An interview with Anne Donnelly

Anne Donnelly, PPLS Academic Librarian
Anne Donnelly, PPLS Academic Librarian

Starting this month, we’ll be hosting a series of workshops developed and delivered by Anne Donnelly, the Academic Support Librarian for the School of PPLS.  Her job is to support both staff and students with everything related to the library.  I sat down with her last week to talk about her role within PPLS and some of the ways in which she can help students to do their research more effectively.

Could you tell me a bit about what Academic Support Librarians do?

Essentially, I try to make sure that the library does what it says on the tin for the School I support, namely PPLS. My role is really just about trying to resolve any issues with library services for students or staff. I also act as the School’s advocate in that I will represent any issues they have to the library on their behalf. I’ll also certainly explain to the School any library policies regarding the services and resources we provide for them.

Do the students who ask you for help typically come at the beginnings of their careers or at the ends?

Students don’t come to me very often, and the ones that do tend to be postgrads. Whenever I’m invited to do a presentation to students at the start, I always make it clear that there’s a lot of help available on the web and in person at the library help desks, and that, if all else fails, they can always contact me. Even if I don’t have the answer, I’ll join them up with an answer or solution as best I can.

My offer is not taken up very frequently, however, and the postgrads who do get in touch are usually those engaged in bigger projects. They might need to do a large literature review, for example, and want some help getting their search strategies right.

What sort of help do they typically need with their strategies?

They usually ask for help because they aren’t finding the information they need. There’s obviously a library full of printed material and an electronic world out there that is boundless. Sometimes this can mean that they’re not looking in the right way. Looking for information in the right way means doing a search that is both wide-ranging and focused.

My work is mostly about directing them. I’m not a subject specialist, really, and they know their own subject better, but I can help guide them towards interrogating the sources of information in a more focused way.

What path have you followed through academia yourself?

I left school a long time ago! I attended secretarial college for 2 years, and worked as a short-hand-typist and secretary for the next 20 years. Towards the end of that period, I spent 6 years studying for an Open University Honours degree in general arts subjects, and that changed my life. Although I’d embarked on it as an end in itself, I began to think: “Could I do something with this? A professional vocation?” I considered a number of things: teaching, museum work, social work. However, librarianship seemed to be the one that would give a reasonable number of opportunities. So in 1995 I started as a postgrad student in the Department of Information Science at the University of Strathclyde, which resulted in the award of an MSc. Upon leaving Strathclyde, I was very fortunately taken on by the University of Edinburgh. I’ve been here for 22 years now and have never looked back.

I started off in the Erskine Medical Library, which is now closed. As I had worked in hospitals as a medical secretary, I fitted in very easily. I moved from there to become Postgraduate Librarian at the Royal Infirmary in Lauriston Place and then to the post of Medical Librarian at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

I also spent some time working at the University Data Library. Until then, I used to think of data as just being ‘number crunching’, but I learned that it’s really about anything that underpins research, and it all needs to be managed properly. Since 2011, the University of Edinburgh has been a leader in the field. We have a  Research Data Management Policy, one of the first in the UK, that promotes good management and stewardship of research data. We also have a dedicated team in the shape of Research Data Service. While they are the experts on data management, I can often field questions about it. In fact, I’ll be talking tomorrow on the subject to some of our postgrad linguistics students

Are there things that people could come to you about earlier on?

I don’t tend to hear from them! I think there’s a reason for that: I’m based in Argyle House now. When I was in the Main Library, it was much better. If somebody came to the desk there with a PPLS-related question, the librarian at the desk would say “Actually, Annie might know more about that” and they’d phone me down and I’d come and see them. So I would see undergrads more there, actually. As it’s a bit of an expedition for students to come to Argyle House, I’m happy to meet them in the Central Campus, often in the Business School Café, which is usually fairly quiet.

I think the main thing I can do for students earlier on in their careers is to make sure they’re making use of the resources that we have. Something that’s being marketed just now — and you’ve probably seen the posters —is It has some academic material, but many of the videos are more about life skills — I did the one about being a more organised and ‘sorted’ person!

I’ve probably done the same one.

It’s very good — I felt very inspired. There are also videos on EndNote and more practical topics like that. But they also cover business and creative skills: be a better web editor, or be a better photographer.  There’s a big drive at the university for everybody to be digital.  If they’re not digital when they arrive, they should be digital when they leave, because it’s a digital world out there.  In fact, all of us in Information Services are expected to make an effort to become more digital in the way we work.

I think a lot of students underutilise resources that have already been paid for.  It’s such a waste.

Yes, you’re obviously aware of the NSS. The university pays a lot of attention to the scores and the library does fairly well. However, sometimes students report that they have difficulty finding books, and this is often because they don’t know how to use DiscoverEd properly. Others regretfully write “I wish I’d known how to do X at the start”. In both cases, I think the answer is getting people to engage from the very beginning with all the resources that are out there, because they may need them at some point in the future. And they won’t have the same access to this material when they leave.

Absolutely, I remember after my undergraduate degree…  when I lost access to the online article collections I felt like something had been cut off.

I’m afraid that’s right.  I know there’s a package of stuff that our alumni can get access to after they leave, but it’s really quite limited.

Are there any other underutilised resources?

Students often do not look beyond Google Scholar. But there is a large range of subject-specific bibliographic databases available and it’s a good thing to know how to use them. That’s something I can certainly help students with.

There’s also SCONUL Access, a reciprocal scheme whereby universities in the UK and Ireland allow access to students from other institutions. The terms of that access will vary in each institution. However, one thing they all offer is an academic environment to work in. Students come home for the holidays — Christmas, or whatever — and sometimes can’t cope with the chaos in the house. They might want to take themselves off to, say, UCL or Imperial or wherever and just sit with their books and just work there. Students who use SCONUL have told me it’s wonderful.