The Brown University Library’s new Center for Library Exploration and Research promises to strengthen scholarly inquiry and support for high-impact research by scholars on campus and beyond.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — There’s no doubt that Brown University students see the libraries as important fixtures on campus.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all undergraduates visited the University’s Rockefeller and Sciences Libraries each year, along with three-quarters of graduate students and two-thirds of medical students. Students regularly cite the reading room in the John Hay Library as a favorite study spot. And in a typical year, Library staff provide thousands in the Brown community with research support through workshops, class sessions and one-on-one consultations.
But University Library leaders know it can play an even more essential role in research, teaching and learning, both at Brown and in the greater Providence community. Thanks to a generous gift from donors who wish to remain anonymous, Library staff will spend the next few years executing an ambitious vision to integrate the Library’s presence even more deeply into academic life at Brown.
With funding from the gift and hubs at the Rockefeller Library, John Hay Library and Sciences Library, a new Center for Library Exploration and Research promises to strengthen academic excellence, fuel innovative scholarship and extend the Library’s impact beyond campus, bringing research resources and collections to more adults and kids in the greater community.
University Provost Richard M. Locke said the center will build on the strengths of Brown’s libraries as essential spaces and resources.
“In addition to its role advancing the work of scholars across Brown, the University Library is a center of academic excellence in its own right,” Locke said. “The Center for Library Exploration and Research will enable a growing number of students, faculty and community members to experience that excellence for themselves. It will provide more opportunities to learn the fundamental principles of scholarly research, explore Brown’s unique special collections and strengthen data-driven research that aims to solve pressing societal problems.”
University Librarian Joseph S. Meisel said the center will support scholarly inquiry at every stage of the research lifecycle. Two new endowed staff positions — a director of library exploration and research, and a staff member dedicated to community engagement — will, along with redefined staff roles and expanded partnerships, enable staff at each of the three Library facilities to provide more support for research, increase use of special collections, and guide undergraduates, as well as high school and middle school visitors, through the skills they need to conduct research.
“The work of the Library is already central to the University’s mission of discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry,” Meisel said. “Establishing the Center for Library Exploration and Research will deepen our commitment to advancing an academic community that produces rigorous scholarship and promotes excellence, on and beyond campus.”
Expanded research training
Meisel said that the center will bring enhanced focus to three areas where library resources are particularly important in students’ ability to achieve academic goals: instruction in basic research methods and tools, support for data research, and support for research using primary source materials. The center will span the Library’s three largest buildings: The Rockefeller Library will serve as the home for support in building core research tools and methods; the Sciences Library will be home to expanded data research support; and the John Hay Library, the gateway to the University’s archives and special collections, will serve as the site for expanded primary source research.
Meisel said the expanded support for research tools and methods is intended to assist students at every phase of their academic journeys — from studying for exams to tackling research-heavy assignments to sourcing news articles, scholarly papers and literature that will support thesis and dissertation work. Boosting support will help students acquire crucial foundational skills and practices they need, but may not have learned formally, to complete assignments and capstone projects.
“Brown’s student body represents a wide range of educational backgrounds and prior research experience,” Meisel said. “We want students to know that regardless of their background, the Library can play a key role in helping them achieve their academic goals.”
Meisel said the addition of an exploration and research librarian will strengthen the Library’s existing research support network, as the new librarian works with fellow Library experts as well as student assistants with extensive research experience. That network will help students at all levels master the research process, develop strong scholarly questions, construct literature searches, locate and document sources, and understand concepts such as copyright and fair use.
Brown students will not be the only emerging scholars to benefit from expanded training, Meisel said. Library staff will work with the community engagement specialist to explore ways to help area middle and high school teachers provide a solid foundation of research knowledge to the next generation of college students.
“When libraries expand research support for scholars of all ages, from middle school students to tenured faculty, everybody wins,” Meisel said. “Faculty and graduate students are able to generate more rigorous, higher quality research. Undergraduates are able to build a stronger foundational knowledge of research techniques, which will help them excel at virtually any career they pursue. And young learners will build research skills that can help them excel in the classroom and prepare for college.”
