A Conversation with Alison Ricker, Science Librarian

April 11, 2019

Communications Staff

Picture of woman holding a stack of books in library
Alison Ricker has been an invaluable resource to science students and faculty for more than 35 years.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

As the head of Oberlin’s science library, Alison Ricker works behind the scenes in myriad ways. This weekend, in observance of Citizen Science Day, she will lead a volunteer effort to evaluate science-related Wikipedia articles.

When did you begin working at Oberlin? Have you always been the science librarian, or did you work in other areas?

I was hired as science librarian in July 1983, just as the college was winding down the 150th anniversary celebrations and gearing up for the inauguration of Fred Starr as president. My position title was changed to Head, Science Library during a reorganization of the libraries in 2017. I never thought I would be in the same position for 35-plus years, but academic librarianship is continually changing, so what I do now is very different from the work I did when I was hired. That keeps it fresh and interesting.

What inspired you to pursue a career in librarianship? Did you previously have a science background?

My bachelor’s is in biology, with an emphasis on ecology. My honors project was on overwintering of invertebrates in a river floodplain in northern Michigan, and I intended to pursue a PhD in ecology. Life circumstances took me to Rhode Island, where I took a course at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography and spent a lot of time in their delightful marine science library. There I learned that librarians with a science background were in short supply and that I could find an interesting job combining science and librarianship if I obtained a master’s in library and information science. It was going to be a short-term pursuit, but I found that my first job, as an oceanographic research librarian, was so much fun I wanted to stick with it.

What does your typical day at Oberlin look like? What are the different ways you support students and faculty?

My days are varied and generally include some time at our service desk answering questions and doing whatever is needed to connect library users with the information resources they need. Working directly with students or faculty, either one-on-one or in the classroom, is the best part of any day. More often, I’m working behind the scenes to select materials for the collection, promote their use in as many ways possible (via four social media accounts, website updates, email and displays), and manage the library so it is both a source of information and inspiration. That includes supervision and collaboration with many other staff members—these days, a well-run library is very dependent on intersecting networks of people and resources.

You are leading a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon for Citizen Science Day on Sunday, April 14. What is the mission behind this event, and what will volunteers be doing?  

We will celebrate citizen science by adding needed references to science-related articles, and looking for peer-reviewed, open access sources. Participants will gain experience in evaluating Wikipedia articles for completeness, accuracy, and bias as they review articles with [citation needed] tags, and search for relevant sources that confirm or clarify unsupported statements. Accurate communication of scientific research findings is an essential component of the scientific method. Participation in this process of documentation is one way we can all be citizen scientists and help make Wikipedia even more useful for the general reader.  

Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.

I am a volunteer reviewer for Choice, an organization that publishes brief reviews of scholarly or academic works most relevant for higher education. The really cool thing about that is getting to keep any books I review and donating them to the science library.  Despite that opportunity, I rarely read books at work and don’t know any librarian who does—there simply isn’t time! I just want to debunk the notion that librarians read all day long.


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