Research as practice for academic (and any other) librarians

This morning I was privileged to give a brief opening “inspirational” address to a group of 30 or so academic librarians who are taking part in the 3rd annual Librarians Research Institute, supported in part by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries and participating university libraries, and now on at Carleton University (in the beautifully renovated MacOdrum Library). I’m summarizing my key messages from that presentation because research including the process, products and outcomes for LIS academics such as myself, is an ongoing pre-occupation and “matter of concern” (Latour, 2004). As an LIS educator, I rely on published research to teach my students about important work that happens in all kinds of information contexts. I need your research to help students understand more about where they’re going.

And while I’m at it, here’s my plug for a public libraries version of this institute, perhaps with an “evaluation” emphasis as public libraries are deeply into program evaluation, performance measurements and impacts.

Below are my top ten “matters of fact” about doing research for any practising ‘L’ or ‘I’ professionals (LIS) or as both, who are thinking about doing more or who are already dipping their toes into these waters as follows.  [“It” refers to research practice.]

  1. It’s temperamental. Another way of expressing this is that doing research is a highly personal activity. There are as many temperaments as there are methodologies and it’s important to know yourself well before going too far into this field. As you learn about yourself, think about constructing some kind of research network, be it smaller or larger. It can be a solitary journey or a group tour – there are advantages and tradeoffs in both cases, that boil down (imho) to temperament and being able to articulate your end goal.
  2. It takes time. There are no shortcuts, even the ‘smallest’ projects take more time than the best time management course can overcome.
  3. It makes your head hurt (in a good way). Doing research is supposed to tax your brain – problems need to be worked through from many angles, concepts need to named, scoped and defined, methodologies need fine-tuning for local contexts, and there are no templates to ‘solve’ for bias or quality concerns of reliability and rigour. Thinking, re-thinking, testing it out loud, putting it all through a logic filter and an elevator speech. Repeat.
  4. It’s a messy business. Just is – spreadsheets, computerized analysis, software aids, research assistants, dropbox, no matter the tool, doing research has some very, very messy stages. Embrace your inner teenager, let it go and know that this too will pass.
  5. It can’t be done off the side of your desk. The opening shelves of LC’s H (general social sciences) class in your nearest academic library are where you should be hanging out on your coffee breaks. There are many, many useful guides to research and there are fewer (though still essential) texts on the epistemologies of social science research as process and standpoint. Rather than fearing what you don’t understand, take risks with yourself and wade into the deep end of this literature. You and your work will be rewarded with a convincing depth and trustworthiness when you write up your next study or teach your next class of under/graduate students.
  6. It’s called an experiment for a reason. Social science research is science and as such it is not the the place for the arts of persuasion, influence or creative writing. Inductive or deductive, interpretive or positivist, experimental or ethnographic – these approaches are situated in philosophies of science. If you have a gut feeling about something, create a research setting where you can ‘objectively’ explore or test that gut feeling. Stay open to being wrong. (Unless you’re curing cancer or doing other research equally life-giving, it can still be fun if you’re wrong).
  7. It’s simultaneously a puzzle and a labyrinth. A researcher controls their process for completing the puzzle while at the same she is also navigating with some kind of medieval planetary compass, through a labyrinth of ideas, procedures, unexpected ‘intervening variable’ all with many false trails. Knowing that you will hit a few walls will ensure you stop banging your head sooner, and just turn around and continue.
  8. It has its own core structure and vocabulary. See #5. Read research literature in top ranked journals (even if they’re not yet open access). Read studies that you don’t really understand, read award winning research, read what you like, find out what you don’t like and learn what resonates with you and why. Become an informed peer in the peer review process. Check out some award winning doctoral dissertations from the Association for Information Science and Technology.
  9. It’s part of a bigger picture. This is harder to grasp and its implications are less obvious. Think about how your work truly enhances the bigger picture. Small studies can be just as important as larger studies – but keep your eye firmly on the big picture, the big ideas in information science and its related disciplines such as communications, learning, management, or human computer interaction. If you’re doing more smaller studies, think about convergence, and gradually scaling up. Doing research is risky business and it takes time. Start now by thinking bigger.
  10. It’s fun and hugely rewarding. And not necessarily in ways you can predict! My personal view. Find out for yourself. Make some time. Take some time.
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