A Practitioner’s Guide to Serious Play in the Library

By Reid Boehm and Taylor Davis-Van Atta

In brief

For academic libraries, making investments that strengthen and integrate research and development (R&D) capacity may also disrupt long-established norms and structures both within the library and across an institution. This article analyzes the authors’ experiences as well as the existing literature in order to highlight cultural pain points of R&D capacity-building, then proposes that the implementation of new library-based R&D operations can be an opportunity for intentional and inclusive community-building to form within institutions, not only around modern research methods but also around foundational support structures. The authors advocate and articulate a step-by-step framework toward the examination of organizational and institutional relationships from a community-based perspective.


Many academic libraries are moving through an evolutionary phase in how they imagine and articulate their role in relation to their home institution’s research mission. In some cases, the urge to evolve is provoked by institutional benchmarks intended to measure how the library contributes to research productivity; in others, researcher needs are driving changes in how the library positions itself within its particular context; while elsewhere, a simple desire to raise the library’s status in industry rankings or replicate perceived “successes” at peer institutions can be a primary motivator. In 2006, James G. Neal summarized the role of academic libraries in the research and development (R&D) landscape, concluding that “American universities have developed over the last 50 years as major centers of R&D activity and technology transfer… Libraries [meanwhile] have not advanced an R&D capacity or commitment. This needs to change” (1). In the fifteen years since, things have indeed changed, however disjointedly. The academic library profession today is consumed in conversation around “the research lifecycle,” including large-scale issues of service model design and implementing new spaces or units devoted to R&D, along with micro issues such as infrastructural support for “boutique” research products. “Strategic investments in R&D and allocation of resources to R&D units,” Craig Gibson wrote in 2009, “are looming questions for all academic libraries” (308). Indeed, countless topics arise as academic libraries grapple with the demands of their particular moment and context, but industry trends suggest broad investments of funding, physical spaces, and staffing to establish units dedicated to making direct contributions to research, which library administrators often view as key to positioning their organization as a central agent in the research mission of the institution. As these units are activated, it is worth discussing how new library-based R&D units can disrupt long-established norms and structures both within an organization and across an institution, and what the implementation process looks like from the perspective of the library practitioner.

The shift toward “library-as-knowledge-creator” presents an opportunity for intentional and inclusive community-building to form within an institution, not only around research methods or practices but also around research support structures. In order to explore this opportunity, we first interrogate the existing literature around library-based R&D, which reveals a noticeable absence of the practitioner’s perspective on the issue of implementation (and which could help explain, in part, why our field is struggling to define its relationship to research production). We draw from past and present experiences as practitioners in multiple academic libraries, all of which have tried in various ways to expand their R&D capacity, then articulate common problems and realities encountered by library practitioners when external researchers are left out of the R&D design process. Finally, we articulate concrete steps and recommendations for fellow practitioners to examine this topic within the context of their home institution.

A reading of the literature around R&D in the library

This article takes into consideration the past thirty years of literature exploring the opportunities, benefits, and challenges of establishing R&D operations in North American and British academic libraries. Those who authored this literature are predominantly in positions of authority within their institutions and the library profession. The bulk of the work was developed between 2004 and 2014 by administrators at ARL institutions with views focused on the administration or management of “innovative” operations (e.g. Jantz, 2017; Zahra and George, 2002) and cultivating return on investment within the academic library community (Cook and Van der Veer Martens, 2019). The early literature (1990-2003) largely assumes a perspective that academic libraries ought to concern themselves with “entrepreneurial” or capital-driven R&D, while tending to be less attuned to the challenges and consequences of introducing this sort of activity within the library context. Neal (2000), for instance, wrote that “innovation” is the key factor that libraries must harness in order to “adopt the culture of enterprise” and act as incubators for revenue-driven projects. In fact, he argued, “the future vitality of academic librarianship depends on it” (3). The spirit of his paper aligns with Cohen and Levinthal (1990), who posited that, within any organization, an increased investment in R&D creates capacity to assimilate and exploit new knowledge that, in turn, enhances the innovativeness of the organization. These early papers exhibit a focus on the library’s contributions to broad economic trends, and assume this to be a virtue of library-based R&D; some even see this as a paradigmatic shift along the lines of a scientific revolution (Neal, 2000). Missing is a discussion around the need to engage with the context and characteristics of a library’s research communities. The lack of detail and clarity about library transformation suggests a vision of innovation formed less from an understanding of researcher needs and more from the trends and aspirations of peer academic libraries.

