Sunday, August 7, 2011

PL 37/11: Fragmented “research”

Filed under: 1bib, IFLA — Tags: — plinius @ 6:46 pm

Practices in the library field are seldom evidence-based.

Blogging in San Juan

In Great Britain, Sara McNicol reported in 2004, many libraries are involved in projects of one kind or another. But only the libraries directly involved make use of the findings.

I see the same lack of communication, integration and intellectual synthesis in the Norwegian environment. There is a surprising lack of strategic R&D planning. Most data oriented projects are initated on an ad hoc basis. When the funding institution has received its project report, the results are quickly forgotten. Making the data collected available for reuse is rare. Project results are not summarized so that new project designers can build on them. Everybody starts from scratch, year after year.

This is a problem that is not seen as a problem. The libraries are too busy with their daily work. The library organizations do not discuss the issue. The agencies that provide external financing for many projects, accept no strategic responsibility. When the report comes in, the project is complete. Next project, please!

Light in the dark

There are glimmers of light in the darkness. The Metropolitan Study (“Storbyundersøkelsen”) showed that five big libraries were able to join forces and undertake a project of great practical importance. The investigating teams, which combined library staff and outside consultants,  collected very interesting data about user behavior inside libraries. The data have not beeen published or properly analyzed, however. The multi-year PLACE project integrates the work of library researchers with that of students, creating a general framework for the study of public libraries as meeting places. The main weakness of this project, from my point of view, is the limited amount of on-going publication of empirical results and data on the web.

A third initiative, the CTT traffic study, combines the short-time work of many second-year students (2,5 weeks each) to create a substantial data collection effort. The students carry out observations of user behavior baseed on regular walks through the public areas, usually once an hour. I have summarized the method and some of the results here.

But these are exceptions. Most local studies, including most user studies, begin and end in the same place.

Creating coherence

Creating coherence is not a simple task. The traditional tools: do a survey, organize a conference, provide a training course, are far too weak. We face a combination of material limitations, cultural habits and (dare I say it?) a resistance to learning.

The people who choose the road of evidence-based librarianship are committing themselves to the scientific method. That goes beyond technical tools. Science applies human reason to the field of knowledge production. Your beliefs, feelings and social position are irrelevant. In scientific discussions only arguments count.  The scientific habit may cause discomfort to people with strong beliefs, tender hearts or impeccable positions.

But they must also learn the tools. Science means learning from data beyond your control. Therefore mathematics and statistics are central tools in all natural and social sciences. Their value in humanistic disciplines is more limited. Ernst Robert Curtius points to the historical perspective instead: – Wie die europäische Literatur nur als Ganzheit gesehen werden kann, so kann ihre Erforschung nur historisch verfahren. 

The British Isles

In every issue, in addition to its own articles, the EBLIP journal includes summaries of research articles printed elsewhere. In its very first issue, Julie McKenna reviewed a survey of practitioners’ use of research:

Sara McNicol. “Is Research an Untapped Resource in the Library and Information Profession?” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 36.3 (September 2004)

Here are some quotes:

  • Design – A series of survey questionnaires sent by mail.
  • Setting – Public, academic, health, special and school libraries of the British Isles.
  • Subjects – A total of 2384 questionnaires were sent out and 334 responses were received.
  • Questionnaires were sent by mail to library directors in all public library authorities, academic libraries, health libraries and special libraries in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In addition, questionnaires were sent to … a sample of nine local education authorities.
  • Each participant was asked to identify past and future research issues of interest and the barriers to research practice within their library.

Half the respondents reported that they had been involved in some form of research in the past two years, … Generally, only the library directly involved in conducting the research made use of the findings and a gap in the dissemination of results was identified across sectors.

  • User surveys were the most common form of research undertaken  The most frequently cited barriers to research activity across all sectors were lack of time and financial resources. Staff skills and the lack of focus on practical problems to solve were indicated as a barrier in health, public and academic libraries.
  • Libraries reported a range of common uses for the research findings including:
  • informing strategic and service planning; providing benchmarking data and measuring the effectiveness of services; identification of marketing and public relations opportunities; discovery of staff training needs; and use of the results to demonstrate the value of libraries to funding bodies.

Since research interests often overlap, a sector wide or cross‐sectoral research approach should be considered to allow library staff to identify and resolve common problems. Wide dissemination of research results within the practitioner community would be of benefit to all. Greater communication between practitioner and information science communities is also encouraged, as these communities’ work is
mutually beneficial.


…  Key problems identified by this study were the lack of recognition and poor dissemination of practitioner‐led research findings within the research community, as well as the tendency for practitioners to rarely see themselves as active members of the research community.



Plinius: CTT


  • Curtius, Ernst Robert. Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter. Tübingen/Basel: Francke, 2001 (1946). – 608 s.

He adds: Nicht in der Form der Literaturgeschichte (but not as the history of literature):

Geschichtliche Betrachtung … hat analytische Methoden auszubilden, das heisst solche, die den [historische] Stoff “aufløsen” (wie die Chemie mit ihrer Reagentien) und seine Strukturen sichtbar machen. Die Gesichtspunkte dafür können nur aus vergleichender Durchmusterung der Literaturen gewonnen, das heisst empirisch gefunden werden. Nur eine historisch und philologisch verfahrende Literaturwissenschaft kann der Aufgabe gerecht werden. s. 25


Gathering data by direct observation is generally time-consuming. CTT was designed to minimize the data collection effort by using time sampling. But we do lose some detail. In 2007 five of the largest public libraries in Norway carried out an observation-based study using a different methodology. Instead of “sweeping through” the building at regular intervals, the observers “shadowed” individual users from the moment they entered till the time they left the library. Since observation was combined with a brief exit interview, it was also possible to link background and behavioral data.

This project, which was called Storbyundersøkelsen (The Metropolitan Study), gives more information about individual behavior than the CTT approach. The two methods are highly compatible. They map and quantify the same types of activities. The shadowing method is much more labor intensive than the sweeps method, however. A combination of relatively frequent CTTs with occasional “shadow studies” may therefore be the best overall data collection strategy.


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