Where Do We Go From Here? Presenting a Toolkit for Advancing Research Data Services Beyond the Basics

December 2, 2021

Cinthya Ippoliti
Auraria Library Director
University of Colorado Denver

Kay K. Bjornen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Research Data Initiatives Librarian
Oklahoma State University


Since the National Science Foundation established requirements that researchers make data openly available and the research behind it replicable, academic libraries of all sizes have sought to facilitate this by creating targeted services. Though many resources are available that purport to help libraries develop data services, many have found implementation challenging. Alison Mackenzie and Lindsey Martin, the editors of “Developing Digital Scholarship,” mention that apart from the work of Antonella Esposito, “the literature does not reveal librarians gaining a research-informed, direct understanding of the behaviors and workflows of researchers” (2016).  

Project Background

As we developed research data management services at the Oklahoma State University Library, we recognized the need to better understand researcher challenges around data management as well as the library’s potential role in providing leadership and support. Our IMLS Sparks! funded project used journey mapping and design thinking to help a cohort of 27 faculty document their goals and practices throughout the research lifecycle and answer the question what is the role and impact of the library in helping researchers manage their data along an entire project lifecycle? The faculty were recruited based on research interests and previous working relationships. We asked them to describe the projects they were working on and the types of data that they were generating. We sent out a recruitment message via email and tabulated each response as it came in with the intention of including a wide range of disciplines and research types. The results were used to develop workflows and services to meet identified data needs based on their own insights and with their direct involvement. 

Customer journey mapping and design thinking were used to gain insight into researcher challenges, pain points, and perspectives and provide us with a way to identify themes at a much deeper level than surveys might allow us to do. Customer journey mapping captured the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of researcher data management challenges by literally mapping their processes and decisions onto the research lifecycle (data production, data analysis/interpretation, and data storage). This approach differs from an interview because the researcher documents steps taken at each phase of the project instead of simply talking about them. Design thinking would then assist us in distilling the themes we identified in the maps and collaboratively design solutions to address them instead of collecting data in a vacuum and later designing activities that might or might not be adopted. In essence, the customer journey maps represented the first step of the design thinking process which would allow us to identify what challenges researchers faced when working with project data.

Developing a Project Management Toolkit

We learned through this process that our project was more about working with people than anything else, which led to the idea of developing a toolkit. This toolkit is designed to guide libraries who encounter the same challenges that we did as they create research data services and especially those who must work with the limited resources at their disposal. The content is designed to help libraries create processes beyond those that are strictly functional. The toolkit is intended to help users explore the hidden elements which we found to be as important as the logistical details for developing a successful program. 

  • Creating a project team: A robust project team will not only bring a wide range of experience and expertise but will ensure that there are adequate personnel to close out the project. When forming your project team, it may be helpful to consider not only librarians but others across campus involved in research support. You may also want to establish an advisory board to provide guidance and oversight. What roles should be represented? What experience can help keep things on track? Consider in advance how much time commitment might be necessary, what recognition you can give and how you plan to communicate. Finally, be sure to establish expectations for participation clearly.
  • Conducting a needs assessment: In order to explore methods beyond surveys, Christian Roher of the Nielsen Norman group provides a great overview of the types of studies used in this toolkit that you can use to understand the challenges researchers face within your institution. There are studies that include what people say vs what people do; qualitative studies that generate data about behaviors or attitudes based on observing them directly vs quantitative studies that gather data about the behavior or attitudes indirectly; how participants are using a service or tool; and user experience studies that range from surveys to interviews to concept testing (2014).
  • Project management basics: Strategic project management ensures that the goals and objectives outlined in your strategy will be accomplished by the actions taken. Each step should be adequately resourced and prioritized. If you can draw a clear line from your project to the areas or initiatives it is intended to improve, that’s a strong indicator of alignment. Every project must have appropriate support for staffing, time, and funding. A project charter will help you outline the project goals, timelines, milestones, and resources needed. Start by defining a vision for the project which details what issues the project will address, team member roles and responsibilities, timelines and goalposts and the actual activities that comprise the project. A project should also include a transparent and accessible documentation and communication process. Where will documents be stored and accessed? How will version control be managed? Who provides feedback and how? Consider doing some team building activities alongside content development in order to strengthen relationships and build trust. Finally, you will want to do some type of debrief and reflection at the end of the project.
  • Outreach and relationship-building: Create a communications plan so that your message is consistent and your outreach is thorough. This plan should include information about the message itself, who your audience is, what your communication objectives are, who creates the message, through what communication channels the message will be distributed, and the timing as well as frequency. Create a concise description that includes the benefits of participation with preliminary dates for each main component as well as an estimated time commitment and any incentives such as stipends or professional development funding. Don’t forget informational meetings or open houses, preferably with refreshments, as part of this approach. 

The toolkit is being developed on Pressbooks, an open platform for digital publications and textbooks. Each section of the toolkit will include background about the importance and implementation as well as templates and exercises to help users apply them to their own unique environment. The toolkit has a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY 4.0) so that, except where noted, all elements can be freely used and adapted. Users are also encouraged to share their own suggestions for additions to the toolkit by contacting the authors. Ideally it will be an evergreen tool with ongoing community contributions. The link to the toolkit can be found at https://open.library.okstate.edu/toolsforrds/.  


Starting a new research data services program can be challenging and it may feel like engagement of participants, navigating the organizational hierarchy, developing partnerships, and establishing a guiding framework can be a daunting task. Successfully navigating issues of library and staffing capacity, participant interest, and overall institutional support can make a difference in how the program is structured as well as its eventual success.


Roher, C. When to use which user-experience methods. NN/g Nielsen Norman Group.  (2014, October 2) Retrieved August 2, 2021 from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/which-ux-research-methods/

Mackenzie, A. & Martin, L. (2016). Developing Digital Scholarship: Emerging Practices in Academic Libraries. Chicago (IL): ALA Neal-Schuman.