The Library’s Role in Facilitating Users’ Experiences Navigating Computing and Data Services
An Interview with Susan Ivey, Director of the Research Facilitation Service at North Carolina State University
Since 2012, when Ithaka S+R began systematic exploration of the changing needs and practices of researchers, the stunning growth in the accessibility of large datasets and the computing power necessary to work with them has transformed research practices across disciplines. As big data methods have spread, universities have responded by expanding their research support service offerings. Libraries have been the most active players in this space, but many campus units—including information technology offices, research computing centers, and academic departments—provide similar services to researchers. In many institutions, these services have developed in an ad hoc and decentralized manner, creating a tangle of offerings that researchers often find difficult to navigate. Previous research from Ithaka S+R and recent recommendations of the ARL/CARL Joint Task Force on Research Data Services have emphasized the importance of greater coordination between university units to guide users to the most appropriate services. To help libraries play a leading role in efforts to implement greater collaboration with other campus providers and promote roadmaps for users of these services, this fall Ithaka S+R will launch a new cohort project designed to help libraries create blueprints for coordinating data service offerings within and beyond the library.
Around the country, libraries are beginning to develop strategies for increasing the efficacy of their data support service offerings. One particularly interesting new model is the Research Facilitation Service (RFS) currently being piloted at North Carolina State University (NC State). A collaboration between the Libraries, the Office of Information Technology, and the Office of Research and Innovation, this new service is designed to create a single point of contact capable of guiding researchers with research computing and data questions to appropriate resources. The RFS is also intended to improve communication among research service providers on campus and ensure that offerings are aligned to researchers’ needs. We interviewed the program’s director, Susan Ivey, to learn more about this new service and its implications for other university libraries.
What inspired the creation of RFS and how is it organized?
In 2019, we began a series of informal discussions between the Libraries, the Office of Information Technology (OIT), and the Office of Research and Innovation (ORI) about campus Research Computing and Data (RCD) support, and these talks ultimately led to the creation of the new RFS at NC State.
After several of these discussions, we agreed that it was time to formally address needs, so Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Dr. Marc Hoit and Senior Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Greg Raschke convened a cross-campus Research Computing and Data Service Coordination Planning Team. This group was asked to survey existing RCD services, identify and prioritize gaps, and propose a framework service model to support needs through all phases of the research lifecycle, which is what is now known as the Research Facilitation Service (RFS). In early 2021, a larger cross-campus task force was charged with designing and implementing the service based on that vision.
We were fortunate to receive three new full-time positions to support the new service. Two of those have been filled, and we are still recruiting for one more. To provide full-time leadership for the service, I was moved from my previous position (research data and infrastructure librarian, a shared role between the Libraries and OIT) into the RFS director position. Organizationally, our team is split between the Libraries and OIT. Moira Downey, research facilitator, and I work within the Libraries’ Digital Library Initiatives Department; and Chris Blanton, research solutions consultant, is placed within OIT’s Research Computing unit. Andy Kurth, research storage specialist and my co-chair on both the planning team and task force, currently manages the RFS operations within Research Computing.
Additionally, two new positions are planned that will be affiliated with the RFS and placed within Research Computing. These positions will support the university’s large-scale, interdisciplinary initiatives. We hope to onboard these positions in 2022 and look forward to collaborating with them.
The insight that researchers often find existing services offering opaque and difficult to navigate seems to be at the core of the RFS. Can you talk a bit about how the library identified this barrier and why the library is well positioned to help alleviate it?
At NC State, the Libraries have been well aware of this challenge on campus for some time, which I think is the case for many academic libraries, particularly those at large and siloed institutions. To ensure that this assumption accurately represented researchers’ perceptions, our planning team and task force used existing survey results, existing local interviews (including Ithaka S+R’s Big Data Infrastructure Support research study, which we participated in), word of mouth, and focus groups with researchers. What we found confirmed that discovering and accessing existing RCD services and support has been challenging for our research community. While I recognize that this may not be the case for institutions with a different resource model than NC State, I believe that the Libraries and the collaborative RFS are well positioned to help alleviate these challenges for a variety of reasons.
Libraries act as connectors for users, linking them to necessary resources and information.
Libraries act as connectors for users, linking them to necessary resources and information, and this makes the library a natural home for a service like the RFS, which provides a central location for researchers trying to navigate the broad range of RCD services and support that are available to them, both on campus and beyond. The Libraries are also positioned as one of the truly interdisciplinary institutions on campus that can serve needs across its many academic constituencies. Librarians and library staff are genuinely invested in ensuring users get what they need in a timely manner, so we provide excellent customer support. In fact, the planning team, made up of people from across campus who engage with researchers, highlighted how well positioned the Libraries is for a service like the RFS. They remarked on how well trusted the Libraries are, the faculty’s good impression of the Libraries, and our high level of customer support.
Librarians and library staff are genuinely invested in ensuring users get what they need in a timely manner, so we provide excellent customer support.
But the Libraries can’t do it alone, and it’s important to note that the RFS is truly a collaborative effort of the Libraries, OIT, and ORI, and that collaboration is vital to our success. Our mission is to support RCD needs throughout the research lifecycle, and these three campus departments provide important pieces to that overall puzzle. Equally important are the other campus units that provide this support for their constituents, such as core facilities, departmental IT groups, and our new Data Science Academy. The RFS’s success truly does depend on the trust and relationships we build with and across groups, so that we’re able to successfully and efficiently connect researchers to those resources, and to advocate for researcher and service provider needs to campus decision makers.
How did you build institutional support for this program? What does staffing and funding for the program look like?
