Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tectonic shift?

Tectonic reconstruction of the earth's land masses.
Image copied from Wikimedia.

I know, it's been a while. I'm in the middle of comps (exams), in the middle of teaching. You know how it gets.

The economy, hopes and plans, and the reality

I sometimes hang out on a web forum for vegans (yes, I am, for two years now, and change). It was interesting to realize that a number of the forum members are new librarians, or are in school for their MLS, or are planning to become librarians. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised - after all, it's the fabulous, liberal, wide-awake and engaged personalities of some librarians I met that helped convince me to enter the profession. Several women, in particular: Mary ____ (last name lost in the mists of uncertain memory), business librarian at Peoria Public - bright, funny, something of a hippy. Joanne Fought, now retired, and my mentor/advisor at Illinois Central College, where I began my college education as an older student - a yoga teacher, writer, and all-round support during a difficult time of my life. But I digress. As usual.

Inevitably the topic came up: the economy. Someone posted the news piece about public libraries closing in Philadelphia, and I read responses, chimed in myself. ALA has let her down, wrote one - she'd been misled by claims of all those jobs, just waiting out there, and now - nothing. Friends who graduated in '07 had found employment, but just months later - nothing was available. One had been told a job was waiting after she graduated, by a library director she worked with as an intern. But guess what? The economy crashed with the force of a tsunami, leaving ALA marketing text unchanged, casting those waiting by to fill jobs adrift (all those thousands of graying librarians!) - jobs that suddenly vanished, or that have failed to be vacated.

My fundamental optimism cannot accept this change as a permanent thing. But what do library educators tell hopeful students (what do I?) If we are to be open about our profession, and to invite new minds, new ideas - this too is our reality. Uncertainty is part of our reality. Are we all caught unaware, and hoping that before anyone really notices, things will return to 'normal'? I feel a shift.

The shifting meaning of librarianship

There is a connection here. Today, via my feed reader, I was able to read an article on technology in academic libraries that has briefly been made available by open access. The piece is by researcher Derek Law:
Academic Digital Libraries of the Future: An Environment Scan. New Review of Academic Librarianship, April 2009.
Libraries are attempting to face a future in which almost every fixed point has disappeared. Users are changing; content is changing; research is taking new forms. Indeed the very need for libraries is being questioned in some quarters. This paper explores the nature of the changes and challenges facing higher education libraries and suggests key areas of strength and core activities which should be exploited to secure their future.
Full text available here (if that doesn't work, here's the page link). I found out about this because of my Google Reader feed from iLibrarian.

It's not just academic libraries (see also: ref to closing public libraries). This is happening now, but it's not happening in a vaccuum. I feel as if we need to think, together, about our direction, and to figure out ways we can provide mentorship to aspirant librarians even in this dismal economy, and help to bridge the gap, even for those who are (despairing) looking, and not finding, library jobs.

Perhaps our social networking capabilities, all this web 2, 3, and onward, means something broader here, or could. Connections, open discourse, brainstorming. We have minds fresh from their educational experience - and we need them now. What can we give, and share? I read the embittered words of those young librarians, who feel fooled, and wanted to call out - Don't turn away!

Friday, August 07, 2009

"The bad news - you're bleeding to death. The good news - the bleeding is slowing down..."

"Today's NYTimes: 247,000 Jobs Lost in July; Rate Falls Slightly"

A rambling rejoinder to the post at StanleyK, and a revisit to a comment I made here, earlier. The call is out: We need to step up, more than ever, support our communities... but our budgets are being slashed (again).

A friend of mine working at a library system headquarters in Illinois is now performing the duties of 1.5 people, officially, and has been for the past 6 months. A hospital library at a top-rated med center has seen their budget bleed away in response to dwindling patron visits; 5 years and more of no-growth budgets or budget cuts. They've lost a whole floor's worth of space, and staff. Even before this hard time, we librarians have learned to do with less, do without, to swim with whatever the current fiscal realities may be (as if we ever had a choice, right?) We can justly take pride in our endless creativity, and so can educators, particularly those in public schools.

However, such effortful redefining of our services comes at a price, or it must - I cannot imagine it does not. I have written here before about the need to consider our own practices, to focus on yet another underserved population: librarians. Our discussions rightly focus on those we serve, but they seldom take an inward view, to consider how we might support our own continued development (oh, us? - we'll get through). Oh, yes, we will. Diminished, if we are forced again to scale back services; teaching those (fewer) who hope to join the profession about the hard realities. For the practitioner, such realities may include the reinforcement of an often referenced gap between research and practice.

Give me a minute with this.

Editors and educators have deplored the lack of use of research in practice. The imbalance between academic and practitioner authors in our top journals has been measured, with some calling for practitioners to contribute their 'fair share' (1), while more recently, there has been an attempt to fit the model for evidence-based practice (EBP) to librarianship (EBL).

In articles calling for EBL, barriers to the use and practice of research in practice settings have been recognized again and again: lack of support. lack of education. lack of resources. lack of time. and so forth.

