‘I feel really privileged to be able to help other people do really powerful research’

Growing up in southwestern Ohio surrounded by corn and crickets, Science Librarian David Luftig always saw agriculture as home. 

In 2019, Luftig joined the Owen Science and Engineering Library as its first science librarian in two years. Transitioning from an engineering and physical science librarian at the University of Dayton to his current position opened Luftig’s eyes to the altruism of students and faculty in WSU’s agricultural programs, he said. 

“Working on projects …  [that help] grow things with more nutritional value so we can feed more of the world – that makes me feel like a better person.” 

Each year, Luftig helps undergraduate researchers in their senior capstone classes to synthesize sources and gain media literacy skills so they can conduct high-level research in the future. In 2021, he collaborated with students in Agricultural Food Science 410, developing research topics ranging from how to market Washington raspberries to the impact of breaking down the Lower Granite Lock and Dam, he said. 

Luftig said working with students reminds him they are not entering the agriculture field simply to make money. They actually care about making the world a better place and balancing inequities in environmental systems. 

“Our students are a constant source of inspiration for me,” he said. 

Graduate students participating in WSU Extension programs also found Luftig’s advice about storing and managing their research valuable. He said off-campus students often feel like they are far removed from the university, and he has tried to close the gap between them and the WSU Libraries.

Within the first few months of his position, Luftig contacted the Prosser graduate extension group to give a Zoom presentation. Soon after, he received a package of chocolate-covered cherries and a thank-you card. Luftig said it was heartwarming to know extension students, whom he considers the “cool kids,” felt acknowledged and valued by the university.

“I think they’re really cool and really special, so for them to be like, ‘You’re really cool, and you’re really special,’—wow. It makes me feel really good,” he said. 

Graduate students often hesitate to reach out to librarians, thinking they can conduct the research themselves, said Emily Klarquist, a doctoral candidate in crop science and full-time grant writer for the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences’ Office of Research. 

Klarquist said she wished she had contacted a librarian in the early stages of her doctorate program because coming up with a research idea and sifting through databases on biofortification—increasing foods’ micronutrients through selective breeding, gene modification, or certain fertilizers—was difficult. 

“I remember going to my professor and being like, ‘This is a really new field and people aren’t doing much,’ but actually there were thousands of publications out,” she said. “I just wasn’t searching correctly.”

Alongside Klarquist and two other graduate students, Luftig helped conduct a biofortification scoping review, which identifies the themes and gaps of literature available on a specific topic. 

He developed a search strategy, combing eight databases resulting in over 20,000 articles, which is the most crucial part of a review protocol, Klarquist said. If a researcher refines a search by looking for articles written only in English, for example, it creates biases and reduces the breadth of a search. 

“If he put ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ in the search strategy, we could be missing thousands of papers with that simple mistake,” she said.

Along with assisting graduate students, Luftig said he also collaborates with extension programs to create digital spaces for their research, including a photograph repository for the Master Gardener Program and a database of historical documents and information placed on WSU Research Exchange, WSU’s research repository to preserve and share university scholarship. 

Collaborating with Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Luftig helped digitize at least 41,000 pages of material dating back to the 20th century after receiving a $12,000 matching grant from the Center for Research Libraries Project CERES. The repository now has keywords that make the research more discoverable, and it is a one-stop shop for WSU’s agricultural resources.

“We can digitize all the content in the world, but it’s worth nothing if you can’t make stuff discoverable,” Luftig said. 

As Luftig built a library resource guide for gardening and horticulture with WSU Extension open-access resources, he discovered his own passion for gardening as well. Coming from the Midwest, Luftig said the soil, summers, and insects were vastly different on the Palouse, so he experienced more failures than successes. 

“I think I got like literally two peas and a couple tomatoes,” he said. “It was pretty much a complete disaster, but it was fun nonetheless.” 

Two years later, Luftig now has a garden filled with fruit trees and native plants like prairie sage. He said connecting with nature and the Palouse in this way helped him feel less like an “interloper” and more like someone who was “synergistically participating” in the area.

While Luftig works with students and conducts his own research at the libraries, he said he also hopes to finalize a massive database in a year or two.

The database, which compiles extension resources from universities across the country, began in about 2015 within the U.S. Agriculture Network Information Collaborative (AgNIC). Librarians in the organization chose a few states and found all the historical, open-access materials from those states, placing their findings in a Google spreadsheet through 2022, Luftig said. 

Luftig worked with colleagues at University of Idaho to create a search interface for the project, and now, as the chair of AgNIC, he said he plans to help describe the collections and create metadata for the project, allowing patrons to sift through it more easily. 

“I feel really privileged to be able to help other people do really powerful research,” he said.