The culture of the academic library, however, has often been characterized as diverging from that of businesses (see, e.g., Battles, M., 2011). Literature of the mid-2000s begins to reckon with the disconnect between library and business culture and digs into particular challenges of installing R&D units in academic library settings. A fair amount of more recent literature, then, explores the necessary shifts in culture and conditions for a library to foster “entrepreneurial” and “innovative” activities. “For the library,” Jantz wrote in 2017, “the norms of the profession and the bureaucratic traditions of the university are part of the academic culture that limits the organization’s ability to innovate” (34). Deiss (2004) began to break down traditions ingrained in library culture, writing that, historically, “libraries have succeeded in organizing information largely due to the creation of highly effective standards of practice and methods of managing knowledge and information. [But] these standards can stand in the way of innovation simply by their very existence” (24). Applying these same methods and standards to the creation of new information (as much of the early literature assumes) is entirely counterproductive, she argued, since the research process involves categorically different modes of work, thought, and collaboration than does the organization and management of information.

In 2013, Nowviskie introduced her “skunkworks” use case, which accounts for many of the practical challenges discussed in previous papers. In terms of library structure, Nowviskie argued that any “skunkworks operation” (i.e., a group dedicated to R&D in the library) needs to be in a “protected position,” meaning that the incentives for those practitioners must include the pursuit of their own research agenda, free from administrative interference, and that the policies and procedures at the organization level need to allow for risk-taking, making mistakes, and experimentation—all practices that are known to be essential to fostering innovative thinking within an organization. Nowviskie acknowledged both the difficulties and necessity of establishing such a protected unit within traditional library structures and hierarchies. Libraries that encourage experimentation but whose practitioners must still operate within policies, procedures, and bylaws that purvey an opposite message create what Deiss called “an often unintended ‘fear of risk’ climate… The mixed message is not only a fundamental barrier to innovation; it can also create anxiety in an organization that draws energy away from creative and innovative work” (26).

Craig Gibson (2009) wrote that “research-and-development is as much a matter of values and priorities as of operational planning. A culture of experimentation develops in an explicitly created environment where ‘safe risk-taking’ is encouraged” (2). The literature around the implementation of R&D in the library reveals many pain points or areas of disruption arising out of a few common problems, which can be broadly categorized as 1) the long-established norms in academic libraries and 2) a cross-section of structural challenges. These two categories deserve further elaboration.

The challenge of long-established norms

“Library culture perpetuates some of the more restrictive aspects embedded in the norms and traditions of the profession” (Jantz, 2017, 323). The literature points to complications inherent in many of the standards, procedures, and norms. Developed over centuries, these aspects are deeply embedded in daily practices and understandings among library professionals, most notably: an emphasis on expertise; an unflappable service ethic; and a faith in measurable, visible, and immediate progress.

Librarians are often called upon to serve a particular role as an “expert,” without room for improvisation or veering from the immediate case at hand. This often ingrains a mentality and self-expectation that no other way of functioning is acceptable. As Deiss wrote, “Libraries develop ‘performance oriented’ cultures unlikely to be amenable to ‘practicing’ in real time with real customers. This essentially means that libraries have no practice fields [to] allow individuals and groups to learn in a simulated, or safe, environment” (25). Creating an environment for experimentation and innovation necessitates flexibility, less rigidity around roles, and a more playful or improvisational mentality than librarians are accustomed to. Establishing a unit that organizes around—and celebrates—the “practice field” involves grappling with major shifts in cultural norms and expectations across the library and throughout its hierarchy.

Similarly, the pursuit of new knowledge involves risk-taking and an environment that accommodates and encourages making mistakes, all of which can run counter to the importance librarians place on their service ethic (Jantz, 2017; Nowviskie, 2013). Nowviskie argued that the strong service ethic in library culture is ultimately self-defeating in terms of instilling new cultural norms and putting into place necessary aspects of research infrastructure. “The impulse [for librarians and library staff] is to provide self-effacing service, projecting quiet and efficient perfection, with the abiding goal of not distracting the researcher from his or her work,” which can lead to “an ad-hoc practice of laying a smooth, professional veneer over increasingly decrepit and under-funded infrastructure—effectively, or hiding the messy innards of an organization from one’s faculty” (58). Keeping researchers in the dark about organizational shortcomings in deference to one’s service mentality isolates the researcher and inhibits any cultivation of true partnerships based on trust. Nowviskie evidenced an implementation success story, but others encounter difficulties challenging the organization’s cultural inertia in order to accommodate an R&D unit (Jantz, 2016).

