Friday, March 25, 2011

PL 7/11: Science and art – evidently

Filed under: 1bib, research — plinius @ 8:19 pm

EBLIP – which stands for Evidence Based Librarianship and Information Practice – is a change-oriented journal.

In her latest editorial – Evidence Based Practice. Science? Or Art? – the Main Editor, Denise Koufogiannakis, identifies the journal with the EBLIP movement. The role of both is to support and develop library practice: Evidence based library and information practice (EBLIP) is a strategy to bridge research and practice.

Generally EBLIP is seen as a movement to encourage and give practitioners the means to incorporate research into their practice, where it previously may have been lacking. The widely accepted definition of EBLIP (Booth, 2000) stresses three aspects that contribute to a practice that is evidence based:

1) “the best available evidence;”

2) “moderated by user needs and preferences;”

3) “applied to improve the quality of professional judgements.”

Practice and research

I see the current relationship between library practice and LIS research as highly problematic. The main issues are:

  1. The low academic quality of many, maybe most, of the research articles – when I read them one at a time.
  2. The lack of coherence within the body of articles on particular topics.
    • Authors may refer to previous studies, but there is little empirical or theoretical cumulation.
    • Research interests may shift, but the field does not advance.
  3. The near-total absence of dynamic links between library research, on the one hand, and library practice, on the other.
    • Much of the research does not address issues that practitioners are concerned about.
    • The results of the research do not influence existing practices.
    • Many results are irrelevant – or have no actionable consequences – for practitioners
    • Other results may be relevant in principle, but the combined research-and-practice field lacks mechanisms to translate new findings into new practices

Science and art

I am glad that Koufogiannakis touches on some of these issues:

The area that the EBLIP movement has focused on is how to create and understand the best available research evidence. CE courses, critical appraisal checklists, and many articles have been written to address a need for librarian education in this area, and it seems that strides have been made.

But very little in the EBLIP literature talks about how we make professional judgements, or moderate evidence based on our user needs and preferences. Likewise, how do we make good evidence based decisions when our evidence base is weak.

  • These things seem to be elements we just take for granted or can’t translate into words.
    It is in keeping with tacit knowledge that librarians just seem to have or acquire skills with education and on the job experience.
  • Tacit knowledge is “knowledge that is not easily articulated, and frequently involves knowledge of how to do things.
  • We can infer its existence only by observing behaviour and determining that this sort of knowledge is a precondition for effective performance” (Patel, Arocha, & Kaufman, 1999, p.78).
  • It is something that is difficult to translate into an article or guideline for how we work.

Koufogiannakis uses the categories of science and art to explain the problem:

I think of this area as the “art” of evidence based practice. And the art is crucial to being an evidence based practitioner.

  • Science = systematized knowledge, explicit research, methodological examination, investigation, data
  • Art = professional knowledge of your craft, intuition, experience, tacit knowledge, reflection, creativity, values, people-skills

But the distinction between science and art does not reach the core of the problem. The problem we face rather reflects the tension between context-based and decontexualized forms of knowledge. The former characterizes the professions – the latter the academic disciplines.

Levels of expertise

Librarianship remains a skills oriented occupation or profession. Cataloguing, classification and information retrieval are based on data, investigation and systematized knowledge. But high competence in these areas does not come from years and years of study and research. It comes from years and years of intense and challenging practice.

The lower levels of expertise are based on explicit rules. The higher levels are based on experience – which leads to intuitive understanding of contexts. For a fuller discussion of this, I would refer to the classical works of Donald Schön (1983) and the Dreyfus brothers (1986).

Patel, Arocha & Kaufmann make “tacit knowledge” too special. Schön shows very well how the implicit knowledge of the expert can be verbalized – if he or she is questioned by an expert inquisitor.


  • Dreyfus, Hubert; Stuart Dreyfus. Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. New York: Free Press, 1986.
  • Schön, Donald. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith, 1983.



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