• mtesterman

The STEM Lab Librarian

I am a big believer in embedding librarians in research communities as a way to deliver library resources, tools, and services directly to the researchers we serve as STEM librarians.

The idea of 'research communities' is one worth exploring a little bit more in-depth. Of course, I mean our users, generally speaking, when I talk about research communities, but I'm also talking about the two research communities that I have been hired to support: the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

These two departments are large research communities, but on closer inspection, we find that smaller research communities have formed organically within the department around labs or research groups, study groups, student organizations, journal clubs, and cohorts.

When zooming out beyond the department, I can see my researchers engaging in larger research communities that have formed around sub-disciplines, professional organizations, conferences, even on Twitter! [more on being embedded in # AcademicTwitter here]

I bring this idea of research communities up because we have evidence that academic researchers, especially researchers in the sciences, tend to seek information from their research communities before reaching out to the library-- and this is true even in situations where a liaison model is already in place. [see References] For me, that means that my researchers in psychology and neuroscience are more likely to reach out for help to their lab-mates for help than they are to reach out to me as their subject librarian.

What to do about this?

The strategy I practice given this reality is rather than trying to change the behavior of my researchers by trying to get them to come to the library more, or come to me more, is to instead try to find creative ways to go to them by embedding myself in as many of those research communities as I can with the goal of bringing library resources, tools, and services, to them, where they already are.

I have been really lucky that for the past year and a half I have been able to be physically embedded in the psychology department which was fantastic until March of 2020 when the pandemic sent us all to the four winds. Since then I’ve had to be a bit more creative about how I engage my researchers, which led to the creation of the Lab Librarian program.

The Lab Librarian services in one in which I offer to integrate myself into a lab’s digital space. This could be Slack, Microsoft Teams, or even a lab listserv-- really any digital space where the lab is communicating with one another. As the lab librarian, I occupy that space, largely as an unobtrusive observer. I watch, I listen, I learn and then if something comes up that I think the library can assist with, be it myself or another library unit, I can reach out to the researcher and deliver that support at the point of need.

Being embedded in lab communication channels also gives me an opportunity to directly market new library resources and tools: so for example if we get an institutional membership for a research tool or resource, I can tell the labs directly-- which means they are more likely to receive that information.

At the time of writing, I am 3 months into this program (after a 6-month pilot of two labs) and have had some really positive feedback from the labs I work with. There are 56 labs in my two departments and I am currently embedded in about 25% of them, with that number growing pretty steadily.

Some things I've learned along the way:

  • The library as a research partner: Embedded librarianship is a very different way of providing library service: it’s one that presents the library as a partner and collaborator and community member -- which is very different from the traditional library services in which the research must come to us for help. Of course, we all know that is not an accurate representation of a 21st-century academic library, but to many of our users, that’s still how the library works. The more integrated we can be into these research communities the more we can reshape the idea of what a library is and what a library can do and the better we can fulfill our role in supporting teaching and research on campus.

  • DEI benefits: Grad students at Princeton report that they are happy with Princeton's efforts to recruit a diverse student body and that they feel this program has been successful. However, grad students who come from underrepresented and underserved populations often report that they feel undersupported once they matriculate. The support is there- at the library and elsewhere on campus, but it is a burden to have to spend the time and energy figuring out what these campus units offer, where to go for help, and who to contact. Delivering library services directly to the point of need bypasses this barrier and reduces the burden on these students.

  • Feedback Loop: The lab librarian program, and indeed any of the embedded librarianship opportunities I participate in, is not just about handing out advice and library goodies. It's x-ray vision. It's a way to gain a true understanding of the research lives and needs of our researchers which in turn can inform decisions about the kinds of research services and resources the library pursues.

💡 Think you'd like to try this approach?

I've included below the email I sent to the PIs/faculty members who I work with. Please feel free to use and adapt in whatever way you'd like.

Two questions that I received after sending this were 1) is this a free service or does the lab have to pay for it and 2) would I be available on other platforms such as Microsoft Teams. I would address both of these questions if I were to resend.


Hello, Professor «Last_Name»!

Now that the semester is off to a good start, I wanted to send a reminder that I'm available to you and your team as embedded research support in the form of a Lab Librarian.

What is a Lab Librarian?

A lab librarian provides embedded research information support in your team’s digital spaces such as lab listservs and Slack workspaces.

What would this look like exactly?

If you have a listserv or Slack workspace for your lab simply send me an invitation to join (mtesterman@princeton.edu) and I will monitor the channel as a quiet observer. If something pops up that I can help with I will reach out to the researcher directly or they can tag or message me in Slack and get an immediate response. 

Very occasionally, I might share something of high relevance to your researchers such as when we acquire a new license for tool, such as our new institutional membership for Open Science Framework (OSF).

I am also available to provide brief presentations to lab meetings on topics such as best practices for finding literature, research data management, and using tools the library supports such as Overleaf, Protocols.io and BioRender.

I can also provide small group training for specific to lab projects (in-depth literature reviews, opening your workflow, best practices for research transparency and reproducibility)

What kind of things can a lab librarian help with?

Here are a few examples of real issues that have come up in recent months:

  • I'm starting a meta-analysis and I need help finding studies.

  • I can’t access this article I found on APA PsycNET.

  • I'm not sure how to clean up this messy data file.

  • I need to find the full text of this scale.

  • I need help finding a journal to publish in.

  • How do I register my protocol on OSF?

  • I want to map the literature on my topic and look for gaps.

  • Am I eligible for the library’s Open Access Fund?

What are the benefits of having a Lab Librarian?

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to researchers getting the help they need is the time and effort it takes to figure out where to look for help, who to contact, and if that kind of support even exists! Embedded research support saves researchers time and energy so they can focus on what really matters. 

Direct research support can also have DEI implications. On-the-spot research support has the potential to reduce the burden on researchers from under-supported backgrounds to go find the help they need to be competitive and reach their full potential. 

Are other labs doing this?

Yes! Lab librarians go by many names and are being utilized in academic and clinical research labs across the country. But closer to home, your colleagues in the Leifer Lab, Baby Lab, Paulck Lab, Computational Memory Lab, Stigma and Social Perception Lab, and the Princeton-Penn Vents Collaboration all have embedded research support in their digital spaces (listservs and/or Slack workspaces).

I hope you will consider this offer if you think it would be a good fit for you and your team, and as always, please let me know if there is anything I can do for you!



MacKenzie, E. (2014). Academic Libraries and Outreach to the Sciences: Taking a Closer Look at Research Groups. Science & Technology Libraries, 33(2), 165–175. https://doi.org/10.1080/0194262X.2014.914011

Project MUSE - Expanding Library Support of Faculty Research: Exploring Readiness. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/511925

Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Chemists. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/supporting-the-changing-research-practices-of-chemists/

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