ASSOCIATES (2007, March, v. 13, no. 3) - associates.ucr.edu
Head of Information Services
Sheffield Hallam University and
Chair of CILIP’s Library and Information Research Group.
[CILIP is the United Kingdom's Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals. The Library and Information Research Group (LIRG) is a special interest group of CILIP. Update is CILIP's monthly journal and Library and Information Research is the refereed journal of the LIRG.]
For as long as there have been libraries there have been people who wish to improve the services and facilities that they contain. In order to do this several things have to be in place. One of the most important of these ‘things’ is staff. Staff who have the motivation to improve; staff who feel there is something that can be done to improve things; staff who have that natural curiosity associated with libraries to know that ‘out there’ someone, somewhere has probably thought the same thing; staff who are prepared to try new approaches or processes to see if they make things work better; staff who are prepared to use library resources to see if there is already anything written about the idea they have had; staff who can use their skills to find out. If you feel that there is anything in what you have just read that describes how you feel then you have probably already undertaken research or at least are thinking about using the results from someone else’s endeavour.
Research and investigation.
Calling some investigations research may seem a bit grandiose. There are activities that we do in the course of our daily work that may seem to be just ‘finding out the answer’. If you have to seek the answer to a solution then you are investigating beyond your current knowledge and expanding it – in essence this is research. This is the simplest form of research and we all do it most days. The next step is to expand the current knowledge on the subject and inform others about it. This is where investigation becomes research.
In the Library and Information Profession we have the benefit of an agreed body of professional knowledge, a well developed set of professional networks and importantly a dynamic professional practice that is informed by individual and service development. These elements need constant updating if services and staff are to be of value to the organization and the library users. Research is one way of ensuring that this occurs, but if the results of research are to be meaningful then it is necessary for them to be disseminated and made accessible to others. If work is carried out that updates professional practice, improves services or develops new approaches it is important to make those results available. This is how we gain respect for our services from our employers and importantly from the users of our services.
Stages of research and investigation.
To begin to answer any question or solve a problem it is necessary to be clear about the question itself. At this early stage it is very helpful to have looked at a variety of resources to see if anyone else has had the same problems and if so to either read about them or to follow up your contacts. Library and Information work is very fortunate to have a number of extremely good networks to approach and also to be such a professionally generous sector. Update is another journal that all CILIP members ought to consider – a questioning letter is a good way to see if others are thinking about the issue under review. Of course the way most people start their investigations now is by sending an email out to either a list or to a group of peers or people in other organizations.
Defining the issue.
Rather than starting with the vague idea about doing some research to solve the weekly shelving problem it is better to define the problem into a series of areas to be addressed and then to set parameters around each of them as well as around the whole research issue. For example, breaking down shelving into the various single tasks that make up the whole operation. Identifying, using your own judgment what the priority areas to be addressed are. It could be any one of a number of areas; the return over the counter, the return from the book drop; operations behind the counter, the route back to the shelves, human resources to manage the areas are just a few. Once you have assembled a framework for your investigations it is then time to see if you can manage the study within the time, money and expertise resources that you have.
Research does not have to involve using complicated methodologies. There are instances when research can be achieved by using observation, judgment, and common sense. It is however necessary to be able to justify research conclusions, although in the social science, which is the overarching discipline for Library and Information Science, there is unlikely to be a single answer for all eventualities. Research skills develop over time and in order to gain the confidence to undertake research it is necessary to develop expertise. CILIP Training and Development offer a course on Desk Research Skills from time to time. Identifying the best way to explore the question will ensure confidence in the results. Using other resources as a ‘check’ provides additional authority. It is as well to remember the old saying that if you only use once source of evidence then it is plagiarism, for research you need to use at least three.
Your conclusions or results should be compared to others' results, or ‘triangulated’ in some way to verify them as useable, and robust. It is significantly easier for those working in library and information services to review the available literature on a topic, but we are still prey to finding some evidence that appears to back up what we want to prove only to have it discredited because the work does not have any authority or ‘provenance’. Students are particularly prone to looking at GOOGLE or Wikipedia for answers and Librarians need to ensure that they know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ information. Also, the resources on GOOGLE only represent a small percentage of what is actually available. The ‘invisible web’ comprises all those resources that will never be found through GOOGLE, and should always be used for any serious study.
Communication and dissemination.
In order to ensure that information on service improvements is available to others it has to be made available in some form. The formal ways of dissemination are networking, publishing, and presenting at conferences or in seminars. These activities are well worth the effort and will ensure that your ideas and results are made available to others. Much good work at local level is worthy of disseminating much more widely. Writing can be developed over time and with growing confidence it is possible to aspire to a nationally available publication. In academic libraries the use of UC & R, CoFHE or SCONUL journal is a very good way to reach a wider audience. The growth in more informal methods of dissemination, such as blogs or wikis is to be applauded. However, to have ‘authority’ it is necessary to get results or conclusions written up in something that has weight in the profession. Another excellent way is to go to conferences and do short presentations on the research. This also provides opportunity for professional development and is an ideal way to enhance career prospects and update a CV.
Applying research from elsewhere.
Undertaking a review of what has already been written on a subject is likely to bring a range of publications to light. It is always possible that the subject under review will have been investigated elsewhere. Although there is a tendency to think that each local problem has to be solved by a local solution, this is really wasteful. It is both legitimate and sensible to apply a solution from elsewhere. Local ‘tweaking’ may be necessary to meet particular circumstances and this can be done by contacting the authors. The flattery of being contacted often brings about a positive response.
In short, do it! If there is something that you believe needs to be looked at then see if you can find anything about it and if not take the initiative and undertake research. It is extremely satisfying and can be a step in the direction of the next qualification, the next promotion, or the next career step. One thing you can do is to join the Library and Information Research Group. The journal Library and Information News and Group’s Newsletter are waiting with blank pages to be filled with reports of your research. Good luck!