DREaMy meanderings – research excellence

This week I have been reading a lot about social policy, for a specific reason but actually it’s tuned me in to stuff on t’Internet beyond what I normally read and that’s a good thing. For a librarian to only read library stuff is not so good. In fact, bearing in mind what Prof Blaise Cronin said to us last week at the LIS_DREaM conference it’s vital to know our place in the wider world.

When East Coast deigned to allow us to arrive at Kings Cross, Simon Barron and I hotfooted it round the corner to The British Library conference centre just in time for Hazel Hall to get started; (was there ever a better way to let people know you’re running late than tweeting that fact with the conference hash tag?) This conference was the beginning of a project whose noble aim is to develop a nationwide network of top quality LIS researchers. Prof Cronin got things off to a good start with a nicely provocative keynote, part of which was some fairly robust criticism of current LIS research and that’s what I’d like to think about here.

One of my fears about my MA research was that I was just taking a snapshot of public libraries’ online activity and that it’d be out of date instantly and therefore pointless. That it was just me prodding around online looking at library websites and and scribbling something down to fulfill my degree requirements. From my experience of being related to PhD researchers, once being married to one and having loads of friends doing one, it seems to me that a healthy feeling of fear is pretty much a constant for researchers. Sometimes it’s a good thing: it keeps you keen, relevant and scrupulous in your reading and current awareness. Sometimes it pushes you over into generalised anxiety, sleeplessness and misery. But underlying all of that you hope against hope that it has some point, that you’re putting yourself through the mill for The Greater Good. Well Prof Cronin has called us all on that one and pointed out how some LIS research is ivory tower, narcissistic twaddle. Stuff that gets published and keeps the researcher in academia but contributes nothing to the canon. That’s what I was worried about and I’m glad it’s been voiced because it leads on to something that Prof Nigel Ford said just the week before at Umbrella: that research and practice need to be a lot closer to one another.

Prof Ford’s lecture was called “Technology, Personalisation and Librarians: Research & Practice”. Nigel’s lectures are always entertaining and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to relive my MA days so went along to hear him speak. The thrust of his opening was that we can leverage the different information needs and information processing styles to provide personalised information services, this personalisation is the way we do our jobs in future, it’s how we prove out worth. But in order to do this we need far more interplay between LIS researchers and practitioners. So when Prof Cronin called for meaningful and rigorous research I immediately doubted my own efforts.

However, when I’ve reflected I think I’ve managed to convince myself that my snapshot was useful. I had a huge response to my initial questionnaire, so much so that I had to scale back what I could achieve with the data. So, practitioners who I surveyed clearly cared about what I was asking. There were some very strong feelings expressed. One of my initial hopes was that in casting my net to capture UK public libraries’ participation in Web 2.0 I would be creating a list, a resource, that others who wanted inspiration could turn to. I think I achieved that in some measure. I think that because after I published that research on my blog last year, I immediately got asked to write a guest blog post for UKOLN Cultural Heritage Blog, off the back of that I was asked to write an article for Ariadne magazine. I was asked to speak at a Oxford University Press Panel Day on Discoverability for Public Libraries. I wrote an article for CILIP’s MmIT group newsletter and have just had another article published in CILIP’s ISG group journal, Refer. So I’m thinking that people did give a damn about what I wrote, what I found and what I was able to point them towards. I think I’m pretty much done with it now, it’s ancient history really and I can’t sustain follow-on research (see my Chaos postings for why not!), plus I want to move on to whatever’s next now.

So all that meandering has led me to draw a line under my MA research, it’s time to move on. But I look back on it fondly, it got me some great opportunities and I think I’ve decided that it was good, solid research that did fulfill my ambition to be of actual use to practitioners.

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