Thursday, July 30, 2009


Tay Bridge over the Firth of Forth, Scotland.
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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.