Saturday, May 5, 2007

PL 17/07: Practice-oriented public library research

Filed under: research — plinius @ 7:03 pm

seniorsurf.jpgNext week, on May 11-12, a group of about thirty Nordic library researchers will meet in the old university town of Uppsala (north of Stockholm) to discuss, and if possible coordinate, their research on public libraries.

Participants have been asked to provide a summary – in English – of their thinking and interests before the meeting. Mine follows below:

In Bibliotekforskning 2007 (in Norwegian) I argue that librarianship, as a professional field of service, requires a type of research that is tightly coupled to ongoing practice.

The academic distinction between pure research, applied research and development projects implies you can do the one without the other. This is not a useful approach to library studies.

Libraries and librarians may of course be studied in the traditional academic way, within the frameworks of traditional academic disciplines. But such research easily becomes divorced from the practitioners and their daily concerns. Librarianship needs research strategies that are rooted in the field of practice.

Fragments and linkages

The main problem facing practice oriented research is that of fragmentation.

Practitioners have many small problems they want to solve, or at least study. But aggregating a large series of ad hoc projects does not provide a meaningful understanding of the practice field as such. Our scattered pieces of knowledge form a heap of bricks rather than a building.

The academic disciplines create order by relating projects and their results to theoretical models. They use, in other words, theory as an ordering tool. But theory as such is not relevant to practitioners. Librarians are not trying to understand the world, but to serve their user communities. They demand immediate relevance: theory-in-action.

Here, library researchers face a dilemma. Academic research is cumulative, but not relevant. Ad hoc research is relevant, but not cumulative.

Activity structures

My personal solution would be to develop research that focuses on the action-oriented structures of librarianship – its systems, procedures, standards, rules and guidelines – in order to develop them further.

I am not referring to the intentions, values or goals that libraries and librarians promote as symbols of their identity. I am thinking of the recurrent practical activities that link people and institutions – not the ideas that we associate with these activities. It is these concrete and practical elements of librarianship – not the abstract values – that keep the profession and the institution from falling apart.

Librarians deliver services, implement procedures, and maintain the complex administrative and technical systems that libraries demand. They collaborate and develop common codes because they need to exchange materials. They become internationalists because their collections are international.

The emphasis on actvity structures does not exclude user studies. But the point of user studies is to improve the systems that deliver user services, not to develop the sociology or anthropology of libraries.

The things we know

In general terms – as seen from Norway – I believe we need to review and summarize our current level of library knowledge, based on

  • Norwegian library research till now
  • Norwegian library statistics (combined with statistics from neighbouring sectors)
  • Norwegian development projects
  • combined with relevant knowledge from other (similar) countries

We need to know what we know before we charge ahead into the unknown.

My main personal interest lies in the field of library statistics. Statistical systems constitute an essential part of the infrastructure in many professional fields, from agronomy to social work. Research, we may say, values knowledge that is new, original and exceptional. Statistics represents another attitude to life. The registration systems focus on ordinary, rather than on extraordinary activities and events.

Statistics studies the quotidian. But the relationship between research and statistics is dialectical, of course. We must have expectations in order to be surprised. Patterns must be recognized before they can be broken.

Statistics provide the background against which we can judge the meaning of new and exciting discoveries.

Working with statistics

In my own work I want to use the information that has already been collected – combining data from all available sources – in a systematic way, so that we have a shared factual platform on which to build. This work includes systematic comparisons between the Nordic – and to some extent other European – countries.

In Norway, detailed public library statistics are collected, analyzed and published by ABM-utvikling. ABM-utvikling also functions as an intermediary between the actual libraries and the Central Bureau of Statistics (SSB = Statistisk sentralbyrå). SSB publishes some statistical information based on data from ABM-utvikling. This is done on an annual basis. The Bureau also collects cultural statistics – including some data on library use – by means of (less frequent) sample surveys.

Our library statistics need conceptual and technical updating. I have been asked (as a professional statistician ) to serve as an external consultant in a revision process that ABM-utvikling is starting this year – and combine this with research oriented study of indicator development in the library field.

Habitus and doxa

I am also interested in the change process as such. The statistical systems are not simple tools that can be used and dropped at will. The systems impose particular ways of thinking, speaking and acting in the library field. They contribute, in Bourdieu’s terms, to the inertia – the surprising resistance to change – of habitus and doxa.

Since the systems operate in the background, their power may be hard to visualize. But since they are routinized and widely accepted as given, they have more influence than we believe. When we change statistical systems, we also change the categories and concepts through which we make sense of the world.


  1. Why LIS research is fragmented. Notes based on T. D. Wilson’s paper Philosophical foundations and research relevance: issues for information research (delivered as keynote address to CoLIS4 – Fourth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Emerging Frameworks and Method, University of Washington, Seattle, USA, July 21 to 25, 2002)

TH: articles on public libraries

  1. Competition and marketing. Public libraries in the Norwegian reference market. Paper for BOBCATSSS symposium, Prague, January 29th -31st, 2007
  2. Statistikk og styring i norske folkebibliotek: KOSTRA-systemets rolle i kommunal planlegging. Dansk biblioteksforskning vol 2 (2006), no 3, pp. 41-51.
  3. Comparing libraries. From official statistics to effective strategies. In: Management, marketing and promotion of library services based on statistics, analyses and evaluation / edited by Trine Kolderup Flaten. Munchen : Saur, 2006 (= IFLA publications)
  4. A poem lovely as a tree? Virtual reference questions in Norwegian public libraries. / In New frontiers in library research, Scarecrow Press, 2005.
  5. Why is quality control so hard? Reference studies and reference quality in public libraries : the case of Norway. Paper for IFLA Library Theory and Research Section, Berlin 2003.
  6. Why do you ask? Reference statistics for library planning, Performance measurement and metrics, vol. 4 (2003), no. 1, pp. 28-37. [Contains first half of a paper for IFLA Statistics section, Glasgow, 2002]
  7. Biblioteket mellom to kulturer: Naturvitenskap og humaniora i referansearbeidet. Referencen, nr. 2, april 2002, s. 5-8.
  8. Har veven svaret?. Norsk tidsskrift for bibliotekforskning nr. 13 (årg. 5, 2000), p. 9-25.
  9. Sink, swim or surf : the future of reference work in Norwegian public libraries / In Beaulieu, Micheline ; Davenport, Elisabeth ; Pors, Niels Ole. Library and information studies : Research and professional practice. London : Taylor Graham, 1997, pp. 44-60.
  10. (med Helge Høivik). Hvordan reagerer salt med svovel? Brukernes vurderinger av referansetjenesten i norske folkebibliotek. Tønsberg: Tønsberg bibliotek, 1995. – 42 p.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Practice-oriented public library research […]

    Pingback by SK 35/07: Still krav til forskningen « Plinius — Sunday, September 2, 2007 @ 10:15 am

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