Ability to Work in Interdisciplinary Teams

Map Location
C, 9
Thread Location
Page 170

R. David Lankes

Agreement Description

This Atlas centers on librarians and the organizations they build and support. As such, it focuses on what librarians can and should do. This focus might leave the reader with the impression that the role of librarians is the only necessary role to build knowledge in communities. This is far from the truth. Improving decision making, building knowledge, and improving communities are complex tasks. They require a multitude of perspectives and skills and individuals. Librarians must be ready to not only work with other problem solvers, but to step in and coordinate these people.

Why leave it to librarians to facilitate multiskilled teams? It fits their core skills and values. Librarians are facilitators and are therefore prepared to aggressively put forth both their principles and their voice while still being able to put their own agenda aside for the good of the community and their problems.

No Librarian is an Island

Learning theory, policy, legal issues, technology, and information organization— these are just some of the skills outlined within the Atlas. To advocate that one person (with one type of degree) could be a master of all of these skills is ludicrous. While a librarian should be aware of these areas (and master some), the ultimate answer to bringing an expanded, participatory skill base to the library is a team approach. Librarians must work with lawyers, technologists, educators, and content experts to choreograph the necessary facilitation within their communities. By working in functional teams, a librarian can bring necessary resources to a community beyond simple artifacts and materials.

Often when the idea of an interdisciplinary team approach is proposed, several obstacles are quickly identified. Almost all of these are based on the assumption that the whole team is organizationally and physically located within the library. Certainly there have been issues with nonlibrarians (e.g., technologists) feeling like second-class citizens or lacking a peer group. Libraries often complain about a lack of resources to attract highly qualified specialists or point out how salary discrepancies caused by a competitive marketplace can alienate librarians. These are real concerns.

However, nothing says that all team members must be under the egis of the library. Crossing administrative lines is possible. In fact, there is an advantage to pulling teams from across these boundaries, such as leveraging resources, gaining advocates in other organizations, and more.

There is, however, one essential factor in effective teams: clear respect and identification of the value of team members. Effective teams require a team member to feel valued and to value their team members. All too often in the library profession, facilitation is seen as a primarily passive and often invisible task. The goal seems to be to interject as little of the librarian’s voice as possible to avoid bias.

This realization—that facilitation is a proactive shaping activity— also provides a foundation for a team approach to service and for technological innovation. Teamwork requires a strong sense of identity.

Without a strong sense of purpose, method, and underlying conceptual frame, librarians can have great difficulty working in teams. It is, in essence, a form of professional insecurity that often sees other skill sets and conversants as competition. This realization points out the dangers of using technological landmarks outside of the library profession as a pointer to some preferred future. It leads to a sort of schizophrenia whereby members of the profession are looking externally for innovation and, when they find it, see the innovators as competition and a threat.

This situation was apparent in much of the discussion of the library in relation to Google, Yahoo!, and Amazon over the past decade. It was not unusual to go to conferences where Google was described as a great threat to libraries in an era of “good enough” information (“Google will put us out of business because people would rather have it quick than right”) and in the next session a discussion of using a simple single search box to search library Web sites, catalogs, and databases (“All library search has to look like Google because that is what they expect”). Before Google “forced” libraries to adopt simple search boxes, Yahoo! forced us to fit all of our services and resources into 13 categories on a homepage. The truth is that if libraries continue to try and be a better Google, a better Yahoo, or a better Amazon, the best they can ever achieve is coming in second. Adopting innovation without a matching mission is a follower’s game.

Instead of competition, librarians must see other expertise (and other organizations) as resource pools—see creating teams of expertise as a new form of collection development. Librarians need to have strong relationships, both professional and interpersonal, with folks from other fields. This way they can quickly call on these resources to solve a given problem. Rather than seeking to build a large centralized scheme for gathering experts, librarians need to facilitate flexible and permeable groups. Because facilitation is a core skill of librarians, it makes sense for them to take the lead in this process.

A Special Note On Diversity

This agreement is clearly about the power of diverse skill sets brought together to solve problems. There are all kinds of diversities beyond professional competencies. These include religious, social, ethnic, and so on. There is a great body of literature on the importance of all of these types of diversities, and I do not seek to repeat it here. Rather I would emphasize that the more diverse the team, on all levels, the greater its ability to respond and solve problems.

An Example

An example of the facilitating role that librarians can play in interdisciplinary teams is currently under study at Syracuse University. The National Science Foundation has funded the development of a curriculum for Cyber-Infrastructure Facilitators (CI Facilitators). The curriculum is being developed in response to the growth of e-science or the use of networked technologies in the so-called STEM1 disciplines. As physicists are crunching terabyte datasets from particle collisions on another continent, as astronomers are using telescopes thousands of miles away, and as meteorologists are simulating weather patterns on shared terascale grid computing platforms, it is becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to understand both their field of expertise and the increasingly sophisticated technology infrastructure.

CI Facilitators are envisioned as individuals who do not master all the technology but who coordinate teams of scientists and technologists. Much of the curriculum being developed draws on traditions in library science and is based on cases where librarians have become part of labs and research teams and increased efficiency and funding.

One can also see the increasingly powerful roles that librarians are playing as part of legal teams in the discussion of the Department of Justice (see Department of Justice).


There is power in librarianship. Yet this power, as it is called on in wider and wider contexts, can become diffuse. The solution is not to avoid such contexts but rather to armor ourselves with the company of experts. By working with the scientist, the writer, the technologist, and the community leader, we amplify our effect and help forward the mission. Further, by engaging and valuing our brothers in the common good, we better serve our members. To stand in this company of experts, we must have a firm belief in our own value.

Conversation Starters

  1. Librarians need to be able to work in interdisciplinary teams because the community problems they are seeking to solve are increasingly complex and multifaceted.
  2. Librarians can play the key role of facilitators in these teams because of their focus on core skills and values.

Related Artifacts


Lankes, R. D. (Forthcoming). Innovators wanted: No experience necessary? In S. Walter, V. Coleman, & K. Williams (Eds.), The expert library: Staffing, sustaining, and advancing the academic library in the 21st century. Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries.

Lankes, R. D., Cogburn, D., Oakleaf, M., & Stanton, J. (2008). Cyberinfrastructure facilitators: New approaches to information professionals for e-Research. Paper presented at the Oxford ’08 e-Research Conference. Retrieved from http://ora.ouls.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid%3A392876bd-5d9f-40b0-822f-269332643e6b


“Cyberinfrastructure Facilitators: New Approaches to Information Professionals for e-Research,”  Oxford ’08 e-Research Conference, Oxford, UK.

Abstract: This paper introduces the concept of a CI Facilitator defined as a vital member of the research enterprise who works closely with researchers to identify extant tools, datasets, and other resources that can be integrated into the process of pursuing a research objective. To prepare CI Facilitators to evolve with e-Research endeavors, they must be grounded in deep conceptual frameworks that do not go out of date as quickly as any given cyberinfrastructure technology. One such framework, that of participatory librarianship, is presented here and explored in terms of tackling the issue of massive-scale data in research. Participatory librarianship is grounded in conversation theory and seeks to organize information as a knowledge process rather than as discreet objects in some taxonomy.

Slides: http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/Presentations/2008/Oxford.pdf

Audio: http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/pod/2008/Oxford.mp3

Video: http://ptbed.org/downloads/Oxford-Record.mp4