Studies of Research: Reshaping the Library Literature

I’ve mentioned before that one of the cool things about the study of research is that it’s already out there, in so many forms and in so many fields (not just library and information science!), even if that’s not what the researchers doing this work would necessarily call it. I saw a lot of examples of this at the ACRL 2019 Conference and I wanted to spend some time here taking a closer look at a few of them.

So let’s take a closer look at “Reshaping the Library Literature: Scholarship Challenges and Opportunities for Technical Services Librarians at Smaller Institutions”by Heather Getsay and Aiping Chen-Gaffey.

What it’s about

Getsay and Chen-Gaffey conducted a study of LIS literature to discover how much of it comes from tech services librarians at small institutions versus medium or large institutions. It’s not surprising that small libraries are underrepresented in the tech services literature but it is surprising by how much: less than 1% of the articles in the sample they studied were written by tech services librarians at small institutions.


Why is an information literacy librarian talking about tech services articles?

My approach to the research-as-subject metaconcept has always been through the lens of someone whose own work focuses on information literacy and teaching. I think a lot about what we can learn from studying students’ research behaviors and how to help them understand the contextual nature of research so that they don’t mistake it for a basic skill. I also think about it from a public services perspective. How can we use what we learn from studies of research to improve not just instruction but other library public services as well?

So when I first started thinking about these ideas, that’s where I was coming from. But more recently, I conducted a study of library literature to try to discover how the study of research might be represented across specializations and it turns out that every area of specialization in the LIS field studies research in some way, shape, or form. A lot of times in tech services literature, this takes the shape of studying the way information is described or organized in order to make it more accessible to users/researchers. Getsay & Chen-Gaffey take a different approach.


A study of research products

Often, when librarians directly study research, they are studying the process itself, maybe observing the research behaviors of a particular population. But sometimes they study research by studying the products of research to understand something about authorship or citation patterns. That’s what Getsay & Chen-Gaffey are doing here: they’re studying tech services research to understand something about who is producing that research because knowing who produces that research tells us something about the content of that research and its applicability in various contexts.

But it’s not just research articles that they’re studying.


The connection to job descriptions

Besides research articles, Getsay & Chen-Gaffey also analyze job descriptions for tech services librarians at institutions of various sizes. They found that tech services librarians at smaller institutions are likely to have more (and more varied) responsibilities and that they are less likely to be required to do research as part of their jobs. So part of the explanation for the lack of research representing tech services  in small libraries may be that librarians in those libraries already have too much on their plate and don’t have incentive to add more because there’s no inherent reward, the way there would be for someone who needs to do research in order to earn tenure. Anecdotally, I’ve seen cases where some librarians with an interest in research are actually penalized for it because conducting research means they are doing something that is not a required part of their job. Never mind that they’re contributing to the scholarly conversation in their field.


Why this is important

Usually I end with an explanation of how I think the article in question qualifies as a study of research since the authors themselves may not have considered it to be so (and hopefully don’t mind me using that label), but I think the above section on studying research products covers that territory, so I want to focus instead on what makes Getsay & Chen-Gaffey’s research so interesting and important.

What Getsay & Chen-Gaffey’s work shows is that there is a large gap in the LIS literature where contributions from tech services librarians at small institutions should be. Very likely, a similar gap exists when it comes to research produced by other librarians at small institutions. The overrepresentation of research from libraries at large institutions is a problem because it means that the knowledge we have about our field has an enormous bias toward what is useful or applicable or possible in that particular environment. But what is useful or applicable or possible in a large institution may not be so in a small or medium-sized one. Clearly, we need a deeper understanding of the work these institutions do.

But how to get that when the librarians in these environments may not have incentive or opportunity to produce research? That’s the question at the heart of Getsay & Chen-Gaffey’s work and it’s one well-worth considering.


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