My time in Chemistry – Isobel Stark


I am not a chemist, in fact I have not seriously studied chemistry since I was 18 but I am a Chemistry Librarian and have been for most of the professional career.  I know where to point chemists when they are looking for information, what new publications my academics will be interested in, and how to do structure searches in chemical databases but I am most definitely not a chemist.

I never had the opportunity to see how chemists work on a daily basis until recently, when I had a placement as embedded librarian for two months as part of the ITaaU programme. I was to work alongside members of the Characterisation and Analytics Research Group in the Department of Chemistry, in particular a group of seven research students supervised by Dr Simon Coles. My primary purpose was to inculcate a culture of good practise in data handling within the group to enable easy reuse of the data both by the students themselves and others. Secondary outcomes included development and enhancement of training materials relating to research data management.

I was given a desk space within the group, directly alongside the students. Rather than work fulltime, I choose to work part-time within the group for a longer period, in order to better get to know the way the students worked. I undertook unstructured interviews with the students and discussed with them how they could further improve their practise. Two of the students were in their final year and close to writing up, one had recently started, and two were Erasmus students, a doctoral student and an undergraduate on placement. Talking with the students and discussing how they worked was incredibly interesting and useful, not only because the students furnished me with some excellent quotes to reuse in the research data management training materials we were developing, but because the issues they had had and were having in handling their working data were actual, concrete examples. With my work in the Library Research Data Management team we usually helped researchers when they were in their planning stages at grant application time, or at the other end of the research cycle when they were depositing their data.  Issues with day-to-day handling of working data were something to which we simply did not have access.

Working physically close to the staff and students also led to some serendipitous moments: overheard conversations about problems which I, as a librarian, was best placed to solved, for example Endnote queries. When confident of my professional ability, I have a capacity to be rather brazen about butting into conversations and I did this a few times during my secondment. When I reported this back to my colleagues in the Library, there was some weary resignation at the limited knowledge of what we can do for our users. While I believe the academic staff have a good idea of how I can help, I think there is more work I need to do with the postgraduate community and I hope this secondment will be the seed from which that work can grow.

While I had expected to gain a greater understanding of what the day-to-day working practices were of a research scientist and had hoped that my time in Chemistry would expand the knowledge within the department of what librarians can do for researchers, there were a couple of fringe benefits which I had not expected. One was suddenly having card access to buildings which were not open to the general University community making it so much easier to visit my academics; another was being added to internal mailing lists which again helped me keep up to date with doings within the department I was employed to support. Little things but little things which have made my work just slighter easier since the end of my secondment.

There are, on reflection, of course some things I would do differently if I had my time again (and I gladly would have my time again). I think I would have set office hours rather than the more random hours I had chosen in the hope to catch more researchers. I think it would have been better for colleagues to know exactly when I was about.  Related to that, I should have sent all researchers in the department to let them know when and where I was going to be in the department: although the Hartley Library is physically close to the Chemistry department, there is always that barrier of walking out of your building when you only want a quick question answered. I would also allow more time to get through Ethics clearance for the interviews which was far more rigorous than I was expecting. Most of all, however, I would make sure I knew what the coffee culture was within the section and make sure I was up front about asking to be included. It seemed to be an unspoken rule that people would just get up and leave but I never knew if they were leaving to check instrumentation or whether they were going for a coffee break in the common room. The Common Room is an excellent place to talk to people and have serendipitous moments and I feel I could have achieved even more if I had managed to break into it.

I would jump at the chance to do another stint as an embedded librarian. Having done it once and having learnt some lessons, I know I could definitely achieve more a second time around, if of course they wanted me. I would certainly recommend the experience to other academic librarians if they get the chance.

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