Liminality, or what’s in the space between the roles of librarian and researcher

by Virginia Wilson
Director, Centre of Evidence Based Library and Information Practice

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of liminal space ever since my undergrad in English at the U of S. I believe it was first brought to my attention by Professor Parkinson in either a Medieval English or a Fantasy class. It was summertime, anyway. At the time, it came up in the Victor Turner cultural anthropology sense around rites of passage. Then there’s this definition of “liminal” in the Oxford English Dictionary online:

Liminal: Characterized by being on a boundary or threshold, esp. by being transitional or intermediate between two states, situations, etc. (OED online)

My two states or situations are that of librarian and researcher. One of the main reasons I wanted to work in an academic setting was the idea that I could conduct research; that I could be an academic as well as a librarian. That’s always been a strong appeal for me. I was lucky in that the University of Saskatchewan Library has a robust requirement for research that I’ve embraced. In my 9 years at the U of S, I’ve discovered that many of my colleagues also have been attracted to the research component, although it’s not all easy, all the time.

What I like about the idea of liminality is that it can be either/or and both/and. I can be either a librarian or a researcher. I can be both a librarian and a researcher. I can wear one hat. I can wear two hats. (/Dr. Suess) There’s a flexibility in the space between being a librarian and a researcher. It contains both and it’s fluid and constantly shifting. That seems to suit the current climate, doesn’t it? Change is the new black so you might as well hunker down and hang on as best you can. But it’s not about just hanging on. It’s surviving and thriving in that mysterious liminal space between librarian and researcher. How?

I’ve been thinking, writing, and doing research about librarians as researchers for a couple of years now, and I started within my own context. I first thought about why librarians do research. The first things I came up with (and remember, this is from out of my own head based on what I was experiencing myself – going for tenure and promotion as a librarian faculty member) was “so that we can get tenure and then promotion” and then “because we have to.” There wasn’t a lot of talk about other reasons to conduct research. The academic requirements are vast and at times overpowering. Well, that didn’t seem to be enough, or sustainable! There had to be more of a reason to do research other than the fact that we need to do research to get tenure. No wonder librarians can feel uneasy about the research process. There’s this constant need to quantify so we can put together the right basket of goodies in order to move forward in our careers. What we need to unpack is what is underneath the output. We need the why before we can get to the how and the what of research.

While it is important to have guidelines on what requirements need to be met, attention needs to be given to the other aspects of why research is important, and important in our academic context. It’s important outside of the academic context, too. To me, the focus on LIS research should be on research as it enriches our discipline, enables our practice, and contributes to our immediate communities and beyond. I sometimes get the sense that we might not feel a part of the University research landscape. No, we are not researching new vaccines, or cures for diseases, or ways to conserve water, or feed hungry people. But our research, research as it pertains to our practice as librarians, can enrich the profession as a whole. With a mandate for research, librarians here are in a unique position to be able to pursue their research interests, research various areas of practice, and implement research findings in order to better serve our user groups on and off campus. And as practitioner-researchers, we come at things from the perspective of practice. We’re not looking at issues from a wholly theoretical vantage point, although our research can indeed be theoretical. We’re in the trenches, doing the work, and finding ways to get things done. We’re existing in that liminal space between librarian and researcher, where the lines are blurred and we’re wearing both hats simultaneously. When librarian-research is set alongside research coming from LIS scholars, I think we can get a more complete picture.

If research is perceived to be a meaningful process by which we add to the body of knowledge in our field and contribute to our professional practice, we as librarian-researchers can perhaps have an easier relationship with our research pursuits. Adding meaning for ourselves and seeing the larger value of our research endeavours can add focus to our tasks as researchers and provide comfort in our liminal space.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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