Right. So, back to the original topic of this post, and an attempt to tie it all up in a messy and undocumented bow: these things will not seep from the wellsprings of some unseen good place, and they cannot be wrested from shrinking budgets. My fear is not only that we will continue to fail to recognize our own needs, but that if they continue to be unrecognized, our own profession will diminish before our eyes. Perhaps you think I am making the assumption that EBL is the savior of librarianship, but I'd like to assure you this is not the case. There is a recognition that change is occurring - the aging of the profession, the derelict budgets, and so forth. We wonder about what it all means... and still, we do not regard our own selves and practices very closely. If we are to reconsider practice, we need to reconsider practitioner education; if we are to do that, we need (I argue) to understand more about ourselves.

And this is what we, as enablers of information access for all the world, have not done. If you doubt me - do a search for this topic: the information behavior of librarians. The discussion among us should not be limited to how we can continue to provide service in the face of shrinking budgets, but should also involve how we can change and grow, and more than ever - how we can encourage those who may wish to join us to add their voices to the discussion.

(1) Landwirth, T. K. (1990). Your fair share. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 78(1), 69-70.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sometimes you feel like a flame...

Yesterday on a listserv devoted to LIS education, something notable happened. Now, it's not unusual for little flame wars to spring up on this discussion list, or for some of the same individuals to fan small blazes until they die away from lack of oxygen, witnessed by silent bystanders.

In this case, the incipient struggle may be over whether the discussion list is unfairly censored (though this was unclear, and remains so); a whole new list (it turns out) has been started as a direct reaction to the perception of censorship. It is ironic that the list is named after Stanley Kunitz, whose poetry is so transparent and responsive, so human:

It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
(from Touch Me)

I find irony in all the unsaid words, the near-palpable suppression among us that emerges in these sudden, single flames. Are others witnessing this discussion (and others), thinking whole libraries' worth of thoughts, but not saying them aloud (because, why bother - or, how would my response be perceived - a learned constraint?) In this instance, what really is happening?

I find irony in the situation due to my own circumstance, as well. Planning for my dissertation work, I have thought any number of times about how much I'd love to have a discussion with others in my profession about the issues involved. There are so many to be discussed, but in my case I think: how would it be perceived? I think: who will see this? I think: are people interested, even? - and so don't post about it. I find no real platform for this discussion, but perhaps my own perceptions are off-kilter. Still, my concern about perceptions is a functional constraint against action.

One of the discussions I'd really like to have concerns a link that was also posted on the list, to an opinion piece done by a professor who made a number of assumptions about practitioners and on-the-job training. I can only assume they were assumptions, because the piece was completely devoid of any form of proof that the claims had any validity. We are also not told whether the author has hands-on experience in the setting being discussed, or any direct connection. It's just an opinion - interesting, perhaps even instructive - but curiously empty, and it need not have been. Where the author (in the absence of any research from LIS) might have mentioned research done in other fields, there is no mention, just a blithe (implicit) assurance that the claims made are true... In a profession like ours, where the disparities between libraries of the same type are large enough that it's difficult to make broad claims, the author assumes a problem without proof, then prescribes a solution (also without justification); this is disseminated more broadly and without (public) comment.

I do not want to have this be a rant about one author, one listserv. In the case of the opinion piece, the publishers of the work are equally culpable, and in any case, this sort of thing is astonishingly prevalent, so much so that it's difficult to back up opinions with research -- because the research isn't there.

Even after 20 years in this profession, the whole situation is strange to me. Probably I'm just now noticing something that's been prevalent for a long time. As a member of several web forums unassociated with LIS, I have witnessed discussions about issues like politics or healthcare over a number of years. At some point, the discussion usually gets around to someone saying, 'what's your source?' - or, 'yes, but that source is obviously biased'. Eventually (at least on the one forum, anyway) people become accustomed to providing a link to their source, and exhibit an awareness of bias; it's become a cultural norm. This does not happen often on a listserv populated by highly educated LIS professionals, and I find that to be an ultimate irony.

Because of the lack of substantive discourse backed by evidence, small flames rise and quell themselves; those who speak up subside due to lack of rational discourse; silent witnesses wonder about the sub-rosa politics involved. Each of us, like Stanley K., with only one season to live, reifying a culture of silent witnessing and tacit, undiscussed decision making. Why? Does our fear and distaste of confrontation blind us to a middle ground, where respectful discourse can occur?

Note that there are no citations to validate this post, which is wholly speculative.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Tay Bridge over the Firth of Forth, Scotland.
The image is licensed for reuse under the
Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

It seems an important thing for me to remember that by predeliction I am a feminist, qualitative, even anthropological researcher, even though I love and respect quantitative methodologies, and (maybe especially because) I am interested in evidence-based practice. I was reminded of that, last evening when talking with my partner about Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade. Becker’s text was one assigned by Carole Palmer (at GSLIS, University of Illinois), in a terrific qualitative research methods course, the same one in which I conducted the first research study I had ever done.

