Librarians as Practitioner-Researchers: Constructive Concept

by Kristin Hoffmann
Associate Librarian, University of Western Ontario

Librarians as practitioner-researchers: constructive concept or limiting label? Last summer, my colleague Selinda Berg and I had an invigorating conversation about this question. We presented our reflections at the 2014 C-EBLIP Fall Symposium, and this post is my part of that presentation. Selinda’s part will be published here later this spring.

We want to share our conversation about librarians as practitioner-researchers because we see a link between researcher identity and research culture. Academic librarians, particularly in Canada, are in the process of establishing and shaping a research culture for ourselves. Part of establishing a research culture is having a clear sense of who we are as researchers and what it means to us to be researchers. We hope that our conversation can spark similar conversations for others.

Peter Jarvis developed the concept of practitioner-researcher in his 1999 book The practitioner-researcher: developing theory from practice. Rebecca Watson-Boone (2000) and Virginia Wilson (2013) have examined the concept specifically for librarianship.

I want to share two reasons why I believe that “practitioner-researcher” is a constructive concept for librarians.

1. We are both practitioners and researchers and so we need an identity that encompasses both of those roles, rather than trying to manage or embody two distinct identities.

The practitioner-researcher concept is a truer and better representation of who we are and what we do as academic librarians than either practitioner or researcher on their own. We often talk about the challenge of how to “fit” research into our workdays, and I think part of that is because we are separating our researcher selves from our practitioner selves and trying to create a separate place for each of those identities. Embracing the identity of practitioner-researcher can help us truly affirm the importance of both roles and the interplay between them.

2. Embracing the practitioner-researcher identity can bring us to a fuller, and unique, understanding of both practice and research.

Previous discussions of practitioner-researchers first emphasize the practitioner role, and research is seen as something that informs practice: we are practitioners who also happen to be researchers, therefore we are practitioner-researchers.

However, our knowledge and understanding of our practice can also inform and enlighten our research. This may be a much more powerful and constructive concept for librarians. To illustrate this, I offer an example from my own research.

In a recent project, I worked with the sociological theory of strategic action fields. Very briefly, this is a theory that provides a framework for thinking about stability and change in social institutions. Since libraries are a social institution, applying this theory to librarianship can help us come to a deeper understanding of change in librarianship. Why do some things change in library-land, why do other things never seem to change even though we wish they would, and what might it take for those changes to happen?

My research looked at librarian-vendor relations and why there seems to be so much enthusiasm for librarians to stand up to vendors and yet so little apparent meaningful change in this aspect of collections. The theory of fields was the tool I used to analyze this situation in an objective, systematic way.

It was through the process of applying the theory of fields to this collections-related example that I really came to see myself as a practitioner-researcher. My research with this theory was deeply informed and influenced by my practice as a librarian. Because I’m an “insider”, intimately familiar with librarianship, I could see aspects of the theory that a so-called “pure” researcher couldn’t – I had unique insight from practice that informed my research.

The theory of fields sociologists came to their theory as researchers; their book (Fligstein and McAdam 2012) makes no mention of practice or how their ideas might shape or be shaped by real-life situations. Librarians who talk about implementing change management might have approached my topic as practitioners. I was seeing it as a practitioner-researcher.

My practice directly informed my approach to this research project. And, yes, my research also informed my practice: having a rigorous and systematic theoretical framework to apply to my practice gave me new insight that has influenced how I understand my profession.

In summary, therefore, practitioner-research is a constructive concept because:
• embracing the practitioner-researcher identity can bring us to a fuller understanding of and a unique perspective on both practice and research; and
• we are both practitioners and researchers and need an identity that encompasses both of those roles.


Fligstein, N. and McAdam, D. (2012). Theory of fields. Oxford: Oxford U Press.

Jarvis, P. (1999). The practitioner-researcher: developing theory from practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Watson-Boone, R. (2000). Academic librarians as practitioner-researchers. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 26(2), 85-93. DOI:10.1016/S0099-1333(99)00144-5

Wilson, V. (2013). Formalized curiosity: reflecting on the librarian practitioner-researcher. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 8(1), 111-117.

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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