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.