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‘Searcher to Researcher’: UML Library Meets Evolving Needs

New Hires, Initiatives Aimed to Boost University’s Research Goals

Three women look at papers and chat while standing outside an office Photo by Ed Brennen
Asst. Director for Communications and User Experience Sara Marks, left, chats with Assoc. Director of Research and Learning Amanda Rust, center, and Access Services Librarian Stephanie Schweighardt at O'Leary Library.

By Ed Brennen

One of Chancellor Julie Chen’s goals is to see UMass Lowell join the ranks of top national research universities. Rising to Research 1 (R1) status, the highest level awarded by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, requires more than just cutting-edge labs and industry partnerships, however.

“The library is a crucial part of R1 status,” says Director of the University Library Allison Estell, a member of UML’s Research Growth (R1) Planning Commission who oversees the three library branches: O’Leary on South Campus, Lydon on North Campus and the Center for Lowell History downtown.

To that end, the UML Library is taking steps — including hiring new staff members, assessing its collections and introducing additional services — to meet the needs of an R1 institution.

Over the summer, the library hired Amanda Rust as its new associate director of research and learning. Rust, who spent the past 16 years at Northeastern University, will build and lead a team of four to five reference librarians that will allow the library to expand its services to include more research support. According to Estell, that includes scholarly communication (how research findings are shared and published) and digital scholarship (utilizing tools like data visualization, text analysis and mapping to extend traditional methods of research).

Stephanie Schweighardt, meanwhile, was hired as access services librarian and manager for Lydon Library. And Sara Marks, who has been with the university for 12 years, was promoted from associate librarian to the newly created position of assistant director for communications and user experience.
Students walk near a staircase behind a monitor with a QR code for library help Photo by Ed Brennen
Students can scan a QR code to get help with navigating the UML Library.

“We’re building an amazing staff that is already making an impact,” says Estell, who joined UML last fall. “We have our eyes on what will be necessary to support an R1 research community.”

While the libraries reopened on campus last summer after providing fully online services during the pandemic, Marks says this year feels like “year one post-pandemic” in many ways. Positions that had been vacated by retirements are being filled, and work-study jobs are returning to “more traditional numbers.”

To help new River Hawks understand how to use the library both in person and online, Rust and her team created an orientation page and postcard that covers basics like getting a library card, reserving a study space and requesting an interlibrary loan.

If students have a question, an “Ask a Librarian” live chat is available weekdays from noon to 2 p.m. on the library website, which they can access on their mobile devices by scanning a QR code found on monitors throughout the libraries. Students can also read FAQs or submit questions, which Marks says are usually answered within 24 hours.

“We want them to get an overview of what we have, so when they walk into their classrooms, they’re not completely lost,” Marks says. “How do they get course reserves? If their professor uses an open textbook, how do they get it? These things can be confusing, but our goal is to make it easier for students to find.”
Three women smile while posing for a picture in front of a sign that says O'Leary Learning Commons Photo by Ed Brennen
UML Library staff members, from left, Stephanie Schweighardt, Amanda Rust and Sara Marks are among those helping the university bolster its research reputation.

The next step, she says, is helping students “make that shift from searcher to researcher.” 

“That’s something their professors increasingly expect from them as they move through four years. They want to know students can cite an article properly, or know the difference between a news article and a peer-reviewed article,” she says. “Someone has to teach them that, and traditionally it’s been us.”

Students can start with the library’s introduction to research page, which covers how to access and use more than 500 LibGuides, 220-plus databases and thousands of publications.

“Our students know how to search,” Marks says. “It’s shifting that perspective from searching to researching, which is a more nuanced skill. These databases aren’t always as easy to use as Google.”

Looking ahead, Marks says the library plans to form a volunteer student advisory team this year to find out what River Hawks want.

“We’re looking for a diverse cross section of campus to make sure we’re serving students who aren’t native English speakers, who are only online, who may have a visual or auditory impairment,” she says. “We want to make sure every student is successful, so we want their feedback.”

What advice would Marks give to a new student to campus?

“Get into the library as quickly as possible,” she says. “And if you have a question, just ask us. We’re waiting to help.”