Are RLs (Research Librarians) just veritable RAs?

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The IFN614 Twitter Chat on research support provided by libraries delivered a healthy debate about the nature of the role that libraries and librarians should have in research, the types of partnerships librarians should have with researchers and the possible drawbacks of academic libraries allocating a significant proportion of their budget to research support.

As a ‘Twitter Chat Champion’ for this chat, I’ve decided to focus on the unresolved issue about the distinction between the role of the research librarian compared to the research assistant. Keller (2015) in her article on research support in Australian libraries, attributes the genuine partnerships that Australian academic libraries have in research to the fact that the value of universities in this country is judged almost exclusively on research performance. Hence, for libraries to add value to the university, they must support, as is the case with QUT Library, “researchers at each stage of the research lifecycle, from the formulation of new ideas, assistance with funding, and the research process itself.” Conversely, research assistants are seen as equally important in the research process in Australian universities as cited by Hutchinson et al (2005) and McDaniel (n.d)  who see research assistants being tasked with contributing ideas to the research project, preparing materials for submission to granting agencies and foundations, as well as data collection, coding and analysis as fundamental to improving research outcomes. However, I could not find any literature that gave a clear distinction between the nature of research support  given by academic libraries as opposed to research assistants and this lack of clarity was clearly seen as an area for exploration from the number of tweets referring to it as seen below.


Given that many universities are operating on lean budgets, I feel that there needs to be a clear line as to what support RLs and RAs are giving so that there is not a duplication of effort and therefore inefficient use of resources. Hence, I sought the insight of a former RA and current PhD student in linguistics at the University of Queensland (UQ), Jayden Macklin-Cordes.

His responses to a series of interview questions that I posed helps to clarify the RL/RA distinction in the context of UQ linguistics research. To summarise, Jayden sees RLs and RAs bringing entirely different skill sets to projects. The librarians’ value is in their knowledge of how to organise and manage data/databases, sort out the best workflow and also advise on legal aspects around publishing/copyright/community issues. The UQ library also provides access to original materials. Once all that architecture of the project is in place, RAs do the more arduous data entry and analysis tasks for which linguistic training is necessary. Beyond this, the library provides an avenue for publishing the output researchers produce and incorporating that appropriately with the University’s system. He states that preparing for fieldwork and successively returning with hard-drives and notebooks filled to the brim has made him really appreciate how much is involved in the kinds of information management and data organisation/storage/publication tasks that librarians are good at and sees this as an entire field of work beyond which linguists are trained for.
Although he states that digitization of old materials may be one area in which librarian and RA tasks might overlap, he does not see librarians ever making RAs redundant as the tasks which have been passed on to research librarians are those that frustrate RAs and researchers as they take up time, tie up resources and eat research budgets. He affirms that, “for every hour’s worth of work which a librarian can do for us, probably faster and with better results, is an extra hour freed-up so our RA can spend doing more linguistic analysis. The less time we spend mucking around with tasks for which we’re untrained and ill-equipped and the more time we can spend actually doing real linguistics, the better.”
So armed with this insight, it is very reassuring to hear that academic libraries and librarians are not defacto RAs but  have their distinct place in research support and offer a skill set that assists RAs and researchers to concentrate on their specific role.
Many thanks to Sharee Cordes for putting me in contact with her son, Jayden, and to Jayden Macklin-Cordes for the comprehensiveness of his responses to my queries.

Comments 14

  • Great post Lisa,

    I thought this was an interesting point brought up in the twitter chat, but I completely agree with your stance and Jayden’s assessment. Having worked as an RA for a little over a year with the School of Justice, I can attest to the fact there is much that an RA does which could not be done by most librarians. I worked on several projects where I coded qualitative data; looking for key words, themes, relationships, non-relationships, gaps, new themes which we hadn’t expected to find – the list goes on. This is quite specialist work, you would certainly need to have an excellent understanding of the literature around the research topic and an understanding of justice and criminology (as well as the small niche focus area of the paper) to know what you’re looking for.

