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.