In that class, we were asked to write brief essays in response to readings or discussions that we had in class. For example, we might be asked to write (in journals we kept throughout the course) about the role of gender in our research focus, or the role of trust. Our short entries were grist for further discussion, ultimately leading into our approach and even the actual text of the research paper which was the culminating project for the semester. But it was safe, as I said: there was no sense then that what I was writing or talking about was part of my 'permanent record'. I remember feeling so tremendously empowered by Palmer’s conveyed passion (oh, it’s safe to express my own!) about research.

In doing dissertation research, I'm not reinventing the wheel, but summoning so much of what I had acquired over the past seven years and more, from Palmer's class, from my own 20 years of library experience, even from my own life above and around my working life, all of which becomes structurally, elementally (unavoidably) part of my research approach whether I recognize & write about it, or not.

This is at once a positive and a threatening realization: In Palmer's class a safe environment was created where we explored our lives as components of our research. She taught us how to integrate the self, while writing as scholars. After learning how to adopt the impersonal scholarly tone by imitation, her class called for reintegration of one’s experience, challenging positivist assumptions. It was gap-bridging, the brave action of stepping away from the writing I’d seen done in journals, toward something else, still unrealized. Perhaps in my mind, though, I was still more a Masters’ student than scholar; the creation of research was such an exciting exploration! – but the stakes were low. As it had been earlier in my career, as a paraprofessional operating at a professional level, performing beyond expectations meant that in some ways, I was protected from criticism.

Perhaps what I am exploring is the gap that I continue to occupy in so many ways (and maybe librarians just live there), including the spaces between quantitative and qualitative research: my experience as a medical librarian, my understanding and admiration of scientific and medical research in those commendable guidelines for action that comprise evidence-based practice, and the squishier, more human (and more real) aspects of how we understand and implement such guidelines. And the question may be: are these two commensurable?

Some of the works I’ve been reading explore the role of tacit information in practice settings (1), suggesting that the lack of acceptance by some of EBP practices (at least in medical practice) may have to do with the human tendency to prefer local over more authoritative but generic information resources. If it is true for clinicians, might it be equally so for library practitioners? And - further thought - if it is true for practitioners, why not also for researchers?

In fact, the use of a gap as a guiding image turns out to be key. EBL is about bridging a gap between research and practice. Working life is about bridging gaps between private and public selves, realities and expectations. We engage in inquiry all the time, in the form of social discourse, in order to understand and define what we know in terms of those expectations. Being an older student has meant a constant attempt to weigh experience against new information, changing both – and bridging gaps between past identities and new, constantly emergent ones.

(1) Gabbay J & le May A. (2004). Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed "mindlines?" Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ, 329: 1013.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hospital libraries - reflection in response to the Krafty Librarian

Like so many medical librarians I subscribe to the Krafty Librarian, Michelle's excellent blog. Today she reflects on the sad state of hospital librarians, expressing her concern but also talking about problems she'd seen as a hospital librarian herself.

I'm also a former hospital librarian, and I'd like to take issue with a part of what was said, while agreeing with other of her statements. I too have observed shoddy practices, or libraries and librarians which are little more than collections and their caretakers - not just a 1980s perspective, but something far older that goes back to the earliest years of medical librarianship, when hospital libraries were merely in-house repositories of physicians' own private collections, and the clerical staff hired to take care of them, dragons at the gates.

However, it seems far too simplistic to dismiss this latest loss of funding as the fault of victims who have failed to grow and change with the times. After all, the same can be said of libraries in any other setting. Hospital libraries and librarians are widely diverse, and many have done some very fancy footwork in the past several decades - integrating themselves with resident and medical student objectives; with quality assurance initiatives as Six Sigma consultants; taking the lead on new technologies (like the PDA). Yet Michelle may reflect the sentiment of others in the profession in saying
Now days academic medical libraries are feeling the pinch of the economy and they are being asked to do more with less. How they respond will predict their outcome. If they become complacent or ignore the future issues, they will encounter many of the same problems as hospital libraries and librarians have been dealing with for quite a while.

There is so much more to be said and done here. I do not feel that we can walk away from colleagues (even in print, even for a moment) without taking the time to acknowledge, even to explore and speak out about, their contributions, their tremendous importance - and to ask how we as researchers, faculty, associations - can understand this crisis. Because it is certainly that, and unless we do take the time to understand in more depth, we may inadvertently do injury to the entire profession. Otherwise, it sounds like we've begun to prepare an eulogy Alas poor Yorrick - I knew him well! when in fact, we knew nothing well at all - certainly not whether the actions of a shoddy few have rung the knell for those many who serve so excellently well, and who still are worth our attention and support.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading Katz (and others)

An interesting discourse, this! Katz(1) says (speaking, presumably, to physicians) that 'you already think as a clinical epidemiologist' - while others claim that the 'mindlines' of clinical decision making are such that asking clinicians to switch to evidence-based patterns is unrealistic, a lost cause. Which is it? - or does this perspective mirror the theory/practice divide embodied by the debates over EBM?

