On Thursday 12th June, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at SINTO‘s (the Information Partnership for South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire) AGM and Members Day, held at Sheffield Hallam University. The subject of their Member’s Day was Research into Practice, so I was very pleased to be asked to talk about this issue, as I like to get up on my soapbox about it as often as possible (see article, co-authored with Noeleen Schenk, who undertook the research with me, in CILIP’s Update in June 2007). My talk was based on research carried out in 2006 for the AHRC, one of their sector interaction studies to examine the impact of funded academic research on practice in the library and archive worlds. An overview of the project and findings was published in Library and Information Research, and a copy of the article can be downloaded from the University of Brighton’s institutional repository. The Update article, and my presentations on the topic over the last couple of years, have in part been an examination of the highly persistent culture gap between academics and practitioners in the LIS world (and not just in our area; similar studies in education and marketing reveal identical issues), and a ‘call to arms’ to do something about it – both on the part of academics, and practitoners. Sadly, there is usually an aspect of the ‘preaching to the converted’ at these events, as those already engaged with this issue are those who come to seminars on it.
To quote my own article:
‘Practitioners, why don’t you ask researchers to help you find solutions in the same way you might ask a colleague? Can you really afford not to engage with research and the wider debates and demand to be treated as a professional?
Researchers, what is wrong with seeking out practitioners in the same way you seek out fellow researchers to discuss your research and test ideas? Can you really afford not to disseminate your ideas and research results as widely as possible?
National organisations, we need a co-ordinated research policy and strategy, which emphasises relevance to practitioners as one of the criteria for funding research, and sends out a key message to the profession and the wider world: without a thriving research culture, we will not become a thriving profession. ‘
This is not to say that there are not some excellent examples of good practice out there – some academics are highly committed to multiple forms of dissemination, and some practitioners not only find time to research, but ensure they publish it too. Organisations like the Library and Information Research Group (of which I have been a committee member since 2001) do a lot of good work in promoting academic/practitioner partnerships and research in all its forms (for example, the student prize for best dissertation, and the LIRG Research Award). However, what emerged (again) at the SINTO Member’s Day was the lack of co-ordinated, national leadership in this area. This issue is being taken forward by LIRG and a number of other organisations. This is a continuation of the discussions initiated by the British Library, at the seminar they organised in November 2007, papers from which were published in a Special edition of LIRG’s open access journal, Library and Information Research.
The other keynote speaker was Ian Rowlands, from UCL, one of the researchers on the JISC/BL study into the ‘Google generation’. What particularly struck me from Ian’s talk was the finding from a market research study that (contrary to popular rhetoric, though in line with similar results emerging from a variety of research) only 20% of this generation are ‘wired up’, with 60% designated as ‘average Jo/es’, and another 20% have already become ‘digital dissidents’ (possibly in reaction to their ‘Crackberry’ – first time I’d heard the phrase – parents). This seems to me to be highly significant, and a potential warning for those developing services and policy on the back of the rhetoric, rather than the research.
Which brings me full circle, to the need for research to support library theory, policy, and practice. It’s nice to see that the Public Library Group conference, currently hotly debating issues of leadership and governance, has apparently highlighted the need for research and evidence to support practice, according to the Out of the Stacks blogger, Abigail Luthmann, who won a sponsored place to the conference this year, and is a former graduate of our MA Information Studies degree (shameless plug!).
The Members day was rounded up nicely by two excellent presentations on current research – firstly, by Lix Brewster who has just won the SINTO Bob Usherwood Prize, awarded to a student at the University of Sheffield, for the ‘postgraduate dissertation that makes a significant contribution to improving professional practice or understanding related to co-operation and partnership working across sectors in the SINTO area’. This is another good example of promoting practice-focused research. Liz won the prize for her work, Medicine for the Soul: bibliotherapy and the public library. The study investigates the experience of bibliotherapy in the public library from the staff perspective. A PDF file of this dissertation is available from Sheffield University’s database of student dissertations. Bob himself (who always showed exemplary practice in disseminating his own research and has been a long-standing contributor and champion of this issue) was chairing the day. Secondly, two enthusiastic and committed information advisors from Sheffield Hallam’s Learning Centre presented the results of their work introducing information literacy skills to first year undergraduates – and promptly got badgered by Bob and myself about when and where they were intending to publish it…
To round up the day, a panel discussion attempted to debate some of the issues raised – not terribly successfully, but there was definite support for national leadership in this area. As happens so often, I did not feel terribly inspired or confident about an imminent change of culture, but I did leave Sheffield cheerful (as I always do when I get out of the office and chat to colleagues about research), and with an emerging research idea…