13 Jan 2013

Are we only writing for ourselves? The research-practice divide in LIS

Practitioners (as authors) write primarily for practitioners, academics (as authors) write mainly for academics. As a consequence, there is a gap between the communities of LIS academics and LIS practitioners.
(Schlögl & Stock, 2008, p. 661)

Image by Tony Hall
As I librarian, I am interested not only in the role that scholarly publishing and communication plays in the broader scientific community, but also within the LIS profession itself. The theory-practice divide between LIS faculty and LIS practitioners (please forgive my use of 'librarian' as shorthand henceforth!) is something I have been thinking about a lot lately .

Most librarians see their role primarily as providing a service, and this service is not producing research but rather supporting research. However, professional and personal intuition in decision-making can only take us so far, and it is difficult to expect our practice to improve and develop significantly if we do not use the best evidence available to guide and inform our approach to service delivery. How many librarians regularly read LIS journals for no particularly purpose other than to stay informed and up to date? Access to subscription resources may be a very real barrier here (particularly outside of HE institutions), but thankfully there are also some excellent OA publications these days. This of course, is the idea behind evidence-based librarianship, but without librarians conducting research themselves there would be no evidence to use (especially if Schlögl & Stock are correct in their view that academics may often neglect the issues which are most pressing for practice).

However, the benefits from undertaking research accrue beyond its inherent value as a decision-making tool. Surely advice on research impact and publishing is more authentic and credible when proffered by a librarian who has experienced the challenges and intricacies of the process themselves? Moreover, research is a learning process in itself, and one which challenges the researcher to consider new perspectives and appraise existing ones, skills which are transferable to many contexts in library management. So what can be done to encourage more librarians to undertake and publish research themselves? There are of course very real barriers in this respect, and Kennedy & Brancolini provide a useful overview of some of the key issues.

However, a larger consideration is perhaps who we are writing for. I believe that sometimes librarians may not give themselves enough credit, preferring to focus on more professional- or practice-based publications. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, publishing in more scholarly publications will perhaps help to raise awareness of work-based or lower-profile issues. If practitioners worry that their primary intended audience (e.g. other librarians) won't read their work if they publish in more academic-oriented publications, perhaps there is a deeper problem here. And of course we are not just restricted to LIS publications in this regard. Cross-disciplinary research and publishing in non-LIS-specific venues might be more challenging, but the future benefit and impact may be tenfold by helping to integrate and embed our relevance in a broader context. Perhaps we should also be writing more for our users? Blogs and other social media channels can deliver obvious value in this space. After all, the more that we learn and share with our users, colleagues and the wider scientific community, the greater the value we can ultimately deliver to our communities.

Schlögl, C., & Stock, W. G. (2008). Practitioners and academics as authors and readers: the case of LIS journals. Journal of Documentation, 64(5), 643-666.


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