What Katz says makes sense to me: I believe he is working to effect a switch in resource selection from internal to external, from instinctual to awareness (not necessarily exclusion) of bias. He claims that clinicians instinctively employ probability, using contextual awareness as an example. Working at a pediatric clinic, one makes certain assumptions about the population that figure into diagnostic processes: certain illnesses far more common to the elderly are almost automatically excluded from consideration. When examining a male, pregnancy is not a consideration.

In contrast, Gabbay & le May(2) argue that EBM does not reflect the needs or practices of physicians because they find near-complete satisfaction in their use of local expertise, more often relying upon that authority, seldom venturing beyond it. Wenger(3) agrees, saying that the “social and contextual nature” of knowledge, including local authority and political realities is not acknowledged by EBM (making the initiative inadequate to answer the needs of clinicians).

So, which is it? Are the two incommensurate, hence proving the claim of Sackett, et al. that EBM really IS a paradigm shift?

More later on this, I am sure.

1. Katz, DL. Clinical Epidemiology & Evidence-based Medicine: Fundamental Principles of Clinical Reasoning & Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001.
This is a very readable book, by the way. Highly recommended for non physicians who'd like to understand more about clinical decision making (from this perspective).

2. Gabbay, J., & le May, A. (2004). Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed "mindlines?" An ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 329(7473), 1013.

3. Wenger, E. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning & Identity. Campbridge: Campbridge University Press, 1998.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Don't look up, and time passes swiftly by

Pay attention elsewhere, quite intensely, and minutes (hours, days, weeks) tiptoe fleetly past, leaving small tracks on your calendar. What was I gazing at? - I think I've been lost in words and thought, trying to achieve a cohesive sense of the terrain of my research. As I deepen my understanding, the landscape appears to shift, to develop fissures; rivulets wind away in new directions, and even the ground of my belief shifts. But so much of it is information that's not new to me - the difference is that I appear to be gaining a different perspective.

Paul Starr writes engagingly (and winningly, having garnered both a Pulitzer and Bancroft prize for his work) about the Social Transformation of American Medicine, tracing our path from an early reliance upon the individual, to authority vested in the physician and institutions. While I'd been aware of this history, and the struggle for power, it is instructive to consider it through the lens of evidence-based practice.

Think for a moment about this question: Could evidence-based practice in medicine be another permutation of the long struggle between different societal entities (private citizens, individual physicians, groups, etc.) for viability?

The tendency, unsurprisingly, has been to reinforce authority. Early on, the private citizen was responsible for their well being. While there were health practitioners prior to the 1910 Flexner Report, their authority was far from certain. Whether due to a lack of even marginally standardized education, networking, and a lack of technology, medics did not then hold the status and wealth they've had in more recent decades, and nor did their professional organizations wield such tremendous power.

But that authority is not absolute even today: Witness reports about the use of CAMs (and think how long it took to begin research on their efficacy), or the reaction, a decade back, of some physicians to patient-provided printouts; consider the dissatisfaction of many doctors in increasingly curtailed practice, and public discourses about trust (such as all those alarmist media reports entitled 10 Things your doctor may not ask you (and how it could shorten your life!)). I mean to say that physicians do not have absolute control over their professional destinies, and are subject to external pressures. Some might even say they are embattled.

Now, with this, and perhaps longer lasting, we have epistemological* tug-of-war: what is truth, illness, wellness? Who has the power to define these things? And beyond these questions:
  • What are the implications of this - and does an understanding of this issue enhance our view of EBM?
  • What elements of these issues might also be found in EBL?
I have been paying some attention to the first question, with several synapses occasionally linking to the second. Looking at EBM in any depth, it's impossible to prevent myself from also considering how the model has been adopted for LIS, and for other professions. In each, there's been struggle. I consider whether my understanding has been reductive, to the extent that I characterized opponents as wrong-headed, ill-informed. Following one of those rivulets of thought, I found a keynote address entitled 'The Politics of Evidence' published in the journal Qualitative Health Research (16:3, 2006, 395-), and began to consider the issues differently than I had. The author, Janice Morse, refers to Archie Cochrane, who identified randomized controlled trials as the pinnacle of research quality, and 'mere opinion' as of no value whatsoever. Morse claims that Cochrane had intended this classification for use with pharmacological trials only, but that EBM pioneers adopted the idea, stretching it far beyond the intended application. Sackett's 1993 standards for quality of evidence** give a grade of C to levels 3, 4, and 5 in research, which are called unsuitable for use as evidence:
  • Level III: non-randomized to group concurrent cohort comparison
  • level IV: no comparison group
  • level V: opinions of expert committees.
By this ranking, claims Morse, qualitative research is classified as grade C, and effectively ignored until very recently:
"But my major concern is that disciplines that were the primary users of qualitative inquiry with a mandate for health work virtually excluded from the resources provided for medical research. That is, research from disciplines such as nursing, rehabilitation, occupational therapy, counseling social work, and the humanistic specialties in medicine, such as family practice and psychiatry, became less credible" (Morse, 397).
I think it may have been this paragraph that affected me most deeply, perhaps because (as I'd said before) I am constantly thinking about contrast between EBM and EBL. I am still thinking about it. If we borrow the structure for EBL from EBM, what legacy of thought might we also be acquiring? I have seen no discussion of epistemological concerns for LIS in the implementation of evidence-based practice, but I have seen literature in healthcare sociology journals about variant sources of knowledge - including tacit. Rather than identifying 'tacit' simplistically as the known, I like Polanyi's distinction between tacit knowledge as knowing how ('embodied') and explicit knowledge as knowing what ('embrained').*** (sorry about all these stars!) To quote Morse, "Tacit knowledge is intuitive, acquired through practical experience and as such, is personal and contextual and cannot be readily made explicit or formalised" (184).

