The rising tide of multi-disciplinary research

The role of libraries and librarians must change to reflect the growth of multi-disciplinary study.

The growth of multi-disciplinary research

Information professionals who provide reference at busy research libraries know that no matter what academic discipline a client hails from - engineering, sociology, anthropology, the list goes on - smart researchers are now looking for answers wherever they can be found. And quite often the most important information shows up in altogether different disciplines. Political scientists read economics, and economists often serve as professors in fields such urban planning, public health, or indeed, political science. This trend is here to stay, and it is accelerating. Although traditionalists guard intellectual boundaries, they cannot slow the pace of multi-disciplinary synergy and collaboration. Fortunately, many researchers are embracing this process.

Serendipity and soft learning

This sounds like a new and dynamic paradigm shift, but it is best understood as a slow but steady evolution toward institutional acceptance of multi-disciplinary research. In the past many unconventional (or iconoclastic) researchers laboured in private, without much interaction beyond their own fields, much less support from their host institutions. Nonetheless, creative thinkers have long delivered stunning breakthroughs that were inspired by seemingly unrelated facts and details.

The history of science provides the best evidence of how serendipity springs not only from formal training within a given academic discipline but also from other avenues of study and learning. For example, The New York Times recently covered an article that was published in Nature Chemistry that will likely fuel discussion of multi-disciplinary research (see Further Reading). Thomas Gal, a researcher at the University of Colorado, assesses how Louis Pasteur may have uncovered clues that led to the birth of modern germ theory. He draws on family correspondence that suggests that Pasteur’s training as a painter and lithographer deeply influenced his scientific thinking. This is noteworthy, as Pasteur’s discoveries revolutionised not only germ theory but also chemistry, medicine, public health and vaccine research.

Gal notes that Pasteur's use of mirror images while creating lithographs may have helped him deduce the existence of chirality at the molecular level. Editors at The New York Times find his dissertation research is provocative, perhaps because his argument makes it plain that artistic training can lead to stunning scientific breakthroughs. Moreover, Pasteur's artistic training led him in directions that others with standard scientific training had not yet considered.

I find this research compelling for two reasons. First, it points to the high value of "soft learning," which happens everywhere, not just in classrooms. Soft learning is a crucial foil to scientific training, because it invites researchers to think beyond established theory in the search for new ideas. Second, an open minded spirit invites all of us to "learn by doing" instead of by rote. Buddhists think of this mental state as "beginners mind:" if you don’t know what can go wrong ahead of time, you are freer to experiment, just as children at play.

At their best, the classic disciplines and their time-tested orthodoxies provide a matrix and frame of reference for understanding knowledge systematically. This is still necessary. But the 21st century is challenging all disciplines to look beyond those boundaries. Perhaps beginner’s mind has gained value in these changing times. For instance, the threat of rising sea levels might create innovative alliance among diverse experts, such Dutch engineers, American city planners, and Bangladeshi policy makers. Such alliance could foster both engineering and cultural solutions in pursuit of answers to the challenge of rising sea levels.  Likewise, the search for new data sources has everyone knocking on unexpected doors and sometimes uncovering new ways to solve mundane problems.

The role of libraries

What is the role of libraries as the multi-disciplinary tide rises? In the U.S., many librarians share consensus that collection development and research support now require deeper training across as many disciplinary boundaries as possible—as well as readiness to step into new fields of knowledge as needed. This bias for action encourages closer collaboration between librarians and researchers—which is essential to the profession’s future.

While this may be a promising strategy, it addresses only the work we do already. The real challenge facing librarians is to fold creative study more directly into our professional lives. We already conduct research and write peer reviewed articles, and so it is not so great a leap to incorporate ongoing multi-disciplinary training and education. We also possess the tools to get into the game: a keen sense of the information lifecycle, awareness of the changing patterns in scholarly communication, and the power of open access. Our skills in these areas make us useful partners for the firm, the faculty, and university leaders.

However, success will depend on how much energy we invest in embedding ourselves directly in the research process, instead of asking our clients to come to us. Perhaps once we arrive in the flow of research, our own native skills may serve us quite well—just as Pasteur’s artistic training did.


Gal, Joseph. "Pasteur and the art of chirality." PhD Dissertation., Nature Chemistry, May 29, 2017. doi:10:1038/nchem.2790

Klein, Joanna. “How Pasteur’s Artistic Insight Changed Chemistry.” The New York Times, June 14, 2017.

Terence Huwe is Director of Library and Information Resources at Institute for Research on Labor & Employment, University of California, USA.