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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > April 2017

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Vol. 37 No. 3 — April 2017

MIT Libraries' Personal Content Management Team:
How Our Unit Expanded to Support Users of Common Campus Tool Sets
by Peter Cohn and Christine Malinowski

Despite the attempt to rein in the tools included in the teamís support portfolio, questions and challenges of the scope and level of tool support continued to test the group.
Many academic libraries provide support in the use of citation management tools (e.g., Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote), and the MIT Libraries is no exception. However, with researchers’ increased adoption of digital scholarship approaches, the landscape of tools for which the community expects support is changing. Demands for collaborative writing, collective article annotation and sharing, and digital file organization require a new level of support.

The MIT Libraries is transforming our process for investigating and supporting tools, keeping up with emerging user needs and workflows, and adjusting our scope within the constraints of current resources. Here, we reflect on the evolution of the MIT Libraries’ personal content management (PCM) team—the group responsible for supporting the community in this area—from its initial charge with citation management tools to its current iteration: grappling with a broadening scope and increasing spectrum of available tools.

The MIT Environment

The MIT Libraries supports teaching, learning, research, and innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a coeducational, privately endowed university that’s organized into five schools (architecture and planning; engineering; humanities, arts, and social sciences; management; and science). There are approximately 1,000 faculty members and more than 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Within the MIT Libraries, assistance is provided through a variety of structures. Subject liaisons work with discipline-specific communities to support their research needs and collaborate with other domain experts—such as the PCM team and those in data management services—to meet cross-disciplinary needs. The PCM team is situated within the data and specialized services department and includes subject liaisons and others with expertise in diverse areas such as geographic information systems, user experience (UX), and data management.

Initial Ad Hoc Support

How MIT Libraries’ services expanded over the years

The MIT Libraries’ support of citation tools began when the field of available and adopted tools was narrower. EndNote, Reference Manager, and ProCite were the main tools in the field, and EndNote was the predominant tool in use at MIT. The libraries seemed to be a natural fit for instruction and support in this area. Citation management is a key component of the research process, and these tools work with the research databases the libraries support.

In the beginning, our support model was fairly loose. There were a few staff members who knew how to use EndNote, and we simply began to offer classes during MIT’s January independent activities period—a time when members of the MIT community offer a wide range of workshops. Our EndNote workshops were very well-attended. As the libraries expanded their workshop offerings to other times of the year, EndNote was included in this extended instruction portfolio.

Unlike more recently developed tools, EndNote was fairly complex to master. We provided one-on-one troubleshooting assistance, specifically around issues of connectivity to library databases. Users had no formal path for submitting help requests regarding EndNote. If they had questions, they found their way to one of the library experts—either by going to them directly after making contact in classes or by referral from liaison librarians. For more complex support, we referred users directly to EndNote technical support.

Even as we supported EndNote, we hoped for other tools that would be a good fit for the MIT community. While EndNote had a growing userbase at MIT, there was a desire for a more web-based, sitewide solution that was not cost-prohibitive. In 2005, RefWorks, a web-based product, launched. That same year, MIT Libraries purchased a campuswide subscription to RefWorks, ramping up our work in this area. The libraries not only took on publicizing the availability of this tool, but library staffers were trained to help support its use, and, subsequently, a small group of citation management experts was cultivated.

Formation of the Cite Help Team

The launch of RefWorks signaled a general expansion in the world of citation management tools that were coming onto the market. Pockets of users across campus adopted tools such as Papers and Zotero, and questions were increasingly coming our way related to these and other tools. This trend, combined with the adoption of RefWorks, made it clear that a more organized support approach for citation tools was needed. It was at this point, in 2010, that the cite help team was formed.

The team initially consisted of five people from across the library system, including subject liaisons, those from the UX area, and members of other cross-library departments. Each team member contributed a portion of his or her time to the team while retaining full responsibilities in his or her home department. By drawing from multiple departments, we were granted a good bandwidth toward this effort. The team approach also enabled us to think of both instruction and skill-building in a more systematic way. Individual team members became champions of specific tools, developing more in-depth expertise that could be shared across the group.

In these early days of the team, we created research guides for specific citation management tools that still make up the backbone of our current guides ( and overall support of these tools today. A centralized cite help team, contact email, and a formalized schedule for team members to monitor and respond to questions ensured quick turnaround times and tracking of queries.

While the team’s formation allowed for processes and centralized expertise to be formalized, it also opened the floodgates for the potential tools that the group could support. As the number of citation tools proliferated, the team began receiving inquiries or questions about new tools regularly. Because there was no feasible way to support or explore every tool that was asked about, the team developed a set of tool evaluation criteria. While these weren’t hard and fast, we favored exploring tools when there was a significant user community on campus, if we had received a number of inquiries, and when the tool functionality met a minimum threshold. With these criteria in mind, RefWorks continued as our site-licensed tool. EndNote remained as a tool adopted by significant groups on campus, and we picked up Zotero and Mendeley as two additional, free products that we could offer expertise and workshops on.

Despite the attempt to rein in the tools included in the team’s support portfolio, questions and challenges of the scope and level of tool support continued to test the group.

