Plinius

Sunday, June 26, 2011

PL 21/11: Learning from practice

Filed under: 1bib, debate, research — plinius @ 4:28 pm

In her recent editorial, Denise Koufogiannakis discusses the concept of evidence.

Local stuff

Koufogiannakis is Editor-in-Chief of the EBLIP journal, or Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. Like many other professions, librarians have constructed a rather conservative culture. Melvil Dewey was a great reformer, but he is safely dead and buried. It is his system rather than his spirit that lives on.

I support EBLIP as an effort to change traditional library and information practices by applying scientific or sceptical reasoning rather than value-based or politically correct arguments. EBLIP is inspired by evidence-based medicine (EBM). But the world of librarianship is weaker and more blurry than the world of medicine. Medicine walks with life and death. Libraries support culture and learning.

Collective knowledge

EBM tries to build medical practice on the best available knowledge – and treats knowledge production as a collective rather than an individual activity. New procedures and recommendations should be developed through discussions among medical experts and implemented, or enforced, by official bodies with real power.

Librarians have much greater leeway. The digital systems they work with impose certain technical rules. Otherwise they tend to do as they like. The very idea of being “quality-controlled” from the centre or from above does not appeal to them. They would rather reign in Monaco than follow orders in Spain.

In the past, doctors could also do what they wanted. Theirs was a liberal profession. But the system of medical care has become more and more regulated. Evidence-based practice means more standardization, coordination and control.

Koufogiannakis asks “what we really mean”:

– Lately, I have been pondering what we really mean when we say “evidence based practice”? In LIS, we all know the definitions that have been proposed (Booth 2000, Eldredge 2000, Crumley and Koufogiannakis 2002), and which have not ever really been challenged. But have we ever said explicitly what qualifies as evidence in this model? The underlying assumption seems to be that evidence is research, hence, we are really talking about research-based practice, but we don’t actually use that term.

I prefer to start with the purpose rather than the definition of evidence. For me, the purpose is social change. I see EBLIP as one way of helping, prodding, pushing and forcing libraries to move forward into a turbulent new environment. Arguments about definitions are seldom useful.

But I accept her conclusions.

  • research is only one form of evidence.
  • other elements such as clinical experience, patient experience, and information from the local context also need to be considered.
  • LIS practitioners need to first of all consider local evidence

Local evidence

Local evidence is found in our working environment and specific to the context in which we carry out our work. It includes such things as our experiences with patrons in particular contexts, and what we observe to work in such situations, assessment of programs, feedback from our users, project evaluations, and accumulated experiences over the course of careers.

Fair enough. This is experiential knowledge (erfaringsbasert kunnskap, in Norwegain)

These things are not easily shared and often do not find a place in publications because they are too local. But data that comes from a local context is in fact often the most important evidence source that a LIS professional can consult because it gives us information that is directly applicable to, and about our users.

On the web, anything can be shared. Sharing knowledge is important. Common sense is often wrong. Accumulated experiences are not neutral. The may  reflect local interests rather than local insight. They may be use to oppose rather than promote change.

For example, usage stats on ejournals, feedback and comments about our services, usability testing on a website, titles on our interlibrary loan requests; these are just a few examples of local evidence that is invaluable to our decision making. This local data doesn’t often mean much to others, but it is of utmost importance to our local knowledge. The trick is to figure out what local information to collect, and how to use it. And remember to use it. This is where others’ experiences of how they use such local evidence can give us ideas and inspiration.

Exactly. Local experiences must be documented.

Open access

So, what does this journal do to aid in pulling together these different pieces of evidence? Well, first and foremost we publish in an open access manner so anyone who needs to can access the content we provide.

The types of evidence we publish in this journal are varied, but we have taken several different approaches.

  • Firstly, we publish relevant research that has been vetted through peer review.
  • Secondly, we publish evidence that comes from critically appraising previously published studies – this is a type of meta-evidence wherein writers of evidence summaries must bring their professional experience and training to bear on the critiques they write.
  • It lends readers another professional opinion (also vetted through peer review), to help educate and inform readers to make up their mind about the quality and value of the original research study.
  • The same can be said of our “classics” which entail the same process but with works that have stood the test of time and still hold relevance for today.
  • Our EBL101 column is similar in that it synthesizes small aspects of evidence based practice or research that help educate the reader about particular elements of evidence based practice.
  • Finally, we publish Commentaries and the Using Evidence in Practice section, which provide practitioner insights and reflections about their work at a local level.

Commentaries also allow new ideas to take shape, or critiques of particular aspects of evidence based practice, to reach readers, allowing for continued discussion and debate.

The big silence

From my point of view, as a statistician and sociologist, there is a glaring lack of professional discussion of substantial issues with reasoned arguments in the library field. Compared to an academic field like history, librarians lack an argumentative culture. They are not trained in intellectual debate. If their views are contradicted with empirical evidence, they either fall silent or attack the values of the critic. Intention is everything. As long as they mean well, they should not be criticized.

This is typical of professions that lack a strong academic basis. Librarians cling to the idea of library and information science. We are just as good as other scientists! But their position is weak and they know it. Dewey and Ranganathan are hardly a match for Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Weber.

EBLIP points beyond that. Professions are not sciences. Professionals are doers. Acdemia values thinkers above doers. If librarians accept that, they will remain servants and half-baked academics. If they value and develop doing, the game changes. Hard work, furious debates and tough choices will follow. There is no guarantee of success. But a practical profession that is able to learn from its practices  is not doomed to servitude.

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