Purpose The purpose of this paper is to provide an emerging framework for university libraries' research and reference services, which aims to strengthen partnerships between research information specialists and early career researchers (ECRs). Design/methodology/approach The conceptual model used in this paper was originally developed from a constructivist grounded theory study, analyzing data from a sample of ECRs across multiple disciplines at two universities and contextualized by a review of recent research into ECRs' information experiences, and researcher-librarian partnerships in experiential learning spaces within and beyond libraries. Findings This paper provides a review of the literature on one aspect of the knowledge ecosystem model relevant to research information specialists: tangible forms of information such as texts, tools, humans, cultures and environments encountered during informal learning experiences in six spaces: professional development programs, formal coursework, events, community, home and social media. Research limitations/implications - This paper is a catalyst for discussions and research into how research information specialists can facilitate access to the forms of information and learning experienced by ECRs, and what research information specialists can do with tangible information to respond to ECRs needs for experiential learning. Practical implications - As the previous study found that ECRs perceived their knowledge as vital resources toward their research career progression, it would be useful for research information specialists to understand and design services paying attention to the importance of ECRs' initial encounters with tangible information to create the knowledge they need. Social implications Working toward improved engagement and partnership through increased awareness and understanding of informed learning experiences between ECRs, their mentors and other developers and research librarians/information specialists can result in higher quality development and communication of new research, which can impact on society's innovation and advancement. Originality/value The new integrative framework presented in this paper can assist in terms of identifying what informs ECRs professional development toward strengthening ECR and librarian/information specialist partnerships.