Library achievements, at both the individual and organizational level, are often expected to be quantifiable. However, emphasis on measurable outputs, both in terms of the librarian’s contribution to an R&D environment as well as the research outputs themselves, are contradictory to the “radical innovation” needed to create a functional space or unit or to facilitate and partner on small scale, customized outputs (Cook and Van der Veer Martens, 2019, 609; Vinopal and McCormick, 2013). Iterative experimentation is shot through with uncertainty. Unexpected discovery cannot be reliably quantified, nor is the value of that work easy to communicate without a distinct understanding of how the innovation will ultimately be applied.

Structural challenges

Academic libraries have calcified not only their cultural habits but aspects of their organizational structures and their role on the campus landscape. In general, Deiss (2004) wrote, “mature organizations, by their very nature, seek to ensure continued stability and success through reliance on practices that have worked in the past” (23). Internal library structures as well as divides between librarians and researchers pose major challenges to R&D implementation.

The shift toward more robust R&D operations in libraries puts immediate stress on existing organizational structures or hierarchies as well as budgets and assessment standards, among a host of other norms. Implementation raises a litany of questions, including several listed by James Neal (2006): 

Should the R&D program be sustained as a series of projects or as a systematic enterprise? Should the R&D program be based in a center or distributed across the organization? Should the center be separate with its own dedicated staff or more integrated, involving library staff in research projects? How will the resource development mandate be implemented and the grants application process be organized and staffed? Will the R&D program be subsidized or self-sustaining? Will there be an expectation or requirement that results of the R&D program be shared in appropriate professional forums and publications? (2)

Perhaps because these questions strike at the foundation of an organization, the literature reports many instances where libraries have attempted to strengthen their R&D capacity in a piecemeal or incremental manner often without considering existing silos (Carrol, 2014; Gibson 2009). A 2020 OCLC report (Bryant, et al.) finds that people who inhabit these emergent roles experience isolation, most often from the lack of a team, lack of resources or support, and sometimes an overburdened role (33). Vinopal and McCormick (2013) provided a much-needed practitioner perspective, observing that “those charged with creating Digital Scholarship services often have considerable responsibility to accomplish initiatives without the authority to mobilize the resources needed to succeed” (15). Several others argued that a piecemeal approach is insufficient at best and counter-productive at worst (Cook and Van der Veer Martens, 2019; Gibson, 2009; Nowviskie, 2013). As Gibson put it, “research-and-development needs to become a strategic priority at the enterprise and organizational level” (309). Nowviskie confirmed this, discussing the inevitable difficult conversations that arise when one (innovation-oriented) unit or department is perceived by others (operational) to be given privileges or exceptional working conditions (65).

Additionally, there is a dearth of literature exploring cultural and collaborative divides between librarians and researchers within the context of library-based R&D. What exists (and what we’ve collected anecdotally) suggests dramatically different systems at play. As Haythornthwaite, et al., (2006) wrote, “interdisciplinary teams are typically composed of experts…who are entrenched to differing degrees within a disciplinary framework, [which is] deeply ingrained and often invisible” (146). Like all multidisciplinary R&D settings, then, “the ability to collaborate effectively…across organizational lines and cultural divides, is a challenge,” Jantz wrote (2009). “In the future, librarians will need to engage in research and develop new products and services through collaboration with computer scientists, media experts, digital production staff, linguists, data scientists, software engineers, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and others unknown at this time, depending on the expertise needed for specific projects.” A willingness by librarians and library staff to immerse themselves in other perspectives and disciplinary worlds is both necessary and messy, and librarians must drop professional veneers in favor of that messiness. And without researchers’ deep engagement in planning and implementation, R&D operations will get developed in isolation from their intended users and suffer from a lack of engagement.