To extend this discussion, I'd like to remind the reader (or myself, at least) that concerns about the use of research in LIS and elsewhere have often centered around individual practitioners' lack of use of published, quality information, preferring to consult with peers. I say this with no lessened awareness of the problems of bias and currency inherent with 'expert advice.'

I had earlier read Gabbay and le May (2004****) on 'guidelines or collectively constructed "mindlines,"' and honestly did not think much of that study, which appeared to me to fall into the opposing camp of 'EBM as thief of autonomy.' In this work the authors found that clinicians seldom consult the medical literature relying instead on local channels of information. in my own mind, I had classified the study among a small group I'd use to depict a sort of 'state-of-the-art' for EBM. My thought was that after all these years of effort, the model for EBM was not being adopted by these recalcitrant clinicians, and and so, knowledge translation had become a new focus, another way to bring about change that must be inevitable. Mind you, I am not saying that EBM should be discarded -- far from it! -- just that my own understanding is changed, and that I will bring these thoughts to my inquiries.

* Epistemology is one of those words I have had to look up more than once, because for some reason the definition will not stay resident (I know, mind like a steel trap, eh). It's the study of knowledge, and is concerned with how knowledge is acquired.
** Sackett DL. (1993). Rules of evidence and clinical recommendations. Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 9(6):487-489.
*** Polanyi M. The tacit dimension, Peter Smith, Gloucester, MA (1966/1983).
**** Gabbay J & le May A. (2004, Oct. 30). Evidence-based guidelines or collectively constructed "mindlines?" Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ, 329:1013-.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Talk about questions..!

I'm looking through association statements about research in librarianship, so this morning I note the following, from an 1998 ACRL report entitled Academic Librarianship and the Redefining Scholarship Project: A Report from the Association of College and Research Libraries Task Force on Institutional Priorities and Faculty Rewards (the highlighting in red and footnotes are mine):


As previously noted, a major proportion of the work done by librarians (1) qualifies as scholarship.


Librarians have applied a wide range of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies in advancing the discipline's knowledge base. They engage in the scholarship of inquiry in order to apply their findings to the everyday challenges of providing library services (2). Especially important areas of inquiry for librarians include:

  • conducting citation studies (3);
  • analyzing how people seek and use information;
  • constructing means for organizing bodies of data and information, and designing methods for precise and efficient information retrieval;
  • establishing methods for evaluating the effectiveness of library services and processes;
  • researching the effects of environment and library practices on the "life span" of the various information media found in libraries;
  • discovering the communication modes and related factors that lead to the most effective reference interview, one that has the best chance of determining any given user's precise information needs;
  • preparing analytical bibliographies;
  • investigating the history of the book and recorded knowledge.


(1) I wonder if this assumes 'academic' and not all librarians. I also am wondering if this statement is not one intended more as motivation, as opposed to being a reflection on the actual state of our work. Argh - there is no reference here to 'previous' notations.

(2) What's assumed here - the role of 'librarians' as academic researchers, or even academic librarians as academic researchers? How are academic librarians doing it right (and non-academic librarians, not), if this statement is actually true?

(3) This makes me wonder why we have not already developed some kind of tool for the evaluation of our work, if it's so focused on citation analysis!


From an earlier section of the same document:
In "Making a Place for the New American Scholar," Eugene Rice describes Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate as having "called on faculty to move beyond the tired old 'teaching vs. research' debate . . . What moves to the foreground is the scholarly work of faculty, whether they are engaged in the advancing of knowledge in a field, integrating knowledge through the structuring of a curriculum, transforming knowledge through the challenging intellectual work involved in teaching and facilitating learning, or applying knowledge to a compelling problem in the community."(2) These four types of scholarship, which we shall call inquiry, integration, teaching, and application, provide a framework for considering how the activities of academic librarians may fit into the broader, more complete understanding of what constitutes academic work(1). Such a reexamination is very timely in light of the similar efforts being carried out in the Institutional Priorities and Faculty Rewards project by dozens of other professional associations on behalf of their academic disciplines.

(1) I understand this to be an attempt to categorize academic library 'scholarship' as a broad concept, with 'research' (here called 'inquiry') as a sub-category. How does this affect the model for EBL, where inquiry (the 'important questions for the profession,' to paraphrase Andrew Booth*) is intended as the driver, with integration encapsulating all the other aspects of application, including teaching and evaluation of outcomes?

