Research libraries? Show me the evidence

I am a fan of JISC – the Joint Information Systems Committee – I reported on their annual conference recently. I would have liked to go to the debate they organised last week on Libraries of the Future (LOTF) but was unable to make it. JISC are tremendously influential in the sphere of academic and research libraries. Increasingly I am also in love with the Research Information Network (RIN). Both of these bodies address problems relevant to my working environment. Let me explain.
Librarians are essentially practical people; practitioners. Our job is to provide a service to our customers and we try to do that job effectively, with a smile thrown in for good measure. Most of us have not developed abstract theories to describe what we do and why it works or doesn’t work. Putting the journals over here; arranging the books like that; providing this or that service – all these things just work for our libraries and users and so we continue to do them that way. (There have of course always been librarians of a more theoretical bent, but these people tend to move out of direct service provision and into research within library schools. Dare I say that this research can be a little bit abstruse).
So, we practitioners have followed our instincts – what you might call Gut Feeling Based Librarianship. Things are changing though. Nowadays we have more choices to make than ever before: the information market has become more complex; users’ needs have diversified; and the desire to be not just effective but also cost effective has become an imperative. Thus, Evidence-Based Library & Information Practice (EBLIP) has appeared on the scene. My impression is that it grew out of health librarianship, as health librarians became involved in the Evidence Based Medicine movement. They helped systematic reviewers to gather evidence for their analyses, and also started giving training to medical students in critical appraisal of medical evidence. Some of these librarians then decided to take a leaf out of the EBM book and hailed EBLIP as the way forward for libarianship. All our decisions should be based on good evidence.
I must confess to some ambivalence as to the value of EBLIP. I can’t help the feeling that much of what we do as librarians is situation specific, and that therefore a detailed knowledge of our own institutional environment and user needs is more important to serving those users than is a body of research evidence gathered in other institutions. The results of a survey or study hold true for the population surveyed or the particular situation studied, but not necessarily for all populations or situations. For example a study of user reactions to ebooks in public libraries, or amongst undergraduates, may not mirror the reactions of research scientists to ebook services. This kind of evidence is more like a suggestion for something that might be worth trying, rather than concrete evidence.
Perhaps I have touched on my real problem with EBLIP there. I work in a research institute library but I see few pieces of library research from that environment. The major library sectors like public libraries, academic libraries, and health-care libraries are the subjects of much research, but the research institute library sector is very small in comparison and generates little research of itself. I think some contrarian part of me must enjoy working in a sector that is not mainstream (else why would I have stayed in it for 20 years?) but being different does create problems. In the early days of online resources it was difficult to persuade publishers to craft deals to suit us, as we were a small and complicated sector. The same holds true today for evidence generation.
Which brings me back to JISC and RIN. Supposing, just supposing, that I suspend my disbelief and arrogance (for I confess there may be a bit of that in my attitude to EBLIP) and start casting around for sources of evidence relevant to scientific researchers and their use of information. I may look at some old Royal Society reports on scientific information, but the most recent was published in 1998. Probably my first place to look will be the JISC website and their many programmes . They have the resources to carry out large-scale research such as the e-books observatory that gathered 40,000 responses from a large number of institutions. The downside is that it focused on undergraduate textbooks rather than research monographs. JISC has a strong Higher Education bias but it does look at issues important for researchers too. Their programmes cover e-research, e-resources, the information environment and other areas. I had hoped JISC activity related to researchers outside Higher Education might increase after the Research Councils signed a partnership agreement with JISC two years ago. Sadly RCUK chose not to partner in the JISC research programme, ironically.
My next port of call for evidence will be the Research Information Network (RIN). JISC were recently called a national treasure and I think that RIN are fast becoming another treasure. Many of their recent reports have been required reading for librarian interested in serving researchers. Obviously this is because RIN focuses on research but it is also a testament to their ability to pick out topical and significant issues to explore. RIN1 have managed to keep a pragmatic edge to their work. Their most recent report is on e-journals – their use and impact. This “looks into how researchers use e-journals and the impact this has on provision of library and information services. The findings reveal some staggering figures for the amount of e-journals being used by researchers”. I can’t say that surprises me, though I’m not sure I want this information highlighted if there are any publishers reading.
As I write this I realise that I should also mention another institution UKOLN . UKOLN aims to inform and influence policy in LIS, and work closely with bodies like JISC.
So there is some relevant research out there, but I still say there is not enough that fits my situation in a research institute. “Wait a moment”, I hear you say, “the answer is obvious – why don’t you undertake some research yourself?”. The thought has occurred to me too, but I refer you to my earlier comment – I’m a practitioner. What do I know about undertaking research? Back in the early 1990s in what Bruce Royan has called JISC’s last “Great Leap Forward” I did some mildly innovative things (I started OMNI and took part in the SuperJournal project ). But I am not equipped with the skills to start a research project. I have ideas, but have failed to turn them into active projects. I think this will have to change. I can no longer be “just” a practitioner. I have to teach myself to become an evidence-generator too.

