22 August 2014

Why data librarians need to partner with the helpdesk

Today my Director sent me a link to the latest EDUCAUSE survey of IT use by academics [1]. This has a strong focus on teaching and learning, but is still very much of interest to those of us involved in research support.

More than 17,000 responses from academics in 13 countries were received and the results are great reading. One of the report's key findings is that

The majority of faculty rely on the institution’s help desk for technology support.
According to the report, nearly three quarters of academics  go to the help desk for tech support, 
followed by the crowd-sourced “Hey, Joe!” approach of asking peers or colleagues (57%) and the do-it-yourself method of just Googling solutions (45%).
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak to an Australian National Data Service data intensive for staff from regional and teaching-intensive universities about change management in the context of research data support. I talked a bit about the work that I have been doing to get my university prepared for the launch of our new research data storage service. At one point I asked the attendees in the room - a mix of librarians, IT and research managers - to think about what advice a researcher in their institution would get if they called up the university's IT helpdesk to ask for research data management help.

The reason I asked this is because, although I have worked supporting research data management for the past seven years, it is only in the last three months that I have ever actively worked with my organisation's helpdesk team to ensure that they are aware of a new service and are fully equipped with the information they need to be able to resolve basic queries and make referrals to the correct people where a query is more complex.

This work has been part of the process of developing an operational support plan that makes the roles and responsibility for the different tiers of support (from self-help materials through to consultation and technical troubleshooting) very clear. A significant amount of effort has been involved in this, including:
  • A briefing meeting with the manager of the help desk and the team leader of the staff that answer queries
  • Developing a new category for research storage within our service desk software and ensuring that automated queries from the Contact Us form were routed correctly 
  • Completing a handover checklist document, which outlined 
    • the purpose of the new service
    • details for how to resolve common queries that might come through
    • how to make a referral for a query that could not be resolved by the help desk
  • Discussing training needs with the team leader and then providing four information sessions to staff from the helpdesk team
  • Providing information regularly to the team leader about updates to the service and associated changes to the documentation (FAQs and user manual) that the helpdesk staff need to be aware of. 
All of this work was new to me, and it has been a real eye-opener. As data librarians or eResearch support professionals, many of us seem to be seeking to establish ourselves as the "single point of contact" for data management inquiries. Particularly for librarians, there is a push to be the friendly face of data management support in our institutions. It's true that librarians have networks that enable us to make serious inroads in terms of advocacy and I think the attempt to become the single point of contact for research data advice is being done in good faith; we hope this will prevent researchers from getting bounced from pillar to post as they try to find the right person to help them.

But really, shouldn't we also make the best use we can of the single point of contact that already exists and is used by the majority of our researchers right at the point when they decide they have a problem? Don't miss out, as I now realise I have for the last seven years, on the opportunity to partner with the people who are probably most likely to receive that call for help.


Dahlstrom, E. & Brooks, D.C., 2014. ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2014., EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research. Available at:
http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ecar_so/ers/ers1407/ers1407.pdf. (subscriber-only for the first five months after publication)