Oct 24, 2013

Faculty engagement for librarians and curators

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral fellowships in data curation encourage connections between library, technology and research. CLIR fellows are hosted by a variety of institutions and have widely varying skills and responsibilities. Every month they (we) get together to discuss current issues and challenges related to digital curation. The most recent session focused on faculty engagement and featured two guests: Gabrielle Dean, the curator of literary rare books and manuscripts at Johns Hopkins University and Kelly Miller, the director of teaching and learning services and head of the college library at UCLA. Two current CLIR fellows, John Kratz and Bridget Whearty, led the session.

The notes below are my attempt to synthesize many useful pieces of advice and information shared during that session.

Engagement in the context of librarians/curators working with faculty is a relatively new term. Previously, the word "outreach" was used more often. "Outreach" has a sense of a method or certain approach, e.g., providing guidelines or distributing best practices. "Engagement" has a sense of participation, shared goals and activities. As any other type of engagement, faculty engagement is rather difficult. So here are some tips:

  • Set small goals and gradually extend your network, because engagement is an incremental activity that involves trust, relationship building and a lot of trials and errors.
  • Be positive (or even nice and cheerful if you can), your positive attitude toward your and other’s work will pass to others and invite them to be more open and interactive.
  • Be modest. Not that many people may be interested in the library and its services, automatically assuming that it’s valuable to others may backfire.
  • Be curious. Engagement is an opportunity to learn about many interesting things and people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or even be naive sometimes, it will pay off in more knowledge and more connections.
  • Always say "yes" (within reasonable limits). This may be important at the beginning of engagement initiatives. Willingness to do the work communicates good will and stimulates interest. Get involved in possibly tangential projects, attend informal gatherings, create connections and then follow up and maintain connections via phone calls, emails, newsletters, etc.
  • Learn "the language". Engaging other audiences sometimes means getting into conversations without adequate background knowledge or expertise. Learning about faculty research in advance can help with terminology and ability to ask intelligent questions.
  • Talk, don't just listen. Listening is useful, but it’s also important to talk. Conversing, (i.e., listening, asking questions, and encouraging others to ask questions) helps to find shared points or issues to address.
  • Look for creative opportunities for engagement, e.g., shared learning, teaching, activist and interest groups, and so on. Engagement doesn't have to be limited to faculty. Engaging other interested groups, including undergraduate students, local schools, or private organizations can be useful and quite rewarding.
  • Seek effective ways of gathering information. Some faculty may not be responsive to emails or phone calls, graduate students may be more responsive to certain requests, surveys are not effective due to low response rate. Sometimes it depends on the institution and the nature of curated content. Think through priorities, audiences, and context in order to get best results.
  • Mistakes happen. False starts and even failures in faculty engagement are common for everyone. Rather than dwelling on mistakes, try to learn from them and do better next time.
  • Avoid political entanglements and personal battles. These things happen in many if not all organizations. To maintain a good working environment, try to stay positive, focus on the goals, look for opportunities to be creative and don’t take matters personally.

I wish there was more literature (both formal and informal) on this topic that could answer questions and help in practice. For example, what should someone know before starting a job that involves faculty engagement? Are there certain skill that might be helpful? What is the nature of the relationship between curators and faculty - is it a peer-to-peer or a nurse-doctor relationship? Can/should it be changed? What are the best ways to gather information about your targeted audiences and their needs? So on and so forth.

To stimulate a discussion on this topic and, perhaps, encourage more writing, an engagement interest group has been created within the Research Data Alliance (RDA). The group has a narrower focus, because it emphasizes the engagement of researchers and other stakeholders in research data sharing and re-use. Nevertheless, it may be a good platform for continuing a conversation on engagement and building a knowledge base/wiki.