* Booth A. (2006). Clear and present questions : formulating questions for evidence based practice. Library Hi Tech, 24(3):355-368.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

All the classics: Bless me, EBLIP, for I have sinned

In school, during one of my first library courses at the Master's level, we were made to digest huge chunks of LIS classical research. Not just inches, but several feet of tree-killing articles were discussed, then quarterly a huge auditorium-full of students (160 of us!) took open-book tests that entailed answering large questions with reference to these works. We'd all carry this with us, indexed and tabbed, boxed and annotated, beginning the process of building a scholarly scoliosis along with strained eyes.

As an aside, I never will forget the wonderful feeling of finding myself among so many peers. It was like a lightning-jolt, after years of working in small libraries, a paraprofessional who'd never attended a single library conference.

Today I am teaching (and continuing to learn) about critical evaluation of the LIS literature. I know I'd needed to be familiar with all those works (so many of them stay in my mind, foundation to our practice), but I wonder if in some ways, this method of teaching did not also work to reinforce a practice that is simultaneously entirely human - and a shameful little secret.

Oh, we know (right?) that barriers to research in LIS include the lack of time, support, research training, perception of applicability. All the surveys agree, and it's true, I'm sure. But I also know (I confess here in this private place) that another barrier for me was ignorance and maybe a sort of intellectual apathy, the well-entrenched habit of digesting huge chunks of information as if they were unquestionable, in just the way I've described, or in response to an immediate need. It's how I was taught to be. Or rather, I feel as if I was told to be critical, but in practice, there was no time or space for criticism to occur, and the reality of my whole working life had to do with paying attention to politics in one form or another.

How do we get to a place where we can learn (or realize a need to learn)? I knew 'real research' was out there, vaguely, but felt that place across the chasm I sensed had no real connection to me. In fact, I did not often have access to our literature, other than current issues of a number of library journals (Computers in Libraries, JMLA, Library Technology). I'd scan tables of contents, copy some for later reading, then cross my initials off and send the journal on its way to the next staff member. When I read something it was of practical use to a problem I'd been confronting - usually programmatic accounts, 'how I done it good.'

Feeling myself a stranger to 'big R Research,' intimidated by statistics and fancy, terminology-laden graphs, I have in the past decided that the authors must have proven their hypothesis because it did, it surely did, appear that they knew what they were doing. So writing a paper in school, or (earlier, much earlier) reading about how another library made their bindery decisions, I seldom questioned anything but the potential application of the author's findings; the literature as a manual for practice, our sharing in the most natural way.

After all, it seems we seek first to find information from our peers, and even physicians report doing so. This other way of inquiry (research) comes after all else has been exhausted. And frankly, if for years you've been doing it the first way, and it has worked, why change? In fact, might the suggestion that you've been neglecting a professional responsibility introduce unwelcome guilt, piled atop having too much to do, stacked with the realities of political expedience?

Another thought, maybe a fragment. Reading bibliometric studies as I've been doing, I find so many claims to tracking the research of LIS - compiling and measuring topics, identifying domains, top journals, and even asking what our largest and most compelling questions might be. Undoubtedly these works are key to the future of LIS, and I hope so much to build on their achievements.

However, I wonder who the authors of those measured citations might be (academics, doctoral students, librarians who staff a busy reference desk?), and whether the questions identified might actually come from those who are already choir members, and I want to ask: Which of these reflect the important questions faced by practicing librarians? What is the evidence base for our question lists, our full methodological disclosure, our earnest owning-up to the assumptions and weaknesses of our work?

Does research mean something different to the practitioner than to the researcher? Do publications authored by practitioners reflect practice-oriented questions (and what percentage)? How well do the research trends mirror all our professional concerns? - that, I do not know, and may never know. I may not find out by reading the literature.

Speaking of classical LIS research, I wonder if Gloria Leckie's findings are equally applicable to our own profession, and if so, how we might know. Remember her work, tracing the assumptions of experts about novice understandings, where the experts dwelt in a universe of information surrounding their topic - speaking a different language, and leaving the novice to feel judged, inadequate, a gaping chasm uncovered? I read that and felt aware as I had not before, and carried that new thought to my teaching with library patrons. I nodded sagely and thought about all those teachers who'd sent their hapless students to the public library to ask for '50 facts' (no lie - this happens).

I never wondered 'til now if this is equally applicable to our profession, to the assumptions made by researchers, and to the sense of being inadequate, judged, separate, on the part of practitioners in the face of earnest lectures: Go forth, practitioner, and sin no more with shoddy decision support.

Leckie, G. J. (1996). Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22 (3): 201-8.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Update on the bibliometric evaluation tool!

Thanks so much to Lorie Kloda, editor of the EBLIP journal Evidence Summaries section, who asked her colleague, an expert in bibliometric research, to comment. Changes recommended by Vincent Larivière have been made, particularly concerning statistical evaluation.

