Librarian on the “Domino Effect” of Faculty Partnerships

Bertha Chang
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Bertha Chang has been an engineering subject liaison at North Carolina State University since 2011. She recently won a JoVE Librarian Travel Award to attend the 2018 Charleston Conference.


Tell us something about how you began to explore outreach.

I began working as an engineering librarian at the NCSU Libraries in 2011. As a new librarian and also as someone new to NC State, I was very curious to learn about my campus users – what did they need, how did they do their work, did they use library resources, and, if so, how?

How did you start learning about your campus users?

Fortuitously, as part of a user study to collect intel in preparation for a new library building, one of my first projects involved analyzing transcripts from interviews conducted with STEM faculty and graduate students. What I learned from these transcripts gave me a good starting point as I began working with engineering students and faculty. Since then, outreach has been an important element of my work. While there is always a place for ways of widely publicizing library services (such as using email blasts or taking part at new student information fairs), these [methods] tend to be more impersonal, with information going primarily in one direction. The most successful approaches for outreach should be rooted in two-way communication that simultaneously uncovers users’ needs while building strong relationships, particularly with faculty.

Those first interviews led to where?

The wealth of information in these interviews showed me the value of this approach. I have conducted user studies on a regular basis ever since. These studies have helped us to better understand the needs of engineering patrons in a variety of areas, including the use of library spaces, data management practices, and research service needs.

Can you elaborate on the types of user studies you’ve conducted?

Over the years, the studies have varied from in-depth interviews with faculty and graduate students, to both long-form and lightweight surveys, and to observational studies in library spaces. I have found that interviews and surveys are essentially two-way conversations — as we are learning about the needs of our users, we can impart value-added information at the same time.

Interview and survey subjects have commented afterwards that prior to the study, they had been unaware of specific resources available from the NCSU Libraries. In some cases, initial interactions from studies have led patrons to request further support from librarians, such as asking us to hold data management consultations with faculty, and to provide a new workshop on literature searching and literature reviews (for new mechanical and aerospace engineering graduate students). What we have learned from these studies has helped us fine-tune other aspects of our outreach, such as the content covered in library instruction or new student orientations and in the provision of research services.

You see the importance of working directly with faculty, as well?

Building working relationships has been absolutely fundamental in informing my outreach strategies and those of my fellow liaison librarians. By meeting with engineering faculty regularly, including directors of graduate programs, directors of undergraduate studies, and department heads, I create opportunities not only to support faculty research, but also to reach STEM students. This is especially important because it can be challenging to reach STEM undergraduates. They are not typically regular users of library information resources, due in part to the heavy focus on problem sets in many of their classes, and they do not often come into the library with questions. Instead, by partnering with faculty, we have been able to increase our interactions with engineering students and establish relationships through the counsel of their principal investigators and instructors.

The relationships keep paying domino dividends, yes?

Each relationship with a faculty member or a student is reinforced by continued engagement. It leads to new relationships and new outreach opportunities to reach more STEM students and faculty. One example is an initial meeting I had with a new director of graduate programs in 2012. The first outcome was an invitation to talk about library resources to her sophomore-level seminar, followed by the chance to participate in the department’s new graduate student orientation.

In following years, she invited me to participate on two National Science Foundation proposals, the second of which resulted in the establishment of an NSF Research Traineeship program for graduate students in engineering and statistics. This has allowed me to interact regularly with this group of students, including developing a workshop for them on research data management, and helping them leverage the high-tech spaces in the Hunt Library for seminars and the testing of molecular visualization software.

NSF Research Traineeship program support: testing of molecular visualization software in the Hunt Library’s Teaching & Visualization Laboratory

The tighter the relationship, the better, yes?

This domino-effect regularly happens where there are strong faculty relationships. Our support of Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs in two of our engineering departments is an excellent example. In both cases, faculty members who organized the departmental graduate-level library workshops I taught subsequently invited me to present on library resources to students in their new REU programs. Over the years, I have involved my colleagues in these sessions, which has helped broaden the relationships between the NCSU Libraries and these faculty members.

Partnerships can also lead to interesting experiments. One faculty member wanted to see if the Hunt Library’s high-tech spaces could enhance the weekly classroom-based problem-solving sessions in her chemical engineering class. By taking advantage of the ceiling-to-floor whiteboard walls in these spaces, she could observe the students solving problems in real-time and provide on-the-spot feedback. Although only a one-time experiment, this relationship later led to workshops for undergraduate researchers, taught by my colleagues.

Chemical Engineering 205: problem-solving sessions held in the Creativity Studio at the Hunt Library

Can you update us on recent activity?

We developed a new form of outreach, where engineering librarians are embedded in faculty members’ research groups. By attending a group’s weekly meetings, each of us observed the research process unfold in real-time and provided tailored support for that group’s needs. To keep this approach sustainable, each librarian worked with only one or two groups at any given time. They would rotate periodically into new groups. This lab-embedded liaison approach created the perfect environment for that critical two-way street of communication where librarians can provide support — but also learn directly about how researchers work and what their needs are.

Any big lessons to share?

Over the years, I have found that outreach (based on communication and strong relationships) has been consistently the most valuable and effective approach. This more personalized type of outreach has been particularly effective in reaching those STEM faculty and students we might otherwise have missed. Although these methods may not necessarily generate instant results, investing in them has yielded a steady growth in our provision of services where we meet our users’ needs.