Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

Survey Results: University library support to student mental health and well-being during COVID-19

Survey Results: University library support to student mental health and well-being during COVID-19 Dr Andrew Cox Andrew Cox and Liz Brewster (Medical School, Lancaster University) undertook a survey of how university libraries are supporting student mental health and well-being during COVID-19.  The survey was open from 18th to 29th May 2020. This is a brief report on some of the main results of the survey. There were a total of 59 valid responses, representing 49 different institutions (some institutions gave more than one answer). Two were from outside the UK. For the purposes of this short initial report we have not de-duplicated responses. Of the responses 17 (29%) were from library directors and 13 (22%) from staff with a particular responsibility for the subject.  We are offering limited interpretation of the data at this stage. Watch this space for a pre-print of the paper using the survey. We would like to thank everyone who participated in the survey, and those who helped dist

New Article: Services for Student Well-Being in Academic Libraries: Three Challenges

Services for Student Well-Being in Academic Libraries: Three Challenges   Our Director of Research and Senior Lecturer, Dr Andrew Cox, has published a new article alongside Dr Liz Brewster at Lancaster University. There has been a wave of interest in UK academic libraries in developing services to support student well-being. This paper identifies three fundamental and interrelated issues that need to be addressed to make such initiatives effective and sustainable. Firstly, well-being has to be defined and the impacts of interventions must be measured in appropriate ways. Secondly, there is a need to identify the true nature of the underlying social problem around well-being. Thirdly, relevant approaches to the issue need to be located within the professional knowledge base of librarianship. To read the article, click here.

PhD student Gianmarco Ghiandoni presents at UK-QSAR conference

Gianmarco Ghiandoni, PhD student in our Chemoinformatics research group, recently attended and presented at the UK-QSAR conference in Cambridge. Gianmarco attended the conference and presented a part of his PhD project, which involves the development of "Reaction Class Recommender Systems in de novo Drug Design". 'These algorithms are machine learning models that have recently acquired great importance due to their effectiveness in product recommendation', Gianmarco said. 'In particular, companies such as Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, etc., have built their reputations and businesses on the top of these models. At Sheffield, we have decided to apply these methods in order to produce suggestions for decision making in automated molecular design. The results from their application indicate that recommender systems can improve the synthetic accessibility of the designed molecules whilst reducing the computational requirements.'