Contemplating Research

February 24, 2008

This week I made a trip to the Library school at Western to talk to students about the research component of being an academic librarian (i.e. – the kind of research that gets one tenure). It is always great to talk to students at the Library school since they are so immersed in thinking about being a librarian, and daily work can make it so tough to find the time to think about things like that. This was a particularly timely visit as I have been pretty involved in thinking about research myself of late. I’ve been working on a book contract for the last while, and this has resulted in many reasons to contemplate the entire business of research and publication.

I’m quite sure that I have something good to offer, and I am determined to get the ideas out. At the same time, I have the luxury of being at a point in my career where I’m not totally focussed on maximizing my work performance points (i.e. – I wouldn’t jump through excessive hoops just to have a book on my CV). I have also been peddling an article that I wrote more than a year ago for my own amusement and hadn’t bothered to send it out. The article is purely my thoughts on a certain sci-fi book (Earth Abides) and what we should learn from the depiction of the library in this story. I knew that sending this article out would get weird, and it has. It’s been like a test of the nature of the library literature, and the results have been, uh, less than inspiring. So far, everyone has said that they like the article, find it “powerful”, would “use it in their class” next term, but nobody could actually publish it. It seems that virtually every library journal has decided that it has to be “research oriented”. In the library literature of late that means that the journals have decided to become “social science research oriented”. That is, journals are full to the brim with the results of surveys and the analysis of data, all written as though they were psychology experiments (complete with citations in brackets, and lots of bar graphs). While I understand the desire to be viewed “seriously” and to actually be “library science”, I also, personally, find this literature remarkably un-satisfying. As I responded to a publisher recently … I find the library literature to be full of research, and seriously lacking in ideas.

What may be most odd about all of this is that people don’t seem to find my comments upsetting. The publishers themselves, have to this point agreed with me! As I said, I read a lot about libraries, but I don’t read it in the library literature. At this point, when there are tremendously pressing questions facing librarians (like: if almost everyone can quite happily do their own searching, what are we doing when we ask those same people “is there something that I can help you with?” …. or, if we know that faculty generally are coming to the library far less than in the past, what is the nature of the work that we do for them, and how has it changed … there are many more questions … everything has changed, to a degree that would rightly be referred to as “transformational”). So, with these questions facing us I tend to not be terribly interested in the results of a survey that tells me that faculty are not visiting the library and a graph that shows me how much those visits have decreased in frequency, and what the standard deviation is on those numbers, but never discusses what this means to us as a profession, or how it changes our approach to work, or even just how we, as a profession, FEEL about this. As a result, I rarely pick up a library journal, but I often visit something like Lorcan Dempsey’s blog, or the casual rantings of someone who I respect who is thinking deeply about issues facing us as librarians.

So, I am peddling a book idea. I’m not even sure that I want to dive into this process (and I hear many colleagues saying “are you really sure that you want to do that?”, or “I did that, and I’ll never do it again”), but it’s something that I haven’t done, and it’s been “interesting” so far. I have certainly been disappointed to hear panels of people saying nice things about the ideas for the most, but uniformly chanting about research, and, quite clearly, how “research” means social science research. My take on this can be easily described by telling you how I went all the way through to receiving a Master’s degree in the Social Sciences (Political Studies) and spent most of my eight years determined to never ever write a “research paper” that reported on the results of an empirical study.

In fact, I wrote almost exclusively philosophy papers. As a philosopher in a recent focus group told us, “in philosophy, research involves reading a primary source (or a number of them), thinking, and writing the paper.” This, as many humanities people would argue, is as pure a form of research as anything involving a lab and test tubes, or a bunch of study subjects, or a survey. It would seem, from my admittedly limited sample, that there aren’t too many places for this type of research in the library literature although, oddly there seem to be many people who would like to see it including the publishers. (after all, consider the number of historians and english majors who are now librarians and apparently writing what looks like psychology papers … why wouldn’t at least a portion of our profession not want write more of a “think piece”?)

So, I’m not sure that I even want to write a book in this environment. Of course, there are many alternatives these days, and I think that as librarians we should be thinking about the alternatives when we want to get the word out. After all, we are the folks going on and on about the spiraling cost of journals, how people should publish more in open source publications, and the overly restrictive licensing agreements … then we publish in conventional journals and sign license agreements with people like (ironically) the American Library Association who want us to sign away the rights to our own work (one of our most common complaints about conventional publishing). We are also, as a profession, thinking more about the delivery methods for information (or at least we should be) than others, so perhaps we should be putting that knowledge to work as we write and disseminate our work. I would love to come up with an alternative publishing platform, somewhere between blogs, wikis, and books … perhaps something interactive, dynamic and community-based … as a profession, we should be well-positioned to do this. So, my message to the library school students was a challenge … don’t just go out and perpetuate what has been happening in the literature for the last while. As librarians you have the knowledge and skills to break that model and do something really interesting and, uh, paradigm-shifting while being an example of what we preach. If we don’t break the model, why would anyone else bother to take the risk? And … it’s time.


One comment

  1. I think you are on to something, and I often get invitations through the MLIS program to write for student-run journals or magazines, which may be one outlet for the ‘thinking’ person.

    I come from a science background, and I actually do enjoy a well-designed, well-executed, and well-analyzed empirical research paper. Unfortunately, from what I’ve had a chance to read so far, there isn’t a ton of that kind of research, at least making to my eyes. (I only have time to read what I’m given..)

    When we have a chance to discuss these papers, I often spend the entire time pointing out the critical flaws in the design and/or interpretation. I find that I am the only one doing so. There is no point in doing empirical research if it is going to produce spurious and misleading results. How much experience in research design are librarians getting? The answer is one class worth. Is it enough?

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