Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Best Practices and Research Based Practices: Don't Be A Lemming

Lemmus lemmus
Summer is over. New students will show up later this week and returning students will be here next weekend. Transitions always get me thinking, and this current transition from the pin-drop-quiet of our summers to the "Can you keep it down to a dull roar?" of the semester is no different. This time I'm thinking about best practices.

Specifically, I'm thinking about the difference between "best practices" and "research based practices." Some of it is because of the inevitable rush of email from faculty asking us to do information literacy sessions first thing in the semester instead of having a librarian teach in that sweet spot between when the students get a research assignment and when that assignment is due ("just in case" info lit versus "just in time"). Another factor is that I finally got around to reading a partial transcription of a TED Talk about "Why the Widespread Belief in 'Learning Styles' Is Not Just Wrong; It's Dangerous."And then I saw a public librarian friend calling 3D printing services into question.

So here's my perspective on all this:
  • Best Practices can be very similar to research based practices. The key difference is that they are divorced from the research and are, too frequently, a fancier version of "everyone else is doing it, so we should, too." I can almost guarantee there is a grain of wisdom and experience at the core of every library trend. It started out as something that worked for the first few people who did it, but after that libraries become a bit like the apocryphal lemmings throwing themselves off the cliff because all the other lemmings are. 
  • Research Based Practices, on the other hand, are formulated to reflect research and science. I remember someone asking me what I thought of some new fad in instruction, and I think I ticked that person off because my response was "It sounds like an interesting idea, but I'm holding off my opinion until I see some research into whether or not it really works." The problem with going based on gut feeling instead of looking for research is that you become prey to things like confirmation bias.

The problem with those ideas is that research lags behind trends. Worse, not everyone has time to do big, longitudinal studies to prove the efficacy of new practices. So what are those of us who are interested in cutting or even bleeding edge ideas to do?
  • Action Research. There are all sorts of resources to help you with this idea, but basically it (usually) means small scale research to improve your practice. It includes all the same things as larger scale research, but it on a much more manageable and practical level.
  • Adopt, Adapt, and Improve. There are no neutral or normal libraries. That means that what made a project super successful at one library might not work at all at another library. When looking at a hot new trend, we need to pause and think about how it would work best for our community - if at all. We need to ask if there is something else we could do with those funds, and that personnel time, that might better serve community needs. We need to think about why we're doing a thing, and if the answer is "because everyone else is doing it" we need to reconsider. If we stay rooted in our libraries and our users, it greatly reduces that risk of being swept up in a trend for no reason.

While lemmings are incredibly adorable, whether we're talking about the real ones like up above or the fake ones that jump off cliffs, we're humans. We shouldn't emulate lemmings. Neither should we follow along with trends just for the sake of the trends. The problem here isn't with trends or the best practices. The problem lies in treating library best practices as off-the-rack solutions without checking the research and connecting the solutions to the specific context of our libraries and our users. We are a profession that encourages people to be curious and investigate, shouldn't we do the same?

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