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Public librarianship research is dead in the water – isn’t it?

In this blog post, Dr Briony Birdi argues for the relevance of research into public librarianship, despite the widespread closures of public libraries in the UK.

A few months ago in a brief conversation about the state of research in the LIS sector, someone informed me that [public] libraries – and, by association, any research into them – were ‘dead in the water’. Given that I have spent most of the past fifteen years trying to develop a body of research which focuses almost exclusively on aspects of public librarianship, I did not feel hugely encouraged by this comment. In response, I did what any self-respecting individual would do: I sulked, and moaned about it. And then I went back to my work.

But did this person have a point? Am I – to use a second mortality-related idiom – flogging a dead horse, having stayed for so long within this area of research? After all, I can hardly argue that papers reporting the findings of public librarianship research dominate the peer-reviewed journals in our field. Nor can I propose that public librarianship overwhelms the curricula of the UK LIS Bachelors or Masters programmes. It would also be wrong to ignore the fact that the national, local and professional media are reporting library closures, the deprofessionalisation of public libraries and the growth of community-run libraries on a daily basis.

So why should I bother, and why do I continue to encourage our Masters students to maintain an academic and professional interest in public libraries, despite the situation that they can see for themselves? Quite simply, because public libraries haven’t disappeared yet – but if we stop talking about them in our LIS education, if we stop conducting research into them, we’re not exactly contributing to a rosy future.

I am fairly certain that one of the reasons for the ‘dead in the water’ comment was that academics are by no means falling over daily opportunities for research funding into public librarianship. However, if you talk to any researcher or practitioner who has obtained such funding, I guarantee that they will tell you how creative they needed to be to do so. Even in my own small career I have been involved in sixteen separate research projects which have all involved public libraries, and have all received some degree of funding. Each of these projects has published its findings in the professional press or in peer-reviewed academic journals, or both. They have covered a diverse range of topics including reader development, social justice, leadership, adult literacy and learning, information literacy, genre fiction, collection development, empathy and community librarianship. Methods and theoretical approaches have been adapted from a wide range of academic disciplines in addition to our own, such as Education, English Literature, History, Management, Social and Occupational Psychology. Of course there are also many other people I could mention – both academics and practitioners - who are more successful, more prolific, and more high-profile then me, but in combination we have produced a significant body of work, by any standard.

Teaching and research are inextricably linked, and each should inform the other. It is for this reason that I will continue both to teach and research public librarianship, as to drop one would potentially harm the other. The purpose of this blog is not to describe my own limited achievements, but to give an indication of the kind of work that can be done. I am currently working on research proposals in public libraries and local politics, in the provision of services to migrant communities and in interlending. I am not working on any of these entirely on my own, but with colleagues from my own department, from other departments within my university, other universities and with colleagues from a local county council. I am also involved in ongoing public library research with colleagues in the English and History departments here at the University of Sheffield, and I hope to begin shortly another piece of work with a colleague in the Department of Politics. I have never had a problem encouraging people from other departments or organisations to work with me, and I have certainly never been given the impression that those in other academic disciplines thought that research in public librarianship was in any way irrelevant or defunct.

To conclude, I am certainly not unaware of the current state of public librarianship in the UK and beyond, but to dismiss the entire subject area as ‘dead’ is to overlook the large body of work that many of us are still involved in, and still continue to include in our research and teaching, as core aspects of the LIS profession as whole. As long as students continue to show an interest in what I teach and write, and as long as funding bodies continue to provide me and others with the financial support to conduct our research, I plan to stay where I am. A third and (I promise) final idiom comes to mind: there’s life in the old dog yet.

Dr Briony Birdi, Lecturer
Information School, University of Sheffield

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