Friday, November 11, 2011

Doing Research Lets You Justify Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing, by Jacob Berg

In the course of doing your job, wherever and whatever that may be, you’ll be asked to justify why you’re doing what you’re doing. This justification can take many forms. Quantitative measurements like gate counts and qualitative feedback like comment boxes are simple ways of collecting data that can help provide justification for future actions. For example, the library where I work has used gate counts to alter hours and user statistics from databases as a factor in renewal decisions, among others. However, the vast majority of Library and Information Science programs have done us all a disservice by not offering courses on research methodologies, and by not making them compulsory. To those schools that do offer these courses (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Clarion University, among others) or makes the class mandatory (San Jose State University, the University of Washington, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, among too few others), take a bow. As for the rest of us, we have some catching up to do.

Why do we as librarians need to know research methodologies?
  • Because without them we don’t know how we know what we know. Behind every observation, every piece of data, is a method to how that data was collected. Did x number of patrons mention, even as an aside, y happening over a period of time z in a similar fashion? If x gets high enough in that time period, you’ve got something more than anecdotal evidence. Please act on it, or take this information to someone who can.
  • Because without them we don’t know what we know and because they help us make a stronger statement. Designing a survey? Conducting a focus group? The questions you ask the community you serve will influence the answers you get, which may bias the results, leading to
  • Because libraries struggle with funding, and a combination of data that is reliable, accessible, and replicable, along with emotional appeals from patrons and community members is an effective and proven way to advocate for an increase in resources.
  • Because your patrons are conducting research, whether it’s looking up ancestors or writing a book.
  • Because you, young librarian, may want to share (or have to share, if your position is tenure-track) your successes (and failures, which are more interesting anyway) with colleagues, in peer-reviewed journals, presentations, and poster sessions.
Wondering where to start? Odds are you’re not going back to library school, but if you’re an academic librarian, you may get free tuition at your institution. If your college or university offers an introductory course in research methods, I suggest you take it. Otherwise, the Library Research Service is your friend. There are other useful sites, and materials online as well. Best of luck, and heed the wise words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Jacob Berg is library director at a small, academic library in Washington, DC. He blogs about libraries and beer, roughly in that order, at and is on twitter, @jacobsberg.

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