Friday, 22 July 2011

DREaM Conference Report

The “Developing Research Excellence and Methods” project launch event “Out of the Comfort Zone”, held at the British Library on Tuesday 19th July 2011, highlighted some important issues surrounding Library and Information Science research. As a recipient of a sponsored place at the launch event, I was extremely interested to hear more about the challenges and complexities of LIS research and practice. I would like to give my thanks to TFPL Intelligent Resources , Sue Hill Recruitment and Glen Recruitment for enabling me to attend this conference through their support of sponsored places for new professionals.

Professor Hazel Hall opened the conference by outlining the main aims and goals of the DREaM project. The project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the LIS Research Coalition, aims to develop a formal network of LIS researchers and practitioners in order to build the capability and capacity of LIS research. The goal is to raise the quality and perceived importance of LIS research across disciplines in order to build a foundation for long-term inter-disciplinary research collaborations. The project consists of this launch conference, three workshops throughout the year where cross-discipline research methodologies will be analysed in detail, and a concluding conference in July 2012. Hall spoke of a ‘cadre’ of committed individuals that the project aims to bring together. After the concluding event next year, it is vital that there remains a core group of professionals who are committed to the aims of the project.

Professor Blaise Cronin then gave an insightful and interesting keynote speech on the historical and current problems surrounding LIS research. Collaboration appears to be the key to strengthening confidence. Cronin took us on a history of LIS research and asked whether there really was a Golden Age for our discipline. The problem is that LIS research has for too long been seen by researchers in other disciplines as a hobby, rather than a rigorous and scientific discipline. Take for example the area of information behaviour. This is a logical area in which LIS research should collaborate with educational and cognitive psychological research. Yet the body of LIS research is often overlooked. Cronin asks us to ask why. He suggests various reasons, including the lack of metadata analysis and the weak experimental design of much LIS research. Citation analysis shows whether or not articles are being cited outside the LIS sphere but I would be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from such a figure. After all, information behaviour is an area which is of great interest to practitioners in many fields. A lack of citation figures does not mean than these articles are not being read. Cronin asks us to look at methodologies from other disciplines, for example evidence-based practice, to evaluate their usefulness within LIS research. By using different methodologies, it is possible that the research output will be perceived as more reliable by other disciplines. The ‘One Minute Madness’ session that followed was really interesting as delegates heard about a number of various projects currently taking place in the LIS field.

After an exquisite lunch, we moved into our selected breakout groups . With my focus on developing and maintaining networks, I was fortunate to attend the session ran by Professor Gunilla Widén on the topic of network development in the Nordic countries. Despite their differences, the Nordic countries historically feel a wealth of commonality between them. There are established trends of formal co-operation throughout the Nordic countries, built on common values and willingness by all to develop Nordic competencies and competitiveness. This established collaboration smoothed the path to establishing networks in the LIS sphere. However, there are also problems. A delicate balance has to be maintained between national, Nordic and international interests. Different emphases and different personalities also bring challenges. Yet together they promote the Nordic countries as a whole much more strongly than they could do individually.

For me, the discussion that followed the breakout session was one of the most important parts of the day. One member of our group asked why there was such a gap between research and practice, a question that sparked intense and passionate debate. Some felt that there was little practical relevance in research. Others stated that research was not lofty and irrelevant to practice but instead was crucial to helping practitioners to solve problems. Yet it is true that research output often does not affect organisational practice, a point which was used by some to state that practitioners were thus not engaging with research. I put myself well and truly out of my comfort zone by jumping in and stating that this was often not the case. As a practitioner, but also as a new professional, I certainly engage with LIS research. However, organisational culture and the constraints of practice limit the extent to which research can be implemented. It is important not to assume that, because things are not rapidly changing on the ground, research is not being evaluated by any practitioners. The discussion veered then onto networks. What drives a network after the funding runs dry? I am a part of several networks, including CILIP’s Career Development Group and my area specific German Studies Library Group. I participate in these groups, I give my time to attend events, I am on the committee of CDG in the East of England. I do it because it is valuable professionally. It develops me as a person and as a professional. I am doing something useful and creating a network of practitioners. There is no financial incentive and yet I and my fellow members are committed and enthusiastic enough to establish and build a network.

Dr Dylan Evans gave the closing keynote speech, which was interesting and fascinating. His career spans a number of roles and disciplines, which makes him the perfect candidate to speak about inter-disciplinary collaboration. Collaboration encourages creative thinking as preconceived knowledge and assertions are washed away. In order to become cross collaborative, we must engage with other disciplines and move forward into other spheres.

The two main themes that emerged from the day concerned the need to assess the current situation with LIS research and research methodologies whilst exploring how we can establish a formal network of LIS researchers and practitioners. Discussing the gap between research and practice was a crucial part of the day. Collaboration between researchers and practitioners is the first step to closing this gap within our own profession before we move forwards into cross-discipline collaboration. This is achievable by networking to understand the perspectives and challenges that researchers and practitioners face. I sincerely hope that through the course of this year, the first steps towards this mutual understanding can be taken in order to move forward in establishing a formal LIS network. Research should inform practice but practical problems should also determine the focus of the LIS research landscape to an extent. Understanding each other is the first step towards the formation of a solid permanent network.

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