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PhD Spotlight: Simmons University Assistant Professor Rebecca Davis Awarded IMLS Grant

Rebecca Davis recently received a grant from the Institute of Museums and Libraries that will continue in a similar vein of research she started as a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Davis is an assistant professor at the Simmons University School of Library and Information Sciences in Boston, and her research through the grant will focus on African American undergraduate students’ experiences with and use of academic libraries. When she was earning her PhD at the College of Communication and Information, Davis researched the use of academic libraries’ resources and services by another specific group, undergraduate women in STEM fields. That research came out of her dissertation, and she has since continued researching how different groups use academic libraries, and how those libraries can improve in serving those groups.

“I’ve really been able to expand in terms of the projects I’m working on that relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I’m working on some projects related to first-generation graduate students and their information-seeking behaviors,” she said.

The IMLS grant provided $140,834 through the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, and is considered an early career development project. While Davis planned her research proposal and applied for the grant prior to the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked in May 2020, she said the protests helped spur more conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion in library and information sciences, and the effects of that will likely play a role in her research.

“Those are ongoing conversations that I don’t think should ever stop. When it’s brought to our attention nationally, we just need to continue focusing on that. It’s something I always think about in my classes because I’m hyper-aware of what’s going on, and of the need to have diverse perspectives and to continue talking about it,” she said. “That’s what is going to really help this field in terms of what we’re going to be doing with patrons, and who the students will be working with professionally.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted how Davis will conduct her research. She initially planned to travel to interview African American undergraduates about how they use academic library resources and services. Davis will be interviewing African American undergraduates attending three different type of institutions, liberal arts school, a research school, and a historically black college or university (HBCU). She also wanted to spread the research out across the country, and was looking at schools in Boston, Chicago, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, and Los Angeles. She may have to conduct some of those interviews virtually, but is hoping spring may bring more opportunity to do the travel and in-person interviews she initially planned.

“I know there are articles out there about stereotype threat, how librarians interact with students of color, but I’m trying to go in and be as neutral as possible and just learn about students’ experiences and also incorporate what is currently going on and their use of the library pre-COVID and during COVID,” she said.

The pandemic has added yet another angle to her research, which is the Digital Divide that separates people who have easy access to both a reliable internet connection and electronics, and those who do not, she said.

“I just want to learn about what is going on in academic libraries and how they can better serve the African American community,” she said.

Davis initially pursued her PhD so she could work in library administration at academic libraries, and she did work for two years at the Wilson Dental Library of the University of Southern California after she graduated in 2015. But she realized she missed teaching and research, and accepted the position at Simmons three years ago.

Davis credits her experience with the CCI doctoral program in inspiring her to continue on with her research and with teaching. She said she particularly appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the CCI doctoral program, which allows students to be in a cohort with people in different areas outside of information sciences.

“I think being exposed to not only students but faculty in other disciplines really helps us to see where the overlap is, and it is something we’re seeing more and more of, and it made me stronger,” Davis said.

Her education and career prior to earning a PhD included getting her undergraduate degree in political science from UNC-Chapel Hill, and her master’s degree in library science from the University of Kentucky. She worked in both academic and health sciences or medical library settings throughout her undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate years.

Davis currently teaches user services courses such as, information sources and services, a reference course, user instruction, academic libraries, and more. She’s also heavily involved with professional organizations, and is on two ALA committees: she is co-chair for the Library Instruction Roundtable Awards Committee, and is on the Coretta Scott King Book Standing Grant Committee. She’s also active with ALISE and the Black Caucus of ALA. At Simmons, she serves on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, the Curriculum Committee, and is the faculty advisor for the student chapter of the Special Libraries Association.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services: RE-246393-OLS-20.