Electronic Lab Notebooks (ALA 2014)

Speakers from Cornell and Yale talked about the product LabArchives and how they are supporting researchers on their campuses with electronic lab notebooks.  It was apparent how deeply they understood the kinds of things that researchers do with lab notebooks, and the day to day issues of data management.

LabArchivesIconThe online environment of LabArchives has great bells and whistles – ability to upload almost anything, link out to other info, share among groups via communication tools and access permissions, etc.  It’s flexible and lets the researcher design it to be organized the way they want.  One caveat – it’s not a great file mgmt system for lots and lots of files–in that situation, better to manage them elsewhere, and link out to files.

I had to leave early so I missed the discussion about how these folks were using their product to engage with their community….nothing I say next reflects on them in any way!

Getting a tool as part of your service menu, and then teaching that tool seems like  a good way to branch out in new areas — it’s a concrete way to market your services and generate requests for curricular support. At the same time, without human thinking and effort, it doesn’t get you embedded into the curriculum.  I feel like this often happens to the library – faculty see us as the folks to demo or teach a tool, rather than as partners who can help students learn threshold concepts that will transform their understanding of research, or whatever information skill or practice is the focus.  So, we can teach Refworks “how to” sessions that focus on mechanics, but we aren’t necessarily invited to help craft assignments that will get students more focussed on reproducible research and the development of connected knowledge.  Our marketing tells people that we teach/demo tools!  I’m not against mechanics, those are certainly important, but those kinds of training sessions can be handled by trainers or even lynda.com.  If teaching the tool can help you get a more in-depth understanding of the research happening on your campus, and the ways students need to be supported (and this definitely seemed to be the case with the presenters) then it is a useful and important first step.  But if you find yourself just teaching the tool in the same way year after year, and not building better instruction by leveraging your relationships with faculty, then I think you might as well point people at online tutorials.

QmarkShort of pointing all students to this kind of tool, especially given its somewhat intense learning curve, I wonder about a lightweight approach — could we or should we craft some kind of PennBox template that students can adopt for projects?  Little or no learning curve to use it . . .  It could be presented in a suite of helpful resources, such as tips for labeling files as part of version control, or how to log actions coherently when different members of a research team are working together asynchronously.  Measuring the use of such a website would be one way to show how the library supports undergraduate research, and get some continuous data back about what students are drawn to and seem to like.

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