Boosting research with Big Data and primary sources
At a time when unreliable information sources have made it difficult to separate fact from fiction, Meisel said, it has become essential to teach scholars of all ages how to find, analyze and evaluate primary sources — documents and artifacts that present firsthand evidence of historical events. That’s why one of the new center’s three focuses is on strengthening primary source research.
At the John Hay Library, visitors have long been able to view rare and unique books, manuscripts, historical artifacts and University archives, both in person and virtually. As part of their coursework and research projects, hundreds of individual students and more than 100 classes visit the Hay Library by appointment each year. Staff at the Hay Library and in other Library departments regularly help students and faculty understand, use and even create primary sources.
Amanda Strauss, associate University librarian for special collections, said the new center’s primary source research hub will expand engagement with rare and unique materials on the Brown campus and across the globe. Library staff, led by Head of Special Collections Instruction Heather Cole, will work with faculty to explore more ways to incorporate special collections into classwork and projects. And staff will offer more work and research opportunities for undergraduates, and support more engagement with pre-college students in the surrounding community.
“Brown’s rich and increasingly diverse special collections have the potential to spark the imaginations of so many, from promising young students who are interested in local history to faculty looking for their next research focus,” Strauss said. “With a Center for Library Exploration and Research hub at the Hay Library, we will be able to bring these materials to thousands more in the community each year, strengthening scholarship and historical knowledge.”
The center’s third area of focus, strengthening data research, will augment the Library’s existing support for students and faculty conducting research with an explosion of newly available data across nearly every academic subject. In recent years, said Deputy University Librarian Nora Dimmock, the Library has provided a growing number of students with access to data sets and help with analyzing data for research. She said the new data research hub — which will be managed by Frank Donnelly, a geospatial information systems and data librarian — will not only bring greater focus to existing efforts, but will also expand their reach, ensuring even more students understand the principles, techniques and ethics of conducting research in the age of Big Data.
“Establishing a data research hub in the Sciences Library means Library staff can expand the work they are already doing to aid students with using data tools and methods in their research,” Dimmock said. “Understanding how to mine data isn’t just for students in the biological, physical and quantitative sciences — it’s also relevant to social science students, who may be interested in analyzing demographic or economic data, and to students in the humanities, who may want to perform data analyses on texts or even images.”
Strengthened community engagement
Meisel said that in addition to its core academic focuses, expanding the Library’s impact beyond campus will also be part of the new center’s mission. In recent years, Library staff have engaged in activities and projects with Rhode Island middle and high schools and other community partners — but the work lacked a unified vision, he said, and wasn’t supported on a systematic basis as a core part of the Library’s mission.
He said the future community engagement staff member will work across all three of the center’s hubs, enabling the Library to expand its reach to future college students and other community partners.
“Libraries are natural community gateways,” Meisel said. “Our resources and staff expertise can play an important role in Brown’s overall goals for contributing to the vibrancy and well-being of our surrounding community.”
Complementing the efforts of community-focused staff across the University, from the Annenberg Institute to the Swearer Center, the new community engagement specialist will seek opportunities for the Library to build on Brown’s support for K-12 education in Rhode Island’s diverse urban core and beyond. The specialist will find ways to enable young students to spend more time in University Library spaces and learn the research tools and techniques that position them for success in higher education. The Library will also work with school teachers to provide access to archival materials that could help pique students’ intellectual curiosity.
The specialist will also look to build connections with community organizations, such as public libraries and cultural and affinity groups in Providence. Those partnerships, Meisel said, could pave the way for joint research projects and illuminating exhibitions, among other outcomes.
“Our staff look forward to deepening our connections with local schools and other partners,” Meisel said. “We cannot truly make a positive impact in the community without first understanding our community stakeholders’ greatest priorities and critical needs.”
Meisel said a central goal in establishing the new center and hiring two new outreach-focused leaders is to build a powerful interconnected web of student, faculty, staff and community partners.
“The Library plays a key role in building academic communities at Brown and beyond, and we are profoundly grateful to our donors for recognizing and supporting that,” Meisel said. “With its focus on increasing engagement with communities both on and off campus, the Center for Library Exploration and Research will, quite simply, be a game-changer for both the Library and the Brown experience.”