    Certainly, librarians added to the process and helped a great deal with data management and training me to use software like NVIVO and EndNote which were critical to the project. However, I don’t think many researchers would expect a librarian to ‘get down and dirty’ as it were with the raw data to turn it into something they could write about in their research. I think the roles of RAs and RLs are very separate, but equally important to the research process. I certainly don’t think either role is in any real danger of doing the other out of their job.

    Definitely an interesting point to bring up though, and a great discussion during the Twitter Chat this week. I think it’s important to understand the different roles of everyone involved in the research process, recognise that each is unique and important and see the whole research process as a collaboration where different people bring their different skills to the table for one common goal.

    • Thanks for your comment Kylie. I think I published my post prematurely so you got to comment on the unpolished product. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective and I’m glad that you elaborated here. If I hadn’t been able to find another RA, I was going to seek your feedback as you mentioned in the chat that you had been an RA but thought you would cover your thoughts on this in your own post. Anyway, I loved your tweet about how nice it would have been to have been able to talk a librarian into coding/analysing the data for you!

      • Oh! Maybe so, I was a bit excited about your blog so I might have jumped the gun – apologies! It certainly would have been nice to have someone else code all those qualitative interviews for me 😛 (well, I mostly loved it but you know, sometimes it gets a bit samey!). I think this was an interesting discussion during the Twitter Chat and a very worthy topic to unpack. I certainly think that having done RA work will make me a more useful research librarian if that’s the way things end up going – knowing the quirks of commonly used software and how to manage data effectively are at the crux of the job, after all!

  • I feel like the argument of RA vs librarian is like the argument about the automation of jobs – sure, the robots/librarians might take the jobs, but there will always be people to service the robots/help the librarians more specifically. Ok, maybe it was a bad metaphor. The point is, librarians can provide more general support, whereas RAs are much more indepth and widespread in their knowledge.

    • Hi Karina. Thanks for your feedback. I think I published my post prematurely so you got to comment on the unpolished product. As Jayden pointed out, librarians are not subject specialists so they cannot analyse the data which would require, in his field, specialist linguistics training. However, I think it would be difficult to build a robotics program to replace the knowledge and skills that a research librarian needs, i.e, organisation and management of data/databases, evaluation of the best workflow and a comprehensive knowledge of the legal aspects around publishing, copyright and community issues.

  • I’m so glad that you looked into this, Lisa! I did find it interesting that my tweet caused so much of a stir!
    And thanks to Jayden for giving his input too! I like that the sorts of tasks he describes as being frustrating to librarians are some of the things I enjoy the most, heehee. 😛

    • Hi Bec. I’m glad you raised the question. Interestingly enough, when I put the hashtag into my tweet deck and added the column before last Monday’s tweet, I scrolled through the twitter chat on the same topic from last year, and the two issues that were the most hotly debated were the RL vs RA distinction and undergraduates being overlooked due to libraries throwing their time and money into research support.

  • Hi Lisa, Good learning for me to read your post . I suspect we all can hotly debate a few things without knowing enough hard facts so excellent due diligence! Anitra

    • Hi Anitra. Thanks for your comment. I hear you: I often wish I had more personal experience and “hard facts” to justify my opinions on the issues we’re discussing rather than just drawing on research findings and my gut feelings. It’s especially hard when you can’t find any readings in a specific area, such as, “How is a research assistant’s role different from that of a research librarian’s?” Hence, Jayden’s insight as an insider was so valuable!

  • Oh Lisa, that sounds like a very astute young researcher that you interviewed there! Great post!

  • Hi Lisa
    What a great post and it’s wonderful that you had the opportunity to speak to an industry professional who was willing to share his knowledge, experience and perspective on RL vs RA. This post makes sense of the debate for me because of the practical advice offered in relation to a very complex field. It is very difficult to read between the lines in the literature to make a personal assessment of what is and what is not relevant in this field. I totally agree with you about just drawing on research findings and gut feelings – person to person conversations are so much more informative.

    • Thanks Helen. I was very lucky in that Sharee’s son had been a research assistant prior to commencing his PhD so I asked her if she could put me in contact with him. Having him clarify the differing roles between RAs and RLs from his perspective, as an ‘insider’, allowed me to understand the differentiation far more than any research paper could have!!

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