Thoughts on the contextual nature of research and public libraries

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As an academic librarian, I tend to think about the contextual nature of research mostly through the lens of the academic library environment. Specifically, information literacy, since that’s my specialization.

But before becoming an academic librarian, I spent some time in public libraries: three years as a clerk at a small public library in my hometown and then two years as an intern at a larger public library in the suburbs near where I went to grad school. As an intern, I spent some time at the reference desk and helping out with programming.

Some recent conversations have gotten me thinking about how all this talk about the contextual nature of research might apply not only in the academic library environment but also in public libraries. Thinking back on my own experiences working in public libraries as well as my continuing experience as a public library patron, I actually think public librarians are in many ways better primed to address the importance of context to the research process than academic librarians are.

Consider that academic libraries generally build their collections and services around the information needs of populations conducting academic and scholarly research. That makes sense, since the whole purpose of an academic library is to support the research activities of the campus community (and, secondarily, the surrounding community as well, if they happen to be conducting research which requires more scholarly sources).

The information needs of the populations that public libraries serve is inherently less predictable. Which is to say, librarians who work in public libraries do a lot of work to understand and serve the needs of their specific communities. But those needs are still going to be pretty varied. As an intern on the reference desk, I helped patrons with job searches, investigations into local history, research on personal hobbies or interests, and reader advisory—sometimes all in the same day. I also observed and sometimes assisted with the library’s programs on how to do genealogy research, how to start a freelance business, how to research local history, and more.

Anyone involved in collecting materials for a public library or assisting patrons with finding and using those materials has to be pretty well-versed in what types of materials are appropriate for different information needs. They know that the types of sources you recommend are going to be highly dependent on the context of the research being conducted.

They are also, I think, less likely than academic librarians to assume that library sources are the best sources in all cases. My own memories of providing reference in a public library include a lot of Google searches and sometimes identifying local experts that patrons could contact for more information. If we had a library resource that could meet their need, great. But the resources we had access to were more limited than in my academic library jobs, especially when it came to databases of information. So we were more likely to get creative when we needed to.

Notice, too, that a lot of the programs the library offered involved promoting the library’s resources and teaching users how to make use of those resources. But they didn’t shy away from teaching about research that might not involve the library’s resources either. With all due respect to those of us who teach in academic library environments, it’s a lot harder to say that about the content of our own instruction, which is (sometimes due to necessity) often narrowly focused on teaching our students about our databases and catalogs of scholarly information so that they can complete their academic or scholarly research.

I think a lot of this has to do with a difference in mission. As I mentioned before, academic libraries exist primarily in order to support the research needs of the academic and scholarly communities that they serve. Public libraries see themselves more as gateways of knowledge where their job is to connect community members with the information they need, no matter what form or format that information might take.

If you need more proof, consider my recent experience with pitching a program to my local library. This is the same large public library where I once worked as a grad student, about ten years ago now. I wanted to start a writing group with a focus on the role of research in creative writing. It seemed like it might be a good idea to spend at least some of the time talking about library resources that could assist with the information needs of the group members. I thought including this as part of my pitch would help sell the idea. It turned out that the library’s programming director was much more enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing in local writers as experts who could talk about their research processes, whatever shape those processes might take. Promoting the library’s resources was all well and good but the priority was connecting the group members with the information that best helped them understand the role of research in the creative process.

Of course, the coronavirus crisis scuttled these plans pretty quickly after just one meeting to discuss it, so there’s no way of knowing at this point what the program would have ended up looking like if we’d gotten a chance to proceed with it. But I think if I had tried pitching this program in my own academic library, the emphasis on promoting the library’s value to creative researchers would have been much more of a selling point.

So what does this mean? Does this mean that academic libraries should leave teaching the contextual nature of research to public libraries since doing so seems to fit much better with their missions than with ours? I don’t think so, necessarily. I think as long as teaching students to be savvy creators and users of information is part of an academic library’s mission, the contextual nature of research will be an important and necessary part of what we do.

It’s just that we’re not quite there yet as far as expanding our instruction beyond the academic and scholarly types of research that we’re so used to. In which case, there’s a lot we could learn by taking a closer look at how public libraries approach meeting the varied information needs of their population.

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