Friday, March 03, 2006

Article Note: On R&D for Academic Libraries

Citation for the article:

Neal, James G. "The Research and Development Imperative in the Academic Library: Path to the Future." portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.1 (2006): 1-3.

I read the article via Project Muse.

"Librarianship is an 'information poor' information profession" (1). This quote opens this small but provocative article. The author's basic claim is that librarians make decisions without evidence and that they lack a commitment to research and development. Initially, I was a bit miffed by this. Academic librarians constantly publish in journals of librarianship as well as in other areas, so there is some research going on. Also, with the advent of tools like blogs, librarians are making their investigations more visible. One example is the work of Michael Stephens (see his blog at Tame the Web). An example like this shows that research is alive and well in librarianship. However, I know that people like Professor Stephens are not the rule.

Mr. Neal is looking more at institutional research centers; that is the experience he comes from at Johns Hopkins and Columbia. But he goes further to argue that academic librarians need to engage actively in research. He writes on this:

"Librarians have a fundamental responsibility to contribute to professional communication. It produces important benefits. The individual gains personal satisfaction, professional growth and esteem, and opportunities for career advancement. The library secures staff who are knowledgeable about the research and publishing process, better able to evaluate professional literature, provide service to researchers, and apply these talents and understanding to library needs. The profession develops an improved network of communication and growth in the understanding of library problems and solutions" (2).

Neal believes that librarians often resist research because they do not see it defined as applied or operational, the basis of R&D. He also suggests that a lot of what research librarians do engage in stays at a local level. While the article does have a good message of urging librarians to research, it has a flaw.

The flaw is in the various suggestions for subjects of research; these subjects are mostly technological in nature. Some examples include:
  • software for computer systems engineering and applications.
  • high-end computing technologies and architectures.
  • HCI, DRM.
  • next generation networks.
  • integration of technology in teaching and learning.
  • virtual universities & digital libraries.
The closest to something other than technology was the part about integrations with teaching and learning. Those agendas leave out significant elements of librarianship. User education and instruction, best practices for information literacy, reference work, collections management are all part of librarianship as well. The areas that Neal suggests are valid areas of research, but technology is certainly not the only area of investigation (though it can certainly be a most glamorous one). In a way, my thinking may reflect that I am not the audience for Neal's article.

As some readers may know, I am not a librarian with faculty status, so I have no incentive to research and publish other than my own interest. This does not mean that I don't do any form of research. I actually follow a teacher-researcher model, and there are some areas in literary studies I pursue, a remnant from my previous life. A lot of what interests me and that I investigate is based on my teaching and librarianship practice. Sure, at the moment it may remain localized, but that does not have to the case. And there are other things, but I suppose the point I am trying to make is that research and inquiry can take various forms. Not all of us have the luxury of a well funded institutional think tank. Some of us practice our trade and investigate as we can from the field, and we make our results known be it on articles, conferences, or virtually. So, overall, what Neal proposes is nice, if you can get it. I would rather go for the practical as I continue to work with my academic community. He does make a good point about the need of libraries to support the research of librarians. He writes:

"Libraries must support the research activities of librarians, and this includes some basic elements: inspiration, training, criticism, financial assistance, consultative services, equipment, a mentoring and professional network, time, rewards, recognition, and an R&D context and agenda" (3).

I think this is something a good share of library managers should be reading and considering. I personally don't need a full blown R&D agenda, but the other stuff he mentions, I can certainly use. Anyways, a little food for thought for my colleagues in the larger research settings.


T Scott said...

There's another aspect to this as well -- when librarians do publish, they don't necessarily do a very good job of tying research together, so that we end up with isolated studies, rather than building a body of evidence. I wrote about this in my January editorial for the Journal of the Medical Library Association, available on PubMed Central:

Angel, librarian and educator said...

T. Scott: Thanks for the visit. I think I have noticed some of what you mention in my readings. Sometimes I will read a set of articles in librarianship, and I seem to find gaps in terms of the research. It may be the isolated quality you mention. I will have to jump over and look at your editorial, thanks for the link. Best, and keep on blogging.