New evaluation tool

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Evaluation of research

You may have read here that in our class, we're practicing critical evaluation of published LIS research by using the 'toolbox' provided to those who write evidence summaries for the online journal, Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. This semester we've examined two bibliometric articles, and all have noted that the existing tools appear to be inadequate for the evaluation of this sort of research. This is surprising to me, because while it's a methodology (or series of methodologies) most often used by those in our profession, we are not alone by any means in tracking publication trends, exploring issues associated with the use of provided journal studies (e.g., JCR) for promotion and tenure, and more. Short of a critical instrument for the evaluation of a systematic review, what's out there?

I imagine something like this would help us in a number of ways. A key question is: Is there a standard 'best practice' for the conduct of a bibliometric research study? From there, of course, we can ask whether a given work meets the standards - and on the heels of that, ask whether findings or methodologies (even flawed ones) can be used in another setting. I have seen nothing like this. With that in mind, I took notes this semester and last, and I've got a (beta!) question set that I plan to use for evaluation. If you're interested, I'd love feedback (and if you do know of something out there that's already in use - please let me know!). 

The tool I created has since been updated several times. Please see this post for the most current version, which has now been tested in use at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Library and Information Science, and at the Texas Woman's University School of Library and Information Studies in several different Master's and Doctoral-level courses.

Other notes on this tool and its review are here.

Monday, February 09, 2009

This must be what's called a cognitive ferment, or maybe it's just chaos

Right - so that phrase has likely not existed 'til now. Well, it's how I'm feeling.

Last week, I spoke in Washington, DC, at the preconference for the American Association of Publishers' annual meeting, as part of a panel on Second Life. The whole preconference centered on a theme of 'Mashup at the Library,' exploring various iterations of new thought and uses of technologies - for publication, data mining, inquiries into new-gen undergraduate information behavior, and more.

On that last, Vicki Burns, Department Head and Anthropology and Health & Society Librarian, Rush Rhees Reference, University of Rochester, spoke about the fantastic study that library underwent in order to understand and incorporate the needs and preferences of students. First, it blew me away that the library employed an anthropologist to do the study, which was funded by IMLS.

I'd also spoken recently with Joanne Marshall, my adviser & dissertation chair, about a focus for my research. I want to learn about librarians' information behaviors in the workplace, specifically those around administrative decision making. Originally I'd intended to expand on previous research investigating whether we can reliably retrieve our own literature from the LISA database.

But I had the realization that I couldn't sustain the assumption I had made in doing this research that we are actually using the database to find evidence in support of practice, or that we even use research literature, driving me to look earlier along the information path, to our information behaviors. The LISA study (and my research re-focus) began after I'd observed the frequent use of surveys on the Medlib-L listserv, after all - an informal, peer-based decision support practice.

From what I have been reading on the evidence-based initiatives in medicine, nursing, social work, and other disciplines, there have been realizations that translational work is needed to enable practitioners to use research findings. From my own perspective, this understanding should be achieved early on, by asking what do we do (a la Dervin)?

So I had thought, rather vaguely, not paying overmuch mind to the issue while slogging through the rest of my lit review, about the how and who of my actual research. I have been impressed by the sensemaking time-line interview methodology used by Brenda Dervin ever since I'd read 'In moments of concern.' In this work, Dervin leads respondents through stepwise reconstruction of their thought and action processes at a time they'd sensed an information need. It was intended as a thoroughly grounded approach, and while it was prone to human recall failure, the apparent ability of the methodology to capture individual sensemaking struck me then as a valuable tool - far richer than a survey or an inquiry about resources used.

It is difficult for me to set aside the potential for generalizability in favor of richer data, but that's what happens with the sensemaking methodology. I'd need to select respondents (n=maybe 5 or so? one from each domain of practice?) from one or more settings. Questions sprang up insistently about that, particularly with regard to the various domains of practice, but also the type of library. Having decided on health librarians, wouldn't a focus on the academic library setting provide very different contexts from a hospital library? How might the the decision making differ in the two contexts? I consider this, knowing from experience that even in two different hospital libraries, there are few parallels due to the wild variables of politics, funding, administrative support, individual skills and experiences, and so many more.

Joanne had suggested I think about using case studies, thinking of the ones I'd done during my time at the Duke University Medical Center Library. There, I'd looked at three different projects, participating in two and examining one in retrospect. I had been given complete access to the files, plus added interviews of workgroup members, and in the case of the two current projects, participated as a member of the workgroup. My active role in these projects affected decision making, but that doesn't concern me - I do find it of interest to consider the process overall. How might sensemaking be applied to this project planning process? Paul Solomon has done so...

Dervin, B., Harpring, J., & Foreman-Wernet, L. (1999). In moments of concern: A Sense-Making study of pregnant, drug-addicted women and their information needs. The Electronic Journal of Communication [On-line serial] 9 (2, 3, & 4).

Solomon, P. (1997). Discovering information behavior in sense making: I. Time and timing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48(12), 1097-1108.
-- II. The social. 1109-1126.
-- III. The person. 1127-1138.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Becoming a Colleague

Becoming Colleagues: The experiences of doctoral research fellows in practice settings is the title to a poster created by my friend and colleague, Lonelyss Charles, and me in preparation for ALISE. I can't tell you how tough this was to create (well, of course I can, isn't that what I'm doing now?) But it was and is tough (interesting, challenging!) to talk about the experience, perhaps because it's not fully processed yet. Writing this helps.

