Dogged research librarians help technical community ferret out critical knowledge
April 20, 2012
- Technical Librarians are knowledge sleuths who support scientists and engineers in research
"If you didn't enjoy the hunt, you wouldn't become a librarian," says Technical Research Center Librarian Liz Reisman.
Considering the research center is operated by the U.S. Army Armament Research Development and Engineering Center, which deems itself the Army's "Center for Lethality," Reisman's proclamation could pose a serious threat to Picatinny's deer and bear population.
Fortunately, her quarry isn't four-legged but rather the academic or military book, specification, article, technical report or manual that could bolster a scientist's theory or channel a project in a new direction.
Reisman, as well as fellow librarian Suseela Chandrasekar and library technician Mimi Ng, occupy a realm that includes 40,000 books, hundreds of thousands of reports and 47 current paper journal subscriptions along with older journals.
"We have journals even the Library of Congress doesn't have," said Chandrasekar.
However, nowadays, fewer customers actually go to the library--not because there's too much reality television but because electronic books, online subscription services, information databases and online report repositories make libraries more of a cyber realm and less of a physical existence with each passing day.
The research library itself has evolved from a traditional library to better perform its function, said Chandraseka, who over the course of 30 years of library service here and at Rock Island, Ill., has witnessed events that have shaped the "Information Age." She instigated steps to ensure that the library evolved with the times to keep pace.
"Our premiere function is meeting the needs of ARDEC customers using the best available services and still being within the budget," said Chandrasekar, also the ARDEC technical information officer.
The library staff is in the process of digitizing more than 80 percent of the technical reports generated from Picatinny, Rock Island, Ill., Benet Labs at Watervliet Arsenal, N.Y., and Frankfurt Arsenal, Penn.
So far, 500,000 reports have been digitized and another 300,000 remain, said Chandrasekar. "A lot of work is being performed whether customers come in or not," added Reisman.
Customers access Technical Research Center at Building 59, via the intranet portal https://picac2w5.pica.army.mil/trc/index.html or by e-mail.
"I usually just send an email," said Jesse Sabatini, a pyrotechnics scientist who works frequently with Ng to obtain research on topics such as high-nitrogen compounds and illuminants. "The turnaround time is very good. I usually get it the same day and usually within a couple of hours."
"We go to them all the time," said Jay Poret a pyrotechnics scientist who often collaborates with Sabatini. "We have requests with Mimi Ng to find things right now.
"If you're thinking about a subject, by looking at journal articles you find new ways of looking at things," Poret continued. "It's part of the creative process. That's just part of how we do things as scientists."
So that library customers like Poret and Sabatini can focus on their science, they rely on a librarian's skills to find information they need that can help them with their project.
Usually, it is general information on a topic. Sometimes the need is for something specific or arcane.
To ferret out the desired information, librarians apply their specialty, which is referencing. Reisman describes the process as "knowing where the various piles of information are, knowing different sources and different databases. We know how to evaluate from a journal whether it's quality and a reputable source."
THE ART OF EXTRACTION
Technical knowledge of cataloguing forms the basis for the librarians' specialty.
The art of the librarian is to be found in the reference questions they ask customers that are designed to elicit as much as possible to determine exactly what they need.
"It's like therapy," Reisman noted. A search, for example, may produce far too many results, like the 4,700 results that turned up in a request for information on unmanned aerial vehicle weapons.
In that search, Reisman went back to the customer to ask for information that could eliminate unneeded results.
The customer responded that they could add "anti-tank," "anti-bunker" or "anti-ship" -- and subtract responses that included "Hellfire" (a type of air-to-ground missile).
In that example, Reisman conducted the more advanced search -- using both hyphenated and non-hyphenated versions of anti-tank, etc., that narrowed down the list to a more manageable 145 references.
If the librarians don't understand the customer's needs because the subject matter is too specialized, they also have access to a service that provides varied, high-level subject experts who are also professional librarians.
It's the electronic services, however, that have extended their capabilities far beyond the physical dimensions of their walls in Building 59.
"The advantage of a book on a shelf is that once you have it you can keep it forever," said Chandrasekar.
"The disadvantage is space and that you can only loan out one at a time." With digital media, several users can access a document simultaneously.
Chandrasekar said she negotiates contracts with online services for internet protocol addresses from both Picatinny and Benet Labs.
The publication IEEE quoted her $90,000 to allow unlimited access for her customers, but she negotiated a far lower price based on a typical annual usage of 3,000 downloads per year.
The research center's access to the Knovel e-books service covers 10 online subscriptions, journals, e-books, online subscriptions and conference proceedings.
Through a contract handled by the Army Materiel Command, the center also provides Information Handling Services that has military and industry specifications and standards.
Also, the reports generated from ARDEC and the ones they are converting to digital format go into the Defense Technical Information Center, which makes reports from across the DoD accessible.
THE PURSUIT PERSISTS
The library also has access to Springer Ebooks on math and physics, American Society of Metals handbooks and more. Many ARDEC employees access these resources on a daily basis to do their work, said Reisman.
"If we don't have it, we don't stop. We go and dig deeper," said Reisman.
"If it's a day later, a week later or a month later, we want to be able to provide that information to make them happy."
With such dogged pursuit of information, Reisman and her colleagues are akin to information detectives who don't believe there is such such a thing as a cold case.