All About Library Research: An Interview with Tracy Coyne

by Loren Guay

As Northwestern prepares to head back to school in September, we’re excited to interview Tracy Coyne, Distance Learning and Professional Studies Librarian! Below, Tracy shares the changes, trends, and challenges she’s witnessed over her many years of library experience, as well as what she believes the future of library research is today. 

We’d love to start by hearing you describe your role in your own words. How long have you worked at Northwestern, and what led you to SPS / distance learning?

I started working for NU Libraries in September 2009 as a reference intern while attending Dominican University here in Chicagoland to get my Master’s in Library and Information Science. Prior to that, I worked as a technical writer, researcher, and editor for over twenty years, mostly in the insurance and technology fields.

Along the way, I collaborated with corporate librarians while employed at an international consulting company, and observing their work deepened my long-held interest in library science. In that job I worked with colleagues in different time zones, most often in Asia and Europe, where I learned about other cultures and developed my skills in working with others remotely. The work was accomplished mostly via email or phone call, and I still know some of the international dialing codes—there was no Skype or Zoom service back then!

I think returning to school as an adult learner and collaborating with colleagues across the globe prepared me for my current role as the SPS Distance Learning and Professional Studies Librarian, a job I have held since September 2014.

What’s something about your job that might surprise people?

One part of a librarian’s job is volunteer participation in professional activities at the local or national level. It is invisible to the faculty and students we support, but these activities help keep us knowledgeable about learning trends and issues in higher education. Some of my colleagues publish scholarly articles and book chapters, while others serve on professional committees on a variety of subjects.

For example, I recently helped coordinate a panel session at the American Library Association annual conference on “Learners of 2030: Preparing for Literacies and Skills of the Future.” The four panelists, from different universities, presented the actions their schools have taken to prepare for the next decade and beyond, including providing digital media labs for students to use immersive technologies such as augmented/virtual/mixed/and extended reality tools. The panel also predicted that all students, including remote learners, will routinely be creating podcasts, short videos, and graphical illustrations for their course assignments.

Also prominent will be the need for teaching students how to use resources responsibly, including generative artificial intelligence, and learning to be a digitally-literate, wise consumer of information, while providing accurate attribution of the sources they use, and employing data management best practices.

Do you have any tips for SPS faculty engaging with NU Libraries for the first time?

I would recommend that instructors reach out to me via email or phone call; I can then introduce them to one of my colleagues who support their specific SPS program, if it is not one for which I am the liaison. This helps us keep current with new instructors and gives us the opportunity to introduce ourselves and explain how we can support them and the teaching mission of the university.

Do you have a favorite library resource or research tool that not many people know about?

The library has helpful workshops (including Zoom ones) that we offer during the standard academic year on a number of topics, including these: “Cite Smarter & Manage Your Research” (covers the bibliographic manager tools EndNote and Zotero); “Research Is Nonlinear” (explains how students can successfully navigate the messy process of research, whether writing a paper or documenting lab work); and “Literature Review Basics” (undergraduate and graduate versions, with tips on developing and refining a research question and constructing a review).

How have you seen research change over time? Are there any current trends or fads that we might not have expected five or ten years ago?

Overall, the daily addition of electronic resources has been a huge change affecting the universe of information. Previously, most information was contained in a physical state, such as in a paper book/periodical/map/music score, on tape or film, DVD/CD-ROM, or microform. While library holdings in those formats were vast, it is nothing like the sea of digital choices that we have now.

A library card catalog: remember when?

That is the good news. The challenging news is that it can be difficult for a researcher to navigate all the digital holdings (as opposed to locating a physical item in the library stacks), whether they be within the library portal, or beyond. In some cases, access to items has become even more challenging within the last ten years or so, as library budgets have shrunk, and publishers have raised their licensing fees to electronic content, causing libraries to cancel subscriptions and turn to a shared collection model. This model enables libraries to network and loan holdings to one another, to fulfill patron information needs.

The pressure of increased prices has also helped propel Open Access initiatives, and today, much more research is available and not locked behind a paywall, including research that our own scholars deposit in Arch, NU’s institutional repository for research, data, and non-traditional works of scholarship. In sum, librarians are familiar with how and where content is stored and can help researchers discover relevant content.

Picture from Wikimedia.

As for more recent changes, the introduction of generative artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT, has rocked higher education; libraries are keeping current on the issues and testing it themselves so that we may be familiar with, and responsive to, its pedagogical and research uses. Generative AI can be useful for collecting and assembling information, but it cannot critically judge the content and veracity of what it is providing. Librarians can assist researchers and help them distinguish the assets and limitations of this technology.

What do you think is the future of library research?

The future of library research, in a word, is technology.

Mountains of digital content are being created every day, and librarians are embracing this, as both consumers and creators. The number of items that NU Libraries has digitized from our collections and made available for virtual consumption continues to grow, enabling researchers around the globe to access items for their research. Last year, our Digital Collections were viewed by researchers in 9,033 cities in 176 countries.

In other collections, we are employing hi-tech applications for viewing our holdings. For example, recently, our Herskovits Library of African Studies featured an exhibit that employed virtual and augmented reality to enable the user to manipulate a physical artifact from our collection (curated by Craig Stevens). Using a headset, one could appreciate design details that would not be so easy to see without the enhancement, and might be off limits entirely, if the item were in a fragile physical condition. This technology has the potential to greatly expand researcher access to library special collections, including primary sources.

Exploring a Liberian election fan (1951) in the “Augmented Curiosities” exhibit.

As to other future happenings, our new Dean of Libraries, Xuemao Wang, is leading NU Libraries into exciting territory, with a new vision for our library services, including digital initiatives, and innovative collaborations across NU’s institutional units. More details will be announced this Fall.