A community-based proposal

As we’ve seen, the literature often articulates cultural distinctions between library practitioners who engage in R&D and those who work in the “operational” arms of the library. This disconnect perpetuates the trope of “old” versus “new” ways of practicing librarianship, when the need is for active inclusion of multiple perspectives across a range of stakeholders to connect researchers, librarians, administrators, and infrastructural technicians. To best support scholars, library-based services and infrastructure need to be collaborative, community-driven acts in which researchers and colleagues across the library are part of the development process. Without the consideration of all these perspectives, dominant views will uphold existing barriers. The needs of the library practitioners involved in the day-to-day functioning of services and the needs of those for whom the support is developed will not be fully realized. We propose a community-based approach to R&D implementation that is inclusive of multiple stakeholder perspectives and values them as integral to shaping and sustaining relevant operations. Such an approach considers the interrelated actions and cultural considerations among all involved.

Defining community relationships

Our community-based perspective is defined by the groups whose voices are essential to shaping and maintaining library-based innovation processes. Implementing R&D units within the library requires at least three cross-disciplinary and cross-professional relationships: between administrators and practitioners within the library; between practitioners across library units; and between library practitioners and the research community. The figure below represents these three relationships and their positioning within the library and wider campus research communities.

Meeting the needs of researchers necessitates seeking out and sustaining partnerships devoted to understanding specifications around the functional and technical requirements of systems and merging skills and knowledge across units. For example, a critical part of developing an R&D unit is increasing the capacity of the technological systems that support digital research practices and outputs. It is necessary to build an understanding among stakeholders that advancing infrastructure involves more than simple upgrades to the technology. We might understand this as a two-part system of engagement between multiple stakeholders: the technological portion, which encompasses the network of systems that support computational actions, and the human portion, which comprises a network of people that supports researchers and assists in their interactions with these computational elements. To develop this twinned infrastructure, a cross-campus community of professionals must cultivate relationships built on trust, shared understandings, and a culture of support. An examination of these concepts within the context of each relationship begins to shape the necessary conditions that foster sustainable advancements in the library.

The relationship between library administrators and practitioners

Library administrators make large-scale strategic plans and decisions, allocate funds and resources, and negotiate with campus administration. Library practitioners, meanwhile, often residing tiers beneath these administrators, possess specialized skills and, over time, build a sense for the resources, skill sets, and partnerships that must be developed in order to support researchers. Power dynamics between these two groups complicate R&D initiatives. Without clear sets of understandings between administration and practitioners, it can be difficult for the organization to implement the necessary resources effectively. Further, the practitioners may not be able to express their needs, especially when encountering uncertainty about how their voice might be received. Administrators, then, allocate resources for a new operation without a strong understanding of what is actually necessary, leaving the practitioner’s knowledge underused or untapped altogether. Hierarchical, top-down implementation in the library is antithetical to the spirit and facilitation of innovative environments as well as to fostering the sort of frank relationships that drive successful R&D operations.

Building trust requires a level of transparency from administrators to practitioners and evidence that practitioners are equal contributors. Countless messages fail to get communicated between these two groups because they are situated in starkly different positions within an organization. What constitutes “success” in terms of R&D capacity, for instance, is often framed by administrators as ROI benchmarking or something that is achieved through new organizational structures (Cook and Van der Veer Martens, 2019). Practitioners need agency to define “success” within their department and operate across the organization. As Soehner and Roe (2022) suggest, when large shifts are implemented by library administration without the participation of practitioners, “conspiratorial thinking” is often the outcome. Shaping success as part of bidirectional dialogues brings about a sense of co-ownership between these groups and articulates shared understandings of what is important.

Administrators can begin to cultivate a shift in library culture and instill a sense of trust and support among practitioners when policies and organizational standards honor the labor and value of long-term discovery. As Cook and Van der Veer Martens (2019) wrote, “Success of the exploratory academic library unit can only happen if the structure of the organization permits creative expression, conceptual risk-taking, and repeated failure” (611). A shared pursuit of shifts in organizational culture will involve acknowledging and honoring needs that are integral to the process of research and innovation. This iterative pursuit should be part of what is considered “success” in R&D implementation.

