Digital Reference Services for Engineers

Definition of an Engineer
Types of Information Sources
Accessibility / Ease of Use
Technical Quality
Stages of Information Seeking
The Reference Interview
Digital Reference
References (pdf)
Appendix (pdf)

Digital Reference

The importance of accessibility to engineers suggests that the library should come to the engineer rather than making the engineer come to the library (Gerstberger & Allen, 1968). This notion is ideally suited for digital reference, where information sources can be made available on their personal office computers. The key aspects of accessibility to consider when designing digital reference services are the preference for human sources, avoiding information overload, increasing experience, and understanding context.

Preference for Human Sources

Librarians need to understand that co-workers are often the best source of information, especially since project documentation is often incomplete. One way they can support engineers is through creating and maintaining a searchable database of corporate employees who have expertise in a particular subject area. This database needs to track the employee, the projects they worked on, the subjects of these projects, their responsibilities with respect to the project, the other members of the project team (for cross-referencing), their current contact information, and also their education and work background. This database should include an indexing scheme or thesaurus to supply users with multiple access points (Hertzum & Pejtersen, 2000). With such a database at their disposal, librarians will be able to help engineers find informal sources instead of just formal sources.

Avoiding Information Overload

Digital reference services need to be designed to minimize information overload. This means avoiding providing engineers with information that they did not request and that they do not need for the project at hand. Librarians can help with information overload by generating brief lists of core electronic sources, such as useful websites and databases. In order to keep the list brief a good rule of thumb to remember is that 75% of engineers’ questions can be answered by 25% of the available sources (Cromer & Testi, 1994). However, any list of sources will only be useful to an engineer if they are kept up to date. Web resources in particular undergo constant change in content, availability, and structure (Conkling, 2006). A librarian can add real value by checking the links and updating them as necessary. It is a much more efficient use of time to have one librarian maintaining a list of sources for an organization rather than having hundreds of engineers maintaining their own separate lists. To maximize usefulness these lists need to be tailored as much as possible to the engineer’s specific situation. Lists should be specialized based on work role. While the categories of sources used by different types of engineers are often similar, the specific sources consulted for a petroleum engineer will be quite different than the sources consulted by an aerospace engineer (for example). Librarians need to understand these differences and can then compile a list of specific sources that are useful to specific job functions. A sample of some useful reference sources for petroleum and aeronautical/aerospace engineers can be found in the appendix.

Librarians can also help prevent information overload by having a sense of what stage the project is in. Since the resources needed vary according to the project stage, understanding these stages helps the librarian prepare the resources necessary for the current stage. For example, in the idea confirming stage engineers will often be searching for standards to compare their designs against yet an engineer will not consult a list of useful standards databases and websites when they are in the idea assuming stage. If an engineer is provided a list of useful standards databases while they are in the idea assuming stage, they will consider it passive information, will not make use of it, and may forget they have it by the time they need it in the idea confirming stage. If the librarian is aware of what stage the project is in, they will be able to provide the engineer with the list of standards databases at the start of the idea confirming stage, when it will be active information and much more likely to be used.

Another way to avoid information overload is the effective use of Blogs and RSS feeds. A local library Blog can be an extremely valuable way to keep up with new resources and services. RSS feeds provide an efficient way to monitor sites of interest by allowing a user to access a wide array of web services in an easy, customized package (Osif, 2006, p. 6).

Increasing Experience

Increasing experience with an information source increases the engineer’s perception of its accessibility (Gerstberger & Allen, 1968). The more training a librarian can give to an engineer on important sources, the more likely it is that they will use them. The more convenient this training is the more likely it is to be used. NASA used an innovative mobile librarian program, situating a librarian with a laptop in the same work area as engineers (Reynolds-Pope, Chesnes, & Early, 2010). A program like this one allows librarians to inform the engineers about potentially useful tools and also to immediately train the engineers in the comfort of their own office about how to use them. This easy access gives the opportunity to librarians to see the engineers work in context, providing them with a better understanding of engineers’ jobs. Another benefit of this increased access is the development of trust and the building of peer relationships between librarians and engineers. If librarians are thought of as co-workers, they are more likely to be considered informal sources of information and consulted more frequently.

Understanding Context

Engineers prefer to speak with someone who is an authority in the discipline (Anderson, Glassman, McAfee, & Pinelli, 2001). They do not want to take the time to explain the context of their search question to a librarian in a reference interview. Librarians need to be as familiar with the terminology and concepts as possible to try to limit the need for a lengthy reference interview. The more background information a librarian has and the more informed they are, the better they will be able to understand the project the engineer is working on and will be more able to help them with their information requests (Reynolds-Pope, Chesnes, & Early, 2010). One possibility would be to make the librarian a part of the project team. Most project teams conduct weekly meetings to determine information needs and develop strategies for finding information. One of the primary activities at these meetings is to assign information gathering tasks to specific members of the group (Bruce et al., 2003). By attending these meetings, the librarian would understand the context of any information request and be immediately accessible to be assigned an information retrieval task.

The digital reference services provided to engineers in a research and development company context are more specialized. In this environment, engineers are required to do more literature searches. Since much of the journal literature is becoming electronic, librarians can support engineers by generating specialized search terms and conducting multiple database literature searches. The librarian can continuously monitor these searches for new articles that match the search criteria and provide the engineers with this new information (Ellis & Haugan, 1997).