My original position at NC State, which was created in 2017 and was both the first shared position between the Libraries and OIT and the first full-time Libraries position focused on research data management, highlights that these two units have been well aware of the importance of and value in working together to support the research enterprise. We built upon that momentum and were able to advocate for the importance of evaluating current service and support offerings, accessing needs, and broadening support based on needs. NC State’s IT Governance structure played a key role, specifically the Research, Scholarship, and Creativity IT Subgroup, which is charged with identifying IT infrastructure needs and making policy recommendations that support research and scholarship. With their support, we were able to advance our recommendations for creating the RFS in support of the research enterprise to campus administration.
NC State’s new Data Science Academy was also being formed at the same time, and they have been valuable partners. The College of Sciences (COS), with which we’re currently piloting the service, has played an important role, as well. COS IT Director Debbie Carraway served on both the planning team and the task force and has been a strong advocate for the RFS. COS’s research is largely interdisciplinary, and their RCD needs are vast, so working with them to develop and grow the service has been extremely helpful.
I previously touched on the importance of building trust and relationships with RCD providers on campus earlier, and I also think that’s of key importance to building institutional support. It’s important that the RFS be seen as an open and honest channel of communication for service providers on campus, so understanding their pain points, their goals, and their preferences is a priority for the RFS team. We don’t want to create additional obstacles of confusion—we want to prove our value to these stakeholder groups by showing that we are a helpful partner.
In terms of funding, the existing RFS staff positions are currently funded by a combination of ongoing appropriations and Facilities & Administrative (F&A) funds. We know that in order to grow and sustain the service over time, we will need to adapt this model to take advantage of a variety of funding sources. We are actively considering a few different funding models at this time.
We are fortunate in the NC State University Libraries to have in-house resources and support to advise on branding, promotional strategies, and outreach materials. Communications’ expertise and support is available to us through the External Relations unit, which has produced promotional content and helped design outreach strategies for a wide range of stakeholders. We have also been collaborating with the director of marketing and communications within COS, Nate DeGraff, who has provided insight into communication preferences within the college. We are utilizing the Libraries’ User Experience Web Team, as well, who is providing ongoing guidance as we conduct a content strategy exercise to inform the design of the new and developing website. The availability of these resources has certainly improved our ability to brand and market this new university service, increasing campus interest.
The RFS is currently in a pilot phase. What metrics are you using to measure how successful it is? Do you have any early observations to share about how things are going?
We have created a set of goals for the service as a whole, as well as a more tightly scoped set of goals for the pilot phase. The goals for the pilot are based on establishing the infrastructure to make the service operational. We have goals related to ensuring that we understand when and how to engage with the COS IT unit, when to engage with OIT providers, when those groups need to be connected to fulfill a request, and that those groups know how and when to connect researchers to our service team.
We also want to create a replicable process for future roll-out phases to additional portions of campus. This includes things like what we refer to as a “discovery process,, which involves RFS engagement with college IT, administration, and select faculty to learn about their processes, workflows, goals, and to build trust; an outreach and promotional strategy that we can apply and tweak as needed; and our own internal workflows and data collection strategies.
We are still in a needs assessment phase, where we’re collecting use cases and creating user stories for requests that we both can and cannot fulfill. That type of data collection will be an ongoing priority for the RFS as it grows—identifying and amplifying unmet needs to help the university develop new services and support is a key goal. We haven’t set quantitative goals for ourselves currently.
What do you think is the next big step for how data support is integrated into research data services more broadly across the university sector?
This is a difficult question, but I’ll try to share some ideas of what we’re aiming to do at NC State.
One improvement we’re hoping to make at NC State is to better connect data service providers with one another. This isn’t just being led by the RFS, of course. The RFS, the Libraries’ Data & Visualization Services Department (DVS), and the Data Science Academy have been collaborating on an effort to illustrate the available data support across the research lifecycle, including what types of needs the researcher has at various points, what is provided, and which unit(s) provide that support. We’re working closely with our security and compliance colleagues within OIT and ORI through this exercise, which we hope will help us more clearly identify areas of need. This exercise was the first time many of these individuals met each other or learned about what the others are providing, so just building those basic connections has been useful. The DSA and DVS are also working closely to align their consultation services so that there isn’t unnecessary duplication and there is a clear understanding about what levels of service each unit can provide.
A major goal of the RFS is to educate data service providers and research cyberinfrastructure (CI) providers about available support on campus and make connections between those groups when necessary. Many of these service providers are researcher-facing, though many aren’t. The creation of new support units (like the DSA and the RFS), along with routine retirements and turnover, have brought new leadership and perspectives; it’s an opportune time to foster connections between these groups and to highlight researchers’ needs and perspectives to those of us providing support, designing systems, and making policies that impact the research enterprise. I think the RFS has a big role to play in this and expect continued engagement with the IT Governance groups and ORI units and committees in these areas.
At a community level, I’m excited to have made connections to individuals and groups within the Campus Research Computing Consortium (CaRCC), which is doing really excellent work to bring together the large and diverse community of RCD providers in and out of academia (I’m really supportive of their efforts around professionalization in the RCD field). I’m also a new member of EDUCAUSE’s RCD Community Group Steering Committee. I look forward to sharing the experience and insight that I’ve gained from my previous and current roles supporting research data management at several academic libraries, and I’m excited to represent libraries within the national RCD community and advocate for broader collaboration among campus RCD providers. These are just two community examples that illustrate how the RCD field as a whole is growing and maturing, and I expect that to continue.
My understanding is that the level of engagement between NC State campus departments that support RCD has significantly increased in the last four to five years. I’m excited and motivated by this momentum to meet growing needs and to prepare for new and emerging needs. It’s a really exciting time to work in support of RCD at NC State.
If your library is interested in learning more about Ithaka S+R’s upcoming data services cohort project, please email me at Dylan.Ruediger@ithaka.org.