Librarian as researcher: doing research in your day job by Emma Coonan and Jane Secker (workshop write-up)

"3 out of 4 scientists can't explain copyright. The choice is clear: Creative Commons" by BrokenCities on Flickr
“3 out of 4 scientists can’t explain copyright. The choice is clear: Creative Commons” by BrokenCities on Flickr

Disclaimer: as this training session was offered to University of Cambridge librarians, it may be very Cambridge-centric. However, I think there is a lot you can get from what was discussed anyway!

Yesterday I attended an excellent Librarians in Training session called Librarian as research: doing research in your day job. It was presented by the delightful Emma Coonan (Cambridge University Library) and Jane Secker (LSE). To give you a picture, we were all sitting in groups around a table with Emma and Jane presenting from the front of the room and then occasionally roaming around the groups. We knew we were in for a mixed and interactive session from the get-go.

The slides from an earlier (but almost identical) presentation on the same topic was available on SlideShare.


Emma and Jane shared much of the presentation and switched around quite frequently which made for some interesting variety. Initially, Emma spoke on what we could expect from the session, through both talking about how they did research together and what they have found beneficial. Attendees were told that they could either sit and listen (as beginners or people wanting to see if research is for them) or they could get ideas and tips (for those already doing research). Either way, the session was aimed as being practical and reflective in equal measure, which is certainly was.

Jane started by telling us a bit about herself. She currently works as part of LSE’s e-learning team which is based in the Information Management and Technology department. She spoke about how she found she didn’t want to be a librarian while doing her library qualification so she carried on to do a PhD at Aberystwyth so she could pursue an academic career, only to realise that wasn’t for her either and switched back to wanting to be a librarian again. She continued on to pursue roles that combined research and librarianship such as digitisation and JISC projects and then moved on to e-learning work. Currently she is in a more practical job where research is not in the remit of the job, but she still wants to include this into her work.

Emma comes from a very different background to Jane and has a lot of experience in researching literary theory and other areas. However, she worked with Jane on the Arcadia Project which was interesting as they did not seek each other out for the project. Someone else put them together which turned out to be an excellent judgement of characters as they worked well together with their similar interests in undergraduate education and other similar areas. As part of their Arcadia research, the pair came up with a curriculum based on actual research rather than something thought up by sitting in a room.

The data collection element of Emma and Jane’s Arcardia research mainly consisted of carrying out interviews by talking to people and experts, carrying out an extensive literature review and then running workshops to present the raw form of their curriculum for feedback purposes. Over the course of three months, they achieved a huge amount which is a testament for how two people combining their efforts can lead to achieving so much more than someone on their own necessarily would.

Jane is currently working on information sharing and literacy. Emma made the point that she is very different to Jane in that she has never done any externally funded research projects. All of her work has been practitioner-centric with a lot of it reflecting local needs and demands. She has also done some work on distance learning support and highlighted how there isn’t a lot of data being captured about current distance learning students.

Doing things; writing about it; sharing ideas through research and opportunity

After this introduction, Emma and Jane continued the session based around several key questions that they presented on and also threw over to us to discuss as groups and with the rest of the room. I will block out the rest of this post using each question area as a theme.

Why do research as a practitioner?

Sometimes, research can be an inevitability depending on your role, especially as part of a wider project. Doing research can improve your credibility as a professional within your organisation. It can also allow you to pursue your own personal curiosity, engage with your user groups and even make improvements to existing services. Most importantly though, you can do research for sheer enjoyment.

We discussed the “why” question in our groups and overall the following points were raised:

  • Share practices with wider community through research: be more outward facing
  • Advance/advocate your profession: build on existing body of research
  • Develop your own skills and awareness
  • Improve services and information provision: a knock on effect would be being able to fund-raise
  • Back up/justify certain practices and approaches with hard data, thereby improving your service’s credibility
  • Focus on existing resources: allows decisions to be made on what to keep or what to develop further
  • Allows you to have common points of reference with the researchers that you assist in your role: allows for empathising over the research process itself!
  • Investigate why communication is so poor between some departments: research and also improvement

What is your research environment?

An interesting point was made about how libraries are seen as places for researchers to come and work, as we are librarians are seen as curators rather than researchers in our own right interacting with the collection as well.

One thing that we have as academic librarians is a captive audience! We are surrounded by students and researchers to study and work with. However, getting time to actually do research is hard. It is important that we try to prove to our organisations that carrying out research is essential to them and even having this inserted into your job description as part of the appraisal process, even if it is only a temporary addition. However, in an attempt to be realistic as well, we were warned that we may experience surprise and even hostility from our organisation if we suggest doing research. To try to circumvent such negative reactions, it may be better to describe your research as being a systematic review, or something equally friendly to lower any initial resistance. Fundamentally, you should use appropriate language to gain some leverage.

Jane also mentioned that some work-based research reports make a single recommendation while academic-based research reports can make several and compare these multiple options. This multi-option approach should be used in library research, especially as they can offer more flexibility to management rather than providing a more restricted yes/no context.

The main issues to consider when thinking about doing research in your current environment could be:

  • Time and space
  • Not being recognised as in the remit of your role
  • Lack of support from senior management and/or colleagues
  • No budget
  • However, it is important to look at ways of getting around these issues and focusing on how to make your research work in your available environment.

