Thursday 9 November 2017

Librarians as Researchers: Methods, Lessons and Trends

Yesterday I travelled down to Canterbury to speak at a CILIP in Kent event Themes and Trends in Library and Information Research. It was a really enjoyable day and I learnt a lot about current research trends from my fellow speakers. For anyone interested I've included my slides and a summary of my talk below.

I started by talking about my various roles, both my job and outside of work. This wasn't done in any way to show off but to demonstrate that all sorts of people can undertake research. In my day job I train Cambridge library staff in scholarly communication and research support which means learning about the research process. I've also dipped my toe into the research pool by working on a few small research projects. Sitting on the editorial board of a journal gives me an insight into the traditional publication process which is useful for my role. I'm not someone who thought they would ever be a researcher, no matter how part time, and hopefully I got this message across to attendees.

Given all the demands on the time of the librarian why should they take on the additional role of researcher? I would argue that it's something they already do in their day jobs. When you want to solve a problem you investigate all of the solutions, choose one to implement, test it and then evaluate it. This is essentially research by another name. Undertaking research can help to give weight to your arguments, especially your managers. You may know that something isn't working or that there is demand for a certain service but taking evidence to the person who holds the purse strings can have a bigger impact. For some it's a required part of their role but even if it isn't then doing some research can make your CV stand out and enhance your skill set. The research process can obviously develop an understanding of research but it also develops project management, communication and critical thinking skills to name a few. Lastly doing research helps to satisfy the natural curiosity of the librarian.

The number of practitioner-researchers has been growing over the last few years but why is this? There has been an increase in the training available on research recently - a quick Google finds a range of training courses, books and presentations on the topic. This comes with a growing realisation that librarians have been undertaking quality research for a long time, for example the work that is produced during postgraduate study for a library degree. Happily there are now ways to showcase this research such as the LISDIS conference. People are also moving beyond the traditional methods of sharing their research like conferences and peer reviewed journals and towards social media which is helping to make it more accessible to a wider audience and getting it out of the academic echo chamber. The increasing number of research support roles available means that more library staff are needing to understand the research process and are trying out small projects. The result of all these developments is that the research process as a whole has been demystified. Whereas it once used to be closed off it is now more open to a wider range of people which can only be a good thing!

So what are the current trends in LIS research?
  • Evidence-based librarianship - this has it's roots in the health and education and sectors and is the theory that decisions should be made based on evidence. This can be a powerful bargaining tool with management who are less likely to argue if you can produce solid evidence to back up your ideas
  • More practitioner-researchers - there has been an increase in the number of active practitioners doing some form of research and sharing the results. This leads to new networks being formed which help people to share best practice and encourage them to develop as researchers
  • Link between theory and practice - research has tended to focus on the this is what we did and how we did it case study approach but there is a growing interest in the theory that underpins the work we do. A good example of this is teaching. Librarians are often required to teach as part of their work but many are now starting to think about the pedagogy which informs that teaching. Why do we teach as we do? Is there a way to improve it? This inevitably leads to questioning things more
  • Trendy trends - every discipline has its trendy topics and librarianship is no different. A few years ago it was ebooks, now UX and scholarly communication are in vogue. Communities build up around these areas and form their own research patterns and trends which then begin to influence the next trend. If you can spot the next trend first then you are ahead of the curve!
  • Failure - this is one trend I'm really pleased to see. Librarians are becoming more open to talking about what doesn't work which can be a really valuable learning experience. This is a general trend in scientific research but it seems to be crossing into other sectors which is great as it has previously been hard to get published in these areas. The tide is now changing and there are publications and even conferences dedicated to sharing failures
  • Trying something new - the final trend is the chance to try something a little bit different. New areas of research are emerging all the time as librarians move to work in ever expanding areas, they're drawing ideas in from other disciplines and trying new research methods. There are also more chances to collaborate with others outside your institution or even outside librarianship. This can lead to lots of exciting new opportunities to pursue research projects and promotes good working relationships with those outside the library
We're working on developing the librarian researcher community at Cambridge through training and encouragement. One thing that has been successful so far is a Community of Practice which meets regularly to discuss a different aspect of the research process. This helps to answer questions and move projects along and has been really useful for me personally as I try my hand at research.

As a final thought I found the following quote from Zora Neale Hurston: 
Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. 
Librarians like to poke away and find the answers - it's what we're trained for. Doing research just gives a formal structure to this curiosity. If we use our knowledge, skills an natural curiosity then we can become the librarian researchers of the future.

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