Research Libraries make it happen: The Technician Commitment applied
Libraries, archives, and information institutions hold great technical skills and expertise. While the term ‘technician’ may not easily translate to the rich set of professional identities we celebrate within the research library community, we can readily identify the many diverse skills represented in academic and research libraries essential to producing new knowledge through research, innovation, and experimentation. These range from research data managers to archivists, from software developers to conservators, from photographers to open access publishing professionals.
Research Libraries UK (RLUK) champions the contribution of academic and research libraries to the research process: as enablers, partners, and leaders. A recent AHRC-RLUK scoping study highlighted the immense contribution that research libraries make to scholarship as partners and leaders of research. The scoping study revealed the considerable expertise, including technical knowledge, contained within libraries and their contribution to a wide range of disciplines. Yet the scoping study also highlighted that the contribution of libraries is not always recognised and that there is a low level of awareness of the Technician Commitment amongst library staff and the ways in which it can apply to their work, working life, and careers.
This document provides a high-level overview of how the Technician Commitment can apply to research libraries and allied and composite professions, including those working within archives, special collections, and conservation. It celebrates the contribution that research libraries can make to scholarship as places of technical expertise and innovation, and is an invitation to RLUK members, and the wider academic library community, to engage with the contents of the Technician Commitment and the opportunities that it can bring.
Library and archive staff help solve challenges
The Technician Commitment recognises that technically skilled professionals exist and play an essential role in a wide variety of settings, including academic and research libraries, and these are critical components in the production, dissemination, and preservation of scholarly knowledge. In addition to their role as research partners and leaders, library staff bring essential expertise as Research Technical Professionals (RTPs) and provide technical skills and knowledge to the solving of research and innovation challenges.
Library and archive staff lead and support the development and application of complex research tools and techniques and enable the delivery of diverse digital content. They apply highly-specialised technical knowledge to the preservation, discovery, and curation of collections, both physical and digital, which underpin research and engagement across all disciplines. They create and maintain world-leading research infrastructure and have a central role in inspiring, nurturing, and developing existing scholars and the next generation of researchers. These roles are at the centre of what research libraries do. They also sit at the heart of the Technician Commitment.
Library and archive colleagues have considerable experience and expertise around key activities highlighted within the Technician Commitment. These include project development and delivery, the creation of tools and techniques to deliver learning, research and innovation, and the design, use and analysis of research techniques and methodologies. Library and archive staff are at the forefront of pedagogical innovation, communicate complex subjects to diverse audiences, and have a central role in informing, and inspiring, future generations of researchers. Although the term ‘technician’ may not be much used within research libraries, the skills, expertise, and knowledge they contain are central to the Technician Commitment.
Showcasing technical expertise within research libraries
The application of the Technician Commitment is built around four key elements: visibility, recognition, career development, and sustainability. RLUK is committed to working with its members, the wider academic library community, and UKRI to communicate the importance and centrality of these four areas to the technical expertise contained within research libraries.
The Technician Commitment highlights the need to ensure that technical expertise is recognised across organisations and that the contribution made by individuals is visible, recognised and celebrated.
Colleagues working across research libraries have a high level of technical expertise. These include archivists, conservators, and colleagues working to support learning, digital scholarship, digitisation, and open access publishing. The range and variety of services and initiatives research library staff are involved in requires an increasing array of technical skills.
RLUK’s 2019 report, Digital Scholarship and the role of the research library, highlighted the valuable role that research library staff play across nineteen categories of digital scholarship activity, acting not only as the providers of diverse digital services, but as partners and pioneers of technically complex tools and techniques. This confirmed and expanded the findings of RLUK’s 2017 report, The role of Research Libraries in the creation, archiving, curation, and preservation of tools for the Digital Humanities, which presented the varied ways through which research libraries were taking a leading role to enable an increasingly diverse range of Digital Humanities projects. During the Covid-19 pandemic, research libraries utilised their technical expertise around online learning and content discovery, to develop a series of innovative services to enable remote and user responsive research and learning. These included the development of technically innovative services such as Virtual Reading Rooms and Teaching Spaces, and managing new delivery methods for content.
RLUK is committed to enhancing the visibility of the role that research libraries play in bringing their technical expertise to the research and innovation process.
- RLUK will continue to publish case studies, illustrating the varied technical skills contained across our members and the contribution that research libraries make to the research process.
- RLUK will continue to conduct wide ranging and original research into the ways in which libraries are home to diverse technical and specialist skills and the emerging opportunities to work collaboratively in this space, both nationally and internationally.
- RLUK will continue to convene its members around the core issues raised within the Technician Commitment, working with UKRI, AHRC, and key stakeholders, to further highlight and amplify the role of libraries as places of technical and specialist expertise, across a wide range of disciplines and professional practices.
The Technician Commitment cites the need for technical professionals to receive recognition for their contribution to the research process. RLUK is working to promote the recognition of library staff in their role as enablers, partners, and leaders of exemplary research. This follows the publication of a joint RLUK-AHRC scoping study (June 2021) that highlighted that library staff are not always acknowledged for their contribution to the research process and that there is a need for greater recognition.
Research libraries are constantly transforming their role for their users, within their institutions, and as integral elements of the information and research landscapes. The role of research libraries as laboratories for the arts, humanities, and social sciences has recently been emphasised, as has their role as physical and virtual places for experimentation. These roles depend on the position of research libraries at the interface between multiple communities, disciplines, and professional practices, as well as their ability to act as both conduits and catalysts for collaboration.
