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Mapping New Landscapes: How Libraries Can Support Agricultural Scholarship in the 21st Century

Tue Jul 18, 2017

Mapping New Landscapes: How can libraries support ag research in the 21st century?Twenty-first century research for better farming cuts across many disciplines, and is as likely to seek advances in crop breeding, soil science and other “traditional” fields of agricultural study as it is to engage in deep inquiry into a host of other frontiers in modern scholarship–in areas such as genetics, ecology, evolutionary biology, climatology, international finance, and global food security. As agricultural research becomes ever more cross- and inter-disciplinary, the revolutionary new digital technologies and resources of today offer researchers fantastically powerful tools to gather, synthesize and analyze large amounts of data. Agriculture in the modern age has become a profoundly exciting and complex field of inquiry.

For libraries, this rapidly evolving research landscape has raised an important question: are we keeping up with what agricultural scholars of the twenty-first century really need? To address this question, several Mann librarians collaborated this past year on a national qualitative study on the research practices of agricultural researchers. Organized by the non-profit academic services organization Ithaka S+R, the study included librarians from nineteen land grant universities and the National Agricultural Library. The resulting report, released last month, yields some important and sometimes surprising insights for agriculture and life science libraries looking to make sure their services evolve in line and at pace with today’s fast-expanding frontier in agricultural research.

Some of the key lessons include:

  • Thanks to the power of platforms such as Google Scholars, aggressive strategies by academic libraries to acquire and streamline access to digital resources, and robust, internet-facilitated interlibrary-loan services, the digital age is delivering fully on its promise of making information easily discoverable and accessible. Agricultural researchers reported relatively few challenges in their ability to find and access a broad variety of high-quality information and current research results.
  • The students with whom agricultural researchers work play an important role in bringing new research and information to the attention of researchers. This finding underscores the importance and far-reaching impact of libraries’ work in building strong research and information literacy skills among students.
  • While information is becoming more easily discoverable and accessible, researchers are feeling significantly less sanguine about their ability to steward for the long-term the rich data they themselves are producing. In particular, researchers see important value in making their data shareable, but the goal of securing their data in an accessible and reliable digital space is proving time-consuming, daunting, and frequently elusive. Ag researchers of today do engage in a variety of idiosyncratic strategies for storing their data sets and other research materials–but what they really need is better training in vetted “best practices” for long-term data storage along with better data storage infrastructure.
  • Agricultural researchers are finding many options for disseminating the results of scholarship to colleagues, but when it comes to reaching the public, they feel stymied. Along with this frustration comes the worry that the wider public is left uninformed about and ultimately indifferent to the value of much current agricultural research. Twenty-first century digital media platforms offer some great potential for addressing this communication gap, but scholars need much support–information about best practices as well as some attendant infrastructure–to take advantage of these opportunities.

At Mann Library, we are keen to continue expanding our role as an agile, responsive service point that helps Cornell faculty tackle their short and long-term data management needs; and as an active communication space that helps Cornell scholars get the word out about their research and its impact on the world at large. If you are an agricultural researcher and would like to explore the ways the library can help support your research, drop us line at The twenty-first century is an exciting time to be an agricultural scholar. It’s also proving an exciting time to be an agricultural library.

The full Ithaka S+R report “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Agriculture Scholars” is available online. The report presenting findings of the survey at Cornell University, “Research Practices and Support Needs of Scholars in the Field of Agriculture at Cornell University,” is also available online in Cornell’s eCommons digital repository.

Photography: Robert at w: Picasa – 2005-11-03-Andong, CC BY 3.0,