, have you been assigned to check compliance on past papers from a multi-year project, gathering PMCIDs and following up as needed? Call a librarian—any librarian on your campus will do to start with—and tell him or her what your difficulties are. I think I can promise you that the person you speak with will either help you herself, or will connect you with someone who can. Many research libraries actually have a scholarly-communication specialist who would be happy to take on some of that work for you. And if you offer to help the library design a more programmatic and systematic structure for providing support to you and your colleagues, I think you’ll find that the response is equally enthusiastic. Assuming you have time, of course. If you don’t then don’t worry about it—once the librarians on your campus have been sensitized to your needs and frustrations they’ll probably be coming to you regularly to see how you’re doing.

To those of you reading this posting who supervise postdocs, please encourage them to reach out to the library—there are smart, well-informed people there (if we do say so ourselves) ready and willing to lift some of your burden and help you get back to what you do best: research.

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