Recent initiatives, such as the Hidden REF campaign (of which RLUK is a supporter), have sought to demonstrate the considerable contribution made by research and technical professionals, who are often not cited within final publications or research outputs, to the research process. RLUK’s 2019 report Evidencing the Impact and Value of Special Collections highlighted the diversification of the skills sets contained amongst colleagues working within archive and special collections, their involvement in a growing set of research and engagement initiatives, and the need for the better evidencing and communicating of this involvement.
- RLUK is committed to supporting the enhanced recognition of research library staff as technical experts across a wide range of disciplines and professional practices.
- Under its strategy, Transforming the Library, RLUK will initiate a series of initiatives to better measure and demonstrate the role of the research library.
- RLUK will work with the AHRC, and other like minded partners, to continue to highlight the contribution of library staff to the research process, whether as partners, leaders, or research support professionals, through blogs, case studies, and publications.
The Technician Commitment highlights the importance of career development opportunities for technical staff and the need for clear and documented career pathways. Research libraries offer many diverse opportunities for career development and the continuous development of technical skills and expertise.
RLUK’s Digital Shift Manifesto (May 2020) cites the need to continually support the development of technical and specialist skills amongst existing staff working across research libraries, whereas RLUK’s research into Covid-19 and the digital shift in action highlighted the benefits of having a strong baseline of digital skills across institutions. The requirements of open access publishing, and open scholarship more broadly, require new technical infrastructures to enable the discovery, dissemination, and distribution of research outputs and materials. The need to invest in specialist and technical skill goes beyond digital skills, with the complex preservation requirements of diverse collections, and the curatorial need to present these to a wide variety of audiences, requiring the continued development of highly specialist, valuable, and technical skills.
In delivering these requirements, there are many collaborative opportunities between institutions, disciplines, and professional practices. Cross-institutional initiatives, such as the AHRC-RLUK Professional Practice Fellowships, the RLUK-TNA Professional Fellowship scheme, and the RLUK-AHRC Research Engagement Programme all support colleagues to develop their skills and expertise through a programme of collaborative knowledge exchange. Cross sector and international collaborative initiatives, such as the creation of a transatlantic data and digital scholarship skills exchange between RLUK and the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR), underline the shared challenges faced by research libraries in maintaining and developing their technical skills. Such initiatives also demonstrate the collective opportunities to collaborate in developing and sharing skills between institutions. RLUK’s forthcoming Digital Shift workforce development strategy will bring together these initiatives within a coherent strategic framework, and provide opportunities for RLUK members to assess and benchmark their digital skills baseline.
- RLUK will continue to support the career development of colleagues within its member libraries, and the wider academic library community, through its events, skills exchange, and fellowship programmes.
- RLUK will support its members undertake skills audits to identify areas of comparative skills needs between institutions and to enable benchmarking.
- RLUK will work with AHRC, UKRI, and other like minded stakeholders to promote the importance of technical skills acquisition amongst research library professionals.
The Technician Commitment highlights the need to sustain technical skills across organisations and that these are fully utilised. Research libraries need to continue to attract a wide variety of complex skills and expertise to ensure they can continue to enable, partner in, and lead pioneering research, learning, and innovation. This will involve attracting, and retaining, new talent into the sector whilst continuing to invest in the development of existing staff.
Research libraries operate within a shifting, international, technical skills landscape. An analysis of job descriptions undertaken in 2019/20 revealed the continuing diversification of technical and digital competencies across the research library community and that these feature prominently in job advertisements. Research suggests that these roles can sometimes be hard to fill and, in a highly competitive job market where technical expertise is at a premium, research libraries can sometimes struggle to attract and retain specialist technical talent.
As a result, research libraries often utilise a mixed-economy of technical skills and expertise to support increasingly complex processes and techniques. They work closely with their academic partners, members of the postgraduate community, and third parties to access technical and specialist expertise around specific processes or techniques. They have developed internship and traineeship schemes, secondment programmes, and fellowship and scholarship opportunities as a means of diversifying the technical and specialist skills available to the library and to benefit from the expertise of a wider array of specialists.
This mixed economy has been seen to bring both benefits and disadvantages. It avoids the concentration of certain specialist technical skills within one or two roles, diversifying the pool on which the library can draw, but often means that its access to certain technical skills is transitory, associated with an individual project or programme. As the skills foundation of research libraries expands and shifts, new opportunities for collaborative skills sharing and acquisition will only become more important.
The RLUK Digital Workforce development strategy (March 2022) presents a series of ways in which academic and research libraries can continue to develop and expand their technical skills base. Developed by members of RLUK’s Associate Directors’ Network (ADN), the strategy cites the importance of investing in existing staff skills, the identification of emerging skills needs, and the need for a workforce development framework to support the sustainable acquisition and retention of digital skills across research libraries.
- RLUK will continue to work with its national and international partners in exploring the changing skills needs of the research library community and the collaborative ways in which these can be met.
- RLUK will produce and signpost resources for its members to use to identify their current and emerging skills needs, and to enable benchmarking between institutions.
Research libraries contain diverse technical and specialist skills which enable research, innovation, learning, and experimentation. As a result, RLUK endorses the principles and contents of the Technician Commitment and will champion its application to the research library community.
RLUK encourages its member libraries to engage with the Technician Commitment and to apply its contents to their own institution. RLUK will continue to convene its members around the key issues raised within the commitment and will advocate for the development, recognition, and elevation of those colleagues who make an essential contribution to the production of scholarly knowledge, innovation, and learning as Research Technical Professionals.
Showcase your skills: Would you like to showcase the importance of technical or specialist skills within your role and how the Technician Commitment can apply to your institution? Please email email@example.com to submit a Professional Profile.