Relationships between library practitioners across units

Academic libraries abound with skills and experience that can be usefully applied to the research-and-development process, whether those who possess those talents see themselves as potential contributors to that process or not. Metadata specialists, software developers, UX and web designers, repository and digitization lab managers, among many others, comprise a library community with relevant skills in R&D processes. These practitioners undertake different kinds of work, yet their focus is traditionally internal—serving a library’s operational needs—rather than external and exploratory. These practitioners speak different disciplinary languages, yet co-exist within the organization, often passing each other like ships in the night. When implementing R&D operations from a community-based approach, it is essential to foster a set of cultural conditions among practitioners across the library who are needed for those operations to function and be sustained. Innovative research is predicated on risk-taking and “serious play,” which as we’ve seen are not generally encouraged within the norms and incentive structures of academic libraries; yet these cultural conditions are as essential to R&D operations as the allocation of funds, space, talent, and other resources. In this way, the process of building R&D capacity mirrors aspects of the research process itself.

Just as researchers and developers need to build trust among one another in a collaborative environment, practitioners in the library must have opportunities to engage that are free from confines imposed by their (often varying) departmental norms or practices. Often “exploratory” units are kept separate from “operational” units, since the nature of the work in exploratory units does not adhere to many traditional library norms. This division risks perpetuating a lack of trust among peers within the library. Librarians and library staff may often encounter preconceptions and skepticism when one unit doesn’t understand what the other does, or why. Gaining trust means bringing groups into shared efforts around common, achievable goals, with roles made relevant through conversations about the context within which all are invested.

There are connections between discipline-specific theoretical and practical constructs within the library that are not immediately evident to all collaborators. Like academics in other fields, library practitioners develop skills that are shaped around different historical backgrounds, philosophies, media, and ontologies, which ingrain themselves in unique patterns of thought and work. Surfacing these differences and developing shared understandings across a variety of contexts requires time, freedom, and vulnerability. The slow work of understanding how roles fit together and how talents can be oriented toward the pursuit of research must be undertaken from the start of any R&D initiative. Practitioners must be invited to come together not as experts, but as curious colleagues who are interested in building an environment for shared learning and experimentation. Any coordinated R&D operation must initiate organically on a level playing field where not-knowing is okay and expressed curiosity is rewarded. Such an environment is where the seed of new research takes hold, where projects can be developed and realized through sustained collaboration.

The relationship between library practitioners and researchers

Implementing any R&D unit necessitates advancements in technological infrastructure that support modern research practices and outputs. These advancements must be developed as part of relationship-building between the library and its research communities from the outset. Researchers provide the library with critical context and nuance from which strategic R&D initiatives should be founded and iterated upon. R&D units often materialize to meet challenges faced by researchers who do not have access to centralized or siloed-off resources as they pursue grants or as their projects assume new dimensions or advanced stages of complexity. If the library isn’t able to understand and adapt to these needs, advancements may be implemented by other campus units, which runs the inevitable risk of the resources not being readily available to all, again leaving the researcher without a viable option. In either case, a lack of adaptation in the library erodes the researcher’s belief in the library as a trusted partner.

Posner (2013) argued that contemporary digital humanists, for example, “do not need supporters—they need collaborators” (45). Libraries need to provide both the infrastructure (tools, servers, etc.) and “intellectual labor” (knowledgeable librarians) to meet researchers where they are and as peers. We would expand upon this to argue that the structures needed to build an environment where multidisciplinary work can begin requires the same level of “deep collaboration” among librarians, researchers, and IT technicians. The services, tools, and physical spaces should be a result of intentional, considered discussions, not merely a response to an institutional mandate or an industry trend. Practitioners in the library are well-positioned to close campus service gaps and provide access to disparate resources, but provision is not enough to establish relationships. Trust is the key element to sustaining a partnership dedicated to resourcing across institutional boundaries. To build trust with researchers, librarians need to suspend the notion of expertise and empower researchers to co-develop services in a sustained process that honors layers of institutional and disciplinary context.

A community-driven approach to sustaining research infrastructure necessitates personnel who are empowered and eager to bridge data centers (or other library-based technologies) with their intended researchers. These personnel, who are typically library practitioners, translate between stakeholders and encourage users to engage the systems, sustaining lines of communication that build communities among researchers who might otherwise feel isolated and uninformed. Just as it is key to sustain researcher input, the library practitioner’s contributions to the development and oversight of R&D operations needs to be made clear from the start, and library administration must confer these responsibilities. While gathering a firm understanding of the priorities, interests, and expectations across a range of researchers and communities, the library practitioner then translates these needs to other stakeholders in order to ensure alignment between the resource being built and its future application. They are key developers of a shared knowledge base among a disparate set of stakeholders. Ideally, this knowledge base is created by and for a participatory ecosystem according to a shared understanding among the constituents (McGranaghan, et al., 2021).

