Are we designing services with an expiration date?

Kristin Lee, Research Data Librarian
Tisch Library, Tufts University

In January of this year, I started a new job as the first Research Data Librarian at the Tisch Library at Tufts University. Librarians at Tisch have been providing research data services to the Schools of Arts & Science and Engineering, so one of my first jobs was to understand the services that have already been offered and where we might expand into new areas. As is the case in many libraries, a cornerstone of the data management services was providing consultations for researchers writing data management plans (DMPs) for grant applications to the US federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. ‘Perfect,’ I thought, ‘I can work with this.’

Then came what felt a bit like a data librarian existential crisis – the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy memorandum calling for expanded public access to research data, among other things, had disappeared from the White House website. While this created a good excuse to go through my LibGuides and find all of the links to that memo, it also made me question everything I had been thinking about when it came to the services I was going to offer. So, as I created page after page of notes with titles like “Research Data Services”, “Data Management Services”, “Services for Researchers”, and a lot of other permutations of those few phrases, the rest of the words refused to materialize. How would I convince researchers that managing their data was in their best interest, and if I couldn’t figure out how to do that would I still have a job?

The disappearance of the memo from the White House website has not meant that the US funding agencies have gotten rid of the DMP requirements, so my job is safe and my move from Saskatchewan to Massachusetts was not for nothing – existential crisis averted. But it still made me wonder about the longevity of services designed as a reaction to specific external forces, and to think that it might be okay to plan services that might eventually have an expiration date.

Once I stopped thinking about the service list I was putting together as being written in stone I was able to start drafting some ideas.  I was able to center the researchers (who should have been my main concern in the first place) as the focus of my work instead of relying on the threat of funding agency mandates to make them seek me out.  I could think about what we would be able to do in order to actually help people make the most of their data in both their research and teaching. I reminded myself that data skills are important to students in their academic and personal lives and are transferable whether they continue to study or decide to work outside of higher education. We can give the next generation of researchers the background and tools they need to keep pushing the open science movement forward.

Considering that the shelf life of some of our services is going to be measured in years as opposed to decades, there are clear implications for the way we share our work with each other as practitioner-researchers. If it takes 3 or more years to collect data and a year between having a paper accepted and published in a peer-reviewed journal, how timely will the research be? One of my favorite sessions at the Research Data Access and Preservation Summit ( in Seattle this year was the Institutional Snapshots where we got a very brief picture of what is happening at a variety of institutions. From this session, I was able to identify institutions to reach out to get the gory details about what had worked for them and what hadn’t with respect to research data services.

I know that the services will change over time, so much so that they become unrecognizable in the future, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth offering them now and seeing what works. Finding venues to share what we are doing, not just our successes but also our failures and the things that keep us up at night will help us get through times of uncertainty and change. What started as a “the-sky-is-falling” moment for me has let me get back to why I love being a data librarian in the first place; we can help researchers at all levels get the skills they need to solve the world’s big problems, and we are doing it as a community.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.