Librarians as Practitioner-Researchers: Limiting Label

by Selinda Berg
Schulich School of Medicine – Windsor Program
Leddy Library, University of Windsor

This is a complementary post to Kristin Hoffmann’s post, Librarians as Practitioner-Researchers: Constructive Concept. Kristin and I are both deeply interested in the development of research culture in academic libraries, and together we have discussed the possibilities of framing academic librarians as practitioner-researchers. We have taken diverging approaches in our posts, but we have many points of convergence