In their call to action, Bourg, et al. (2009) proposed that libraries undertake an ongoing study of the “work patterns and needs of researchers,” with a focus on “integration that serves” these needs and their workflows (1). There is no way to fake an understanding of these needs and patterns when building support structures for researchers. It is a long-term commitment to consistent communication based on listening, asking questions, sharing ideas, engaging in co-discovery of solutions, and demonstrating that there is continuity in partnering towards solutions. Relationships without action will not be sustainable over the long-term.

A practitioner’s framework for engaging across communities

Nowviskie (2013) discussed an “awakening” across humanities disciplines since the late 1990s that has aroused “in some people an undeniable attraction toward building things and collaborating in concrete and non-discursive ways…This brand of ‘building’ in the digital humanities encompasses not just tools and archives, but new social and institutional systems as well” (58). In this same spirit, the following practitioner’s framework is intended as a foundational structure that recognizes the keystone position of the practitioner. The set of relationship-based concepts are applied toward the creation of an inclusive and cooperative model for R&D design and implementation. The framework is meant to be flexible with deep consideration of local contexts and is intended to spur questions that, once set forth, can help practitioners better understand, communicate, and organize within their institutional contexts.

Working with library administration

  • Know what you can and can’t control.
    • Clarify the spaces where you are empowered to take action and make headway for the strategic application of your energy and time.
  • Declare the need for transparent communication and shared goals.
    • Enter into the relationship with an expressed curiosity around the research but be open to administrative perspectives on the purpose for R&D development in the library.
    • Define “success” and expectations in concrete terms, together—not focused around industry status but around the research process.
    • Strive to establish a shared understanding of benchmarks to measure success and individual advancement, e.g. reappointment and promotion and/or tenure.
    • Identify budgets and resources up front, if possible, and always define a means for consistent two-way interaction. Be proactive in keeping administration up-to-date on your community-building work, and align these updates with agreed-upon expectations.
  • Identify long-standing practices and norms that may act as roadblocks to progress
    • Unearth cultural norms in your library that stand in the way of research support, planning, and direct engagement in the research process.
    • Consider whether these norms stem from different ways of thinking, differing ideas of what the library is and what it does. 
    • Surface old vs. new ideas in conversation with administrators, and communicate that the long-standing practices are valid and the new ways of working are, likewise, not only valid but necessary.
  • Don’t be afraid to disrupt what those above you in the hierarchy have always known.
    • Ask if they have considered why things are done that way.
    • Discuss how the “new” perspective is not subversive and how it does fit into long-held ideas about the library’s core mission.
  • Pursue permission to fail
    • Understand that constant “success” on the library’s terms may be a state of stagnation.
    • Demonstrate how important failure is to learning and shared humanity.

Working with practitioners across the library

  • Strip away your—and others’—preconceptions and skepticism
    • This might be best accomplished through the application of individuals’ skills and specializations to a shared goal (defining a new service, building out existing infrastructures, etc.). Build “practice fields” with others in whatever form your organization currently allows.
  • Actively pursue your colleagues’ worldviews and knowledge
    • Ask them to teach you things, and learn as much as possible about how they apply their knowledge in everyday situations.
    • Build vocabularies that bridge your disciplinary gaps and document your shared understandings.
    • Surface and discuss unrealized or previously invisible connections between perspectives of the profession and organization as well as your daily work.
  • Do away with the idea of “expertise”
    • Learn things together. Fail together. Pursue what you do not know with curiosity and innocence.