In truth, I cannot consider the processes of simultaneously acclimating to the fellowship and to the PhD program as discrete issues, separate from the topic of evidence-based practice. When I write about librarianship, I am writing about me and everyone I know, not a distant place, or faceless people. I write about research as I conduct research, and I write about librarianship as I practice it. This could either constitute navel-gazing or it could be of real value... maybe it's both.

I had begun my fellowship intending to enlarge on a study I'd done while still at the U of I (Urbana), very much in the area of consumer health. It was that work, which claimed my sanity and imagination and showed me the limits of my intellect, that drove me to apply to PhD programs. I had come to UNC fully expecting to follow that path.

But several things happened to change that. I was encouraged to apply for the TRLN Fellowship, an opportunity to be mentored by Carol Jenkins and Pat Thibodeau, both former presidents of MLA. As a person who has wended my way by slow boat to professional status, I had never been an MLA member. I reached for the PhD to find an environment where peers were engaged, excited about research and teaching and mentorship. Perhaps you can imagine how it felt, then, to have this opportunity! And so, I accepted the Fellowship, and right away began to spend time at both the UNC Health Sciences Library and Duke University Medical Library.

Changes were occurring internally at that point, as well. First, I was a new PhD student, trying to get used to the fact that SILS faculty regarded me differently now, and also trying to understand that where I'd always been (all my career!) a paraprofessional who performed beyond my job description, now I was going to be judged at a different and more rigorous level. Second, I remember thinking that the libraries would be my home places, the spaces where I would feel most at ease, while I adjusted to the changed academic expectations.

I want to take a moment to point out that I was trying to bridge gaps between my former professional identity and this new one, which I was not yet able to envision. As well, I learned that I would - in a very personal and daily manner - have to bridge the spaces between academic and practice environments, as I attempted to understand what it meant to do research in a practice setting.

While at the University of Illinois, I began another boundary-blurring, which was to try to reconcile what I'd known about research before (very little) with the mostly positivist and quantitative methodologies of medicine - with this new-to-me idea of feminist, qualitative inquiry. I was instinctively drawn to this latter, but I do sense the dichotomy that may dwell at the heart of our profession. We need to bridge the gap but don't yet know quite how.

I'll take another moment to observe that EBL itself, of course, is about gap-bridging, between research and practice, between theory and application. And also to say that the aim of the TRLN Fellowship program is itself to bridge this space.

When in the past I taught one-on-one, I felt as if I had my antennae set to high, 'listening' for the person's hesitation, with a hyperalert sense of their comfort and trust and understanding. I felt this way at the libraries, too. I was listening to sub-rosa sensations, unsure whether they emanated from my internal sensations, or from the environments.

In the libraries now, as a Fellow, I found I knew all the language used, and the landscape - but there was a profound shift in relations between myself and the library staff at each location. I was surprised, felt myself unbalanced, more at ease at the library school. I found myself thinking of Lofland* and Rosaldo** and their ethnographic exploration of settings, with all the questions I'd learned to ask about trust and access ringing in my ears, suddenly.

There was no prescribed plan of action for my work at the libraries. This was a new experience for all of us. So we negotiated to find a project that would suit my interests and the needs of the library. Right away, enlarging on a completely academic study (working with a web-based health support forum to inquire about health related decision making and peer support) was not going to work. We decided I would try to gain a 'snapshot' of consumer health resources and planning at the libraries, with the intention that this would form a basis for administrative decisions.

I have learned a lot from that experience about knowledge management and the impossibility of understanding institutional programs by examining archived information. I'm laughing here, a bit - listen, if you don't quite get the need for KM, just spend some months trying to reconstruct anything more complex from archived files! You will find yourself greatly sensitized to gaps and with a far greater appreciation for the problems associated with knowledge capture.

I did achieve something with this project, and along with it, I had the realization that I couldn't really see myself doing a dissertation on consumer health from an administrative perspective. It's not where I live as a researcher. I have a business degree, and have a great appreciation for KM (more now, as I said!) but this is not, I realized, what I wanted to do. Right then, and I remember a lunchtime discussion with Margaret Moore, director of planning for UNC HSL where this seismic shift occurred - I turned my attention to another of my strong interests, evidence-based practice in libraries.

Everything began to fall in place for me then. I will never lose my interest in consumer health, and in fact, I'm still working in this area in Second Life (though I am not doing what I think of as 'big R' research there, yet).

The poster is a - it's one pixel of a larger image that is taking slow shape in my mind. It's part of my own path, but I think I see all this in some way indicative of important aspects of our profession. Identity, access, trust, culture; gap-bridging, sensemaking, discursive and reflective. Changing, finding balance.

* Lofland, John. Analyzing social settings : a guide to qualitative observation and analysis. Belmont, Calif. : Wadsworth, 2006.
** Rosaldo, Renato. Culture and Truth: The remaking of social analysis. Boston : Beacon Press, 1993.