We discussed this topic further in groups with the following concerns being pretty common across all the groups:

  • Time: yours and theirs. Staff not having time to do research and participants not having time to take part. One group member who works with schools highlighted that while he wants to do research on what schools expect from library visits, pinning down busy teachers to take part in this research is very problematic
  • Attitudes: aside from not having support from others, one group member highlighted the issue of institutions not wanting to change and seeing research as being set against their “we’ve always done it this way” approach.
  • Comprehensive literature review: one group member mentioned a concern of missing literature when doing a review thereby duplicating existing research. Jane highlighted this as being a perpetual issue for researchers but also pointed to the fact that as information professionals, this is the very thing that we help our users with so why can’t we apply the same approach to our own work?

It was mentioned that by working for Cambridge University, we are very fortunate to have free access to so many resources such as books and electronic journals which helps a huge amount. Those not working in such an academic sector would probably find it harder to achieve such coverage. In theory, with such a rich resources on hand, not having a research budget shouldn’t stop you from doing research.

We also discussed who or what might get in our way. Time and issues of lack of support came up again, as did the willingness of study subjects to take part. One participant mentioned that their students hate filling out questionnaires. A catch-22 point was also raised by the fact that not all students will be aware of all the resources and services that we offer so if we then question them about these very same resources, they won’t be able to respond properly as they won’t have all the necessary facts that their disposal. Finally, a point was raised about balancing research needs with hours of opening. Two examples were given: firstly, full-time librarians trying to access libraries after working hours only to find that they are closed and secondly, distance learning students trying to do much the same. 24/7 access to libraries simply isn’t in place yet and causes a massive restriction to research by those of us who are not full-time students or researchers.

We considered what our ideal research environment would be as well as how we could make our existing environment work for us. These overlapped somewhat with the following key themes coming out of our discussions:

  • Access to resources: being lucky enough to work for a university, we have a large wealth of resources on tap
  • Access to research peers: being in an academic research environment, there will be many knowledgeable folk to talk to about your work
  • Having time/money: while we could all do with more of these things, it is still worthwhile seeing how you can make time for research or apply for research grants to fund your work. Keep an eye on JISC and the Higher Education Academy, which often funds small projects
  • Work with a partner: working with someone else gives you the pressure of expected output and motivates you to complete your research. This partner can range from someone who you talk to about your research to someone who is actually collecting data with you

Action plan: what-why-how

This action plan is essentially a template for your research:

  • What is your research: what question does it answer or pose?
  • Why will you do it?: what will it contribute to the research context/our understanding of library’s role and purpose [context, impact]
  • How will you do it?: how will you generate/collect data, analyse data and draw conclusions from them? [method]

Jane & Emma’s tips for doing practitioner research

1. Find your thinking space                        

Noisy coffee shop? Quiet space? Where works for you? Do you need distraction or need to avoid it?

Where’s my ‘third space’?

Coffee shop; at home first thing in the morning; perhaps somewhere that isn’t work or home.

 2. Modify your attitude to time                 

One example presented, but one that might not work for all, is keeping awareness of your research in your daily life. You research can become a hobby and you may find yourself doing it in your spare time and not in the standard 9-5 mode.

How will I start carving out time for research?

Be good at time management

Find spare moments/place your time (Jane used the example of catching up on reading a paper when taking a train to this very training session)

3. Build a partnership                                  

Using strengths and differences of the partnership and feed off of your complementary approaches

Who could be my partner(s)?

Someone who gives you intellectual nourishment

Someone to explain things to and help break down your research concepts

Having someone there to support you helps with the research process

If you aren’t sure who to find/ask, try using Mendeley and see who is researching areas similar to your own interests.

4. Look out for funding opportunities        

Other than options such as JISC and the HE Academy, there may be funding opportunities in your own organisation. Remember, funding can help for offering survey incentives thereby increasing your participant total!

5. Find your niche

It helps if you love your job and have a curiosity about the work that you do. If you can indulge that curiosity, even better. What do you want to find out more about?

What do I love about my field?

Some of the best research comes from people who love their research.

6. Develop your online identity                 

Blog about your research. Tweet to ask around about existing research that might have been done in your field. Use this as a way to find existing research to build on.

What does my digital footprint already look like?

By building an online presence through your research, people may well come to you to work on the same research as you will come up in Google searches as the person to talk to about this sort of thing. Slideshare is also a really good tool for sharing information online.

7. Present your ideas early                         

Once you have an idea, get working on it! Blogging about your idea is a form of research in itself and certainly a less formal way of getting your ideas out there and allows you to build on them.

Blogging= musing; Journal article: formalises opinion

What do I already have that I can share and develop?

8. Final step: academic publication

It helps for you to plan to publish from the outset of your research as it allows for you to structure your work accordingly. It also allows you to fine tune your research process.

Publishing also puts you and your institution/organisation in a good light. Another way of learning about academic publishing is to offer your services as a peer reviewer.

What journal would I like to be published in – and what are their submission guidelines for authors?

Jane is the editor of the Journal of Information Literacy and mentioned that she is always looking for new peer reviewers. As part of this discussion, we were given copies of the submission guidelines for the journal to get an idea of what to expect.        

Final thoughts

I really enjoyed this session. After having done some research for my MSc and also a piece of work on libraries for the EU, I have had some experience of this sort of thing but most of it has been done on the fly without too much in the way of structure or outward thinking on how it could impact my colleagues and my field of work. Being given that sense of context and focus by Jane and Emma has helped a huge amount and I am really keen to continue researching and contributing to my field. I believe that some (not all) librarians can be views as scientists in their own right, especially those of us who are doing structured research and writing papers. Yay! Science!

I think I might investigate peer review work a bit more too as I hadn’t really thought it was something that I was even qualified for but from the sounds of it, some journals are keen to take people if they are working in the relevant sectors and have direct and relevant skills/experience.

Thanks to Jane and Emma for providing excellent handout (much of which I used for the text of my post) and linking to the SlideShare slides on Twitter.

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