Core Competency L: Research
“Demonstrate understanding of quantitative and qualitative research methods and of the evaluation and synthesis of research literature.”
Library and Information Sciences (LIS) is a field that nearly everyone can relate to because nearly everyone uses services provided by LIS professionals, from public libraries to online databases to museum collections. The theory behind LIS is likewise very accessible–it is human nature to want to organize and explore information in meaningful ways. While the approachable nature of LIS is a blessing, at the same time it can also diminish the perceived scientific rigor of this field.
“Science” has very different meanings for different people, and to some, a topic like “reference chat interactions” seems more fitting for human resource professionals than scientific researchers. Earl Babbie, the author of our textbook for LIBR 285 – Research Methods, explains that, “contrasted with other ways of learning and knowing about the world, science has some special characteristics. It is a conscious, deliberate, and rigorous undertaking,” (2013, p. 2). By this definition, science in LIS refers to the quantitative and qualitative research we use to support design, operations, and evaluation decisions.
Quantitative research strives to enumerate. Observations are recorded numerically, even though they may start off descriptive (e.g. “the weather is warm” turns into “79° F”). The resulting quantitative data has many benefits, as it allows researchers to easily aggregate, apply statistics, summarize, and compare. For example, a researcher curious about reference chat interactions could gather quantitative information on the number of interactions per day, times these interactions occur, length of response time from the chat librarian, etc. Average values for these measures are useful information, and comparing average values may highlight patterns, e.g. “interactions between 3 and 5pm have an average response time 3 minutes longer than those at other times.” Patterns, in turn, can lead to inference, e.g. “the chat librarian responds more slowly during afterschool hours,” and inferences can lead to improved service: “during afterschool hours, a librarian who normally spends her time re-shelving will instead assist the reference desk.”
In contrast, qualitative research seeks out the human perspective by capturing more meaning behind the numbers. This is not to say that qualitative research is any less “conscious, deliberate, or rigorous.” If anything, it is more so. Qualitative research methods include observation, interview, document analysis, and more. Because researchers can’t rely on the natural hierarchy of numbers to tell a story, they must make their research goals, data collection process, and analysis methods very clear. Adding to the example above, qualitative research might incorporate user experience into the study by interviewing a sample population of library patrons who use the reference chat service. Such research may find that one patron thinks the response delays are “disrespectful,” while another says he doesn’t mind as the online chat service is “much more convenient than going to the library in person.” Qualitative research such as this can help the library identify previously unrecognized problems and needs, and can also provide testimonial support for existing programs.
The ability to understand quantitative and qualitative research and its role in LIS is essential to my graduate education. Through my coursework at SLIS I have deepened my theoretical understanding of how to evaluate research, and gained a new understanding of how to design research. Although nearly all of my courses have required the ability to analyze and discuss LIS research, LIBR 200 – Information & Society and LIBR 285 – Research Methods provided me with the most structured research experience, as demonstrated by the evidence below.
EVIDENCE 1. During my first semester at SLIS I enrolled in LIBR 200 – Information & Society, for which we were required to write a term paper. I chose to investigate embedded librarianship in the undergraduate sciences, and compiled my findings in a paper titled “What Does All This Data Mean and Where Did it Come From? Embedded Librarians in the Undergraduate Sciences.” This topic speaks to me as a former undergraduate science major, as well as a current LIS student. In order to write my paper, I had to find academic literature on embedded librarianship in the undergraduate sciences, and I also had to identify related research topics, since the body of research specifically related was relatively small. As with any literature review paper, every research study I read needed to be analyzed and synthesized, which I did in a separate annotated bibliography. Through this process, I was able to write an effective term paper that not only reviews the literature, but also offers suggestions for improving LIS services in undergraduate science libraries.
EVIDENCE 2. A year after taking LIBR 200, I took LIBR 285 – Research Methods, where I deepened my understanding of qualitative and quantitative research methods by engaging in more theoretical analysis and evaluation of various studies. One of the assignments in LIBR 285 was to present a qualitative research study to the class; I am interested in digital collections, and took this opportunity to explore the literature on them. The paper I presented was “Modes of Seeing: Digitized Photographic Archives and the Experienced User,” by Dr. Paul Conway (2010), who was interested in how digitization affects the use of photographic archives, especially among existing users. Conway collected data via qualitative interviews and memos, then transcribed the interviews and applied qualitative analysis via an iterative, line-by-line extraction of concept terms. To identify emergent ideas and develop a testable hypothesis, Conway used grounded theory, which is a quintessentially qualitative method. In my presentation, I summarized Conway’s methods and results, while also critiquing them in the context of the class.
EVIDENCE 3. Despite enjoying learning about qualitative research, I find myself more drawn to quantitative methods. Our ongoing project in LIBR 285 was to design a research study and write a proposal, and for this, I focused on quantitative methods. My research proposal, “Keeping the Citizens Scientists: Participant Motivations in Citizen Science,” came about from observations I made at work watching our field station volunteers’ interests in citizen science peak, then fade. I highly value the contributions citizen science can make to more traditional research, and the unobtrusive observation research I propose will hopefully have a positive impact on the ability of this to happen. Going through the process of designing my study and writing my proposal took the entire semester, and exemplified many of the research concepts we were also learning through text, lecture, and discussion. I am currently carrying out this research, and hope that my findings can be meaningful to the up-and-coming field of citizen science.
Becoming more aware of research design and evaluation has been one of the most valuable competencies in my education at SLIS. I feel comfortable reading an academic paper and assessing whether or not the data was collected and analyzed appropriately. I feel confident in discussing research strategies and methods. Finally, I feel capable of planning my own research to support future interests and objectives.
Babbie, E. (2013). The Practice of Social Research (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Conway, P. (2010). Modes of seeing: Digitized photographic archives and the experienced user. American Archivist, 73(2), 425-462.