1 A nice summary of the work of RIN has just been published in The Biochemist magazine.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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7 Responses to Research libraries? Show me the evidence

  1. Richard Akerman says:

    First I’d like to understand the parameters of “research institute library” – do you mean non-public, non-university campus? Something like the Max Planck Society Library?
    (I ask because this is the same situation as my library, which serves only a research campus.)
    I think there are at least a lot of reports (if not perhaps targetted research) that’s relevant. For example there’s some relevant material on the lists that John Dupuis put together:
    More books and reports on the future of academic libraries

  2. Oliver Obst says:

    Yes, Frank, you’re absolutely right and (except the last sentence) I can but emphasize your mixed perceptions. I’m a practitioner as well and when it comes to research I simply hesitate wasting time for an unknown outcome regarding the primary goals of our institution. My customers love relying on a reliable and fast service, their not interested in any research. In addition I fear that my staff would suffer from an absent boss as well…

  3. Frank Norman says:

    Richard – Yes, that is exactly the kind of Library I mean. In the UK context I am talking about Institutes like Sanger, MRC Lab Molec Biol, CRUK LRI, British Geol Survey, Babraham Institute, Rutherford Appleton Labs, and many similar or smaller research units. A particular problem in the UK is the small size of many of these units. Max Planck are rather larger in total, and have an excellent integrated library service.
    Thanks for pointing me to John’s list – that’s quite a heavy load of reading! You’re right to say that there is relevant material out there, and much of it from outside the narrow confines of LIS. From a superficial glance, much of it looks like considered opinion, rather than research evidence. So we’re back to gut feeling, albeit emanating from some rather superior guts!

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Oliver – Thanks for the confirmation! I was rather afraid that it was only me who had these doubts. Regarding my last sentence – well, it’s easy to write. Much harder to act on it! But I think I will have to start moving in that direction.

  5. Frank Norman says:

    This post is part of the April issue of the medical library Blog Carnival Medlib’s Round, hosted on Anne Welsh’s blog, First Person Narrative. The topic of the issue is evidence.

  6. Henry Gee says:

    Interesting post, Frank. I can’t help but feel that at the core of a library – and particularly a research library – is a librarian who knows the stock intimately and its users sufficiently well that they can anticipate users’ needs. I spent quite a lot of time writing two pop-science books (_Deep Time_ and Jacob’s Ladder) in the library of the Linnean Society of London. This has a lot of old and rare literature, and while I was digging around for some of the more arcane material for the latter book, especially, the librarian not only told me which books and periodicals she had, and which she hadn’t, but was able to suggest quite a lot of relevant material that I hadn’t thought of. Now, that’s service.

  7. Frank Norman says:

    Henry – The scholar librarian is a very attractive model. It is still prevalent in many US university libraries. Specialist libraries over here may also aspire to it, but I think it is on the wane. The growth of online search, so that everyone does their own searching, and the pace of technical change, so that librarians spend so much time mastering systems, mean that it’s harder for us to interact so much with the literature or our users.
    I can sometimes come up trumps, but often it’s not that I know exactly what we have in our collections, but rather that I know how to look for it more effectively.

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