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Research Stories: Debra Lucas-Alfieri

Research Stories: Debra Lucas-Alfieri

Lucas-Alfieri, head of research and interlibrary loan, authored a guidebook for the modern academic librarian in the age of electronic information

Buffalo, New York – March 8, 2015 – Debra Lucas-Alfieri is a master of the information age, so versed in the ongoing evolution of content, data and scholarly discourse that she has written a book on it.

She is by all measures the librarians’ librarian. In a world of information, misinformation and pseudo-sources passing as informative, she has evolved.

“It really is a changing of the guard,” says Ms. Lucas-Alfieri, head of research and interlibrary loan at the D’Youville College Montante Family Library. “Years ago librarians considered their audience ‘captive.’ They aren’t captive anymore.”

Once the gatekeepers of the collected knowledge of civilization, the librarians of today see their role much differently. They are facilitators, they make connections for their clientele and they even see library users as “customers.”

In response to that changing dynamic, Ms. Lucas-Alfieri wrote “Marketing the 21st Century Library,” a guidebook for the modern academic librarian, to be published in June 2015.

Its premise is simple. “We need to educate our campus constituents about what we can do for them. We are not just books anymore,” she says. Not just books and, in many ways, not even mostly books. Academic librarians are most valuable for their skill sets, their ability to narrow the fire hose of online and physical research materials down to the relevant, the current and the accurate for their students and faculty.

“The Internet is great for casual information,” she explains, “but when you are a PhD candidate, a doctor or nurse, you need to know the exact information and its source for your pursuits. You can look at Wikipedia, but don’t quote it. You don’t know who wrote it or how reliable it is. Academic papers are signed and they are vetted. You know what you are dealing with.”

While everyone wants to have the best information, not everyone is looking for the same degree of information. Librarians are tuned into those individual preferences.

“There are students ... and then there are faculty,” Ms. Lucas-Alfieri says with a smile. “They have distinctly different needs. For students, their grade is on the line. Undergraduates just want to get the paper written. Graduate students are more interested in the process of research. Our job is to make sure they are on the right track. With faculty, it is their own research, or what they are publishing and they have distinctly different needs.”

That is genuine 21st century library work, the kind she was searching during her sabbatical to complete her book. Ms. Lucas-Alfieri traveled to campus libraries around the country, immersing herself in their systems and finding out what students really wanted and how well their libraries were providing it.

“You have to have that vision of what a library should be, or you are doomed to be obsolete,” she said. “You decide what they want and what to weed out. The card catalog is gone—that’s all on computer—but we still have study areas, quiet areas, digital equipment, white boards, smart boards—not stacks of dusty tomes no one ever opens.”

Those tall shelves of musty monochrome covers are going the way of the landline, she said, as academia heads toward the bookless library of the future—where the library is “place” more than pages, rich in electronic content.

As forward thinking as she is, Ms. Lucas-Alfieri believes the library will never be totally bookless. Some books are literally irreplaceable, and that is where the D’Youville’s robust interlibrary loan (ILL) service comes in. Tracking other libraries’ inventory and sharing their collected wealth is more important than ever, she said. She even teaches a course in best practices for managing the ILL service, which is used by everyone at D’Youville. The system is particularly helpful for the hundreds of distance learners who study through D’Youville, providing access to library collections far beyond those on their city campus. ”I have done interlibrary loan for books from the 1800s,” Ms. Lucas-Alfieri says. “Library marketing and services go back to the beginning of the institution.”

This brings her back to the future of academic libraries in the age of electronic information. Her book is with her publisher and she is looking ahead to rallying her fellow professionals as they redefine their place in American higher education. Librarians have to learn to be loud, she said, adding, “It really is time for librarians to speak up.”

“Right now, I am doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do professionally,” she said. “It is an exciting time.”

Story by Melinda Miller
Photo by Bob Kirkham