Expansion and Rebranding of the Cite Help Team

Starting in 2013, the team made a series of critical changes to its tool support. Zotero and Mendeley matured as citation management products, offering options for group sharing and annotation, and their MIT userbase grew. After examining our RefWorks product in contrast with these tools, MIT Libraries decided to invest in a Mendeley institutional license in late 2013 and retire RefWorks at the end of 2014, allowing for an overlap of the products to ease the users’ transition.

The decision to invest in Mendeley demonstrated a subtle shift toward tools that could provide citation management and word processor integration and also enable collaborative writing. Students and researchers were increasingly asking for help in managing their research materials in collaboration with colleagues (in research groups, classes, etc.). Additionally, the library had begun to grow its expertise in personal digital archiving and, from the UX group, in a suite of tools we called Apps for Academics, which included products such as Evernote, Instapaper, and GoodReader.

In order to better coordinate efforts and meet researchers’ evolving workflow needs, the cite help team rebranded and merged with other efforts in 2013 to become the PCM team. Its new charge explicitly included support of collaboration and personal file management tools and established a connection with the institute archives and special collections digital archivist.

While on paper, the PCM team could now establish services beyond citation management tools, the path to do so without exceeding a limited bandwidth of the team members was unclear. “Support” became an ambiguous term. We helped users troubleshoot EndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley and regularly offered workshops for these tools. We maintained some knowledge of Papers and other such products, but we didn’t necessarily provide training for them. We offered a libguide for some collaborative apps, but again wrestled with what to explore, what to maintain a baseline understanding of, and what to invest more substantial time in. Support was not tied explicitly to institutional licenses, so the PCM team needed a way to define what we supported and to what extent (e.g., one-on-one troubleshooting versus referral to vendor, workshops versus no formal library-sponsored training). With our name change, our users equally needed to know what issues and products they could expect to receive help with.

PCM Team Today and Looking Ahead

In 2015, the scope issue seemed to come to a head. MIT rolled out ORCID for researchers, and the PCM team was named the contact point for users, mainly referring them to appropriate campus resources. A few months later, seeing a potential unmet user need as other institutional support units on campus were undergoing changes, PCM introduced a BibTeX and citation management tools workshop. The boundaries of BibTeX support, however, quickly blurred as BibTeX troubleshooting and instruction easily bled into areas of basic instruction on how to use LaTeX.

The PCM team decided to clarify our parameters of support and outreach by first defining three tiers of PCM service:

  • Tier 1—fully supported tools. Tools in this level include those for which we either maintain an institutional license (e.g., Mendeley) or have a significant MIT userbase (e.g., Zotero). Support of tools at this tier includes consultation help, workshops, and web guides.
  • Tier 2—semi-supported tools. Tools in this category are used by pockets of MIT folks, or the PCM team recognizes them as meeting specific needs (e.g., Papers’ ability to export annotations). The team maintains a baseline understanding of these tools, and support at this tier may include troubleshooting (e.g., proxy setup or making referrals to these tools and their related resources).
  • Tier 3—exploratory tools. Tools within this tier are those that PCM team members have identified as meeting potential needs of users, but may not yet have the adoption threshold of a Tier 2 tool (e.g., Overleaf and Authorea). Tools within this tier may be investigated and piloted by the PCM team and can be migrated to Tier 1 status. For example, Mendeley started in Tier 3 and is now a Tier 1 tool.

In formalizing these tiers, we need to update our tool selection criteria to include features of collaboration tools (we still operate under our citation management evaluation criteria). This framework will help us to move toward supporting specific tools in collaborative writing. Up to this point, this class of tools has largely lingered in the Tier 3 category. But in 2017, we will propose to pilot Overleaf, elevating this product to Tier 1 for the duration. Our experience with this pilot will help us tweak our selection criteria and evaluate this framework for the long term. While we anticipate the number of potential tools to support will always exceed our bandwidth, we hope this combination of service tiers and tool selection criteria will allow us to both uniformly make decisions on what tools to support and how to communicate these decisions appropriately.

This year, the group also intends to better communicate its services within and outside the libraries. This includes considering a new team name that more clearly communicates our support of the research workflow without implying infringement on other activities such as personal digital archiving.

The MIT Libraries’ evolving support of citation management and collaboration tools represents an effort to help users by integrating our expertise into their workflows as opposed to other more traditional library efforts that attempt to bring users to services that we develop. Rather than trying to change user behavior, we aim to explore tools that will enhance existing workflows. We see this as an important strategy to create relevant services for our community. Providing support in this area requires an ability to evolve services to meet changing user needs while working within resource constraints.

MIT’s Arsenal of Supported Workflow Tools

For more information on the tools noted in this article, follow the links below.

Current Tools
EndNote (
RefWorks (
Papers (
Zotero (
Mendeley (
Evernote (
Instapaper (
GoodReader (
BibTeX (
LaTeX (
Overleaf (
Authorea (

Legacy Tools
Reference Manager (
ProCite (

Peter Cohn is currently a research services coordinator at the George Washington University Libraries. Prior to this, Cohn was a manager for liaison, instruction, and reference services at the MIT Libraries, where he was the convener of the personal content management team. This service provides support to individuals and small groups for using tools and strategies that facilitate the organization, sharing, and citation of their scholarly content.

Christine Malinowski
is a research data librarian at MIT Libraries, where she helps researchers across all disciplines manage, analyze, preserve, and share the products of their research. She succeeded Peter Cohn as the convener of the personal content management team, which is currently refining its evolved scope and tool evaluation criteria.