Working with campus researchers

  • You gotta care, dammit!
    • In all activities, express to researchers that you are motivated by interest in advancing their and their community’s priorities.
    • Being an expert isn’t necessary; engaging with curiosity is!
    • Know that the library’s priorities are not always the researcher’s priorities. Let them know that you know this.
    • Advocate for the library as an active partner in the research community.
  • Build trust
    • Enter relationships as a partner and devoted advocate for the researchers—whatever that might mean to each particular relationship—not as a supporter.
    • Be brutally honest with researchers, especially around gaps in library provisions and infrastructure.
    • Communicate with transparency about any library processes that slow actions or barriers that must be crossed in gaining access to resources and infrastructure and known steps it may take to get there.
  • Build shared knowledge bases predicated on researchers’ perspectives
    • Step back from your own perspective, and pursue mutual definitions of particular aspects of the research process, especially those traditionally housed in the library (e.g. archiving, preservation, access, etc.).
    • Don’t pretend or assume to know the needs or perspectives of researchers. Listen; dig deeper; ask more questions.
  • Pursue iterative design of R&D services and structures from an institutional perspective
    • Include researchers as early in the planning process as possible.
    • Commit to ongoing collaboration and mutual advocacy efforts as new points of engagement between the library and researchers emerge.
  • Communicate (and communicate and communicate) to researchers that their concerns are being internalized and understood
    • Share with them how solutions to their needs are being pursued. Reveal the internal workings of the library and how their suggestions are being applied.
    • Keep them updated on where roadblocks lie organizationally and institutionally. Be explicit. Take advantage of any external political force they might be able to exert on the situation.

This framework for engagement is only a beginning step. Community-building and deconstructing barriers is iterative, messy, and comes with both uncertainty and unexpected discoveries. Practitioners can and do play a major role in peeling back layers of institutional context and instigating pathways toward richer, more relevant, and sustained innovation. It will take time.

Limitations and other questions worth investigating

This paper puts forth a set of cultural conditions within the academic library that need to be established as part of building integrative research and development operations in the library. Throughout the discussion, we have left out critical sociocultural considerations of underrepresented and marginalized groups in the library and how these relate to play, success, power, and many other considerations to a community-based perspective. This is a major area for future study and conversation. Additionally, we cannot speak to the same conditions, challenges, and other realities at play for stakeholder groups within the community we describe, including for example, IT professionals, research center administrators, and researchers themselves. The precise barriers and cultural nuances within other stakeholder groups are as relevant and in need of describing and understanding.

In reviewing the scholarship around library-based R&D operations, it occurred to us that many fundamental questions about this topic are noticeably absent from the literature. These include (but are not limited to):

  • How is “successful implementation” of library-based R&D defined, and who is defining it? What does a successful R&D operation look like?
  • What is the library profession’s relationship with the research process? Is this being taught in MLIS programs, etc.? How can our profession better self-organize to meet the known needs and processes of researchers?
  • Why isn’t there a body of literature on the topic that is authored from the practitioner perspective?
  • What is the relationship between the library and the born-digital research outputs we’re co-creating? Why do libraries frequently lack the foundational infrastructures and conditions needed to sustain the outputs that are often funded and produced in the library? Does the library’s role as steward of cultural memory change because the format of research outputs are changing?
  • Given the largely theoretical tenor of the current scholarship, are academic libraries shying away from undertaking the complex, messy work needed for libraries to make meaningful and sustained progress in defining their role on the R&D landscape? Why are there so few use cases around R&D implementation?

Each of these questions deserves further investigation.


Libraries need to seek out, understand, and adopt common cultural practices of the campus research communities they hope to serve in order to make progress toward implementing innovative spaces and R&D operations within their walls. This opens up an opportunity for intentional and inclusive community-building to form across sets of university stakeholders, not only around modern research methods but also around support services and structures. Too often we see “research services” developed in isolation from the communities they’re created to serve. With a community-minded approach, however, we might reimagine how libraries create new research services, not as a set of insular endeavors but as community-driven activities. That reimagining must start in the library and must be driven by librarian practitioners. But to create the space needed for this kind of imagination, a set of cultural conditions have to be established across a range of disciplines within the (often decentralized or distributed) library that bring together diverse sets of talents and experiences for iterative design, “serious play,” and risk-taking. If R&D experimentation in the library is going to promote and advance research at the institution level, a more inclusive and cooperative model for the co-creation of research operations and support services needs to be defined and sustained.


The authors wish to extend their sincere gratitude to Ikumi Crocoll and Matthew Sisk, the peer reviewers of this article, as well as Ian Beilin, editor of In the Library with a Lead Pipe, for their time, careful consideration, and insight. This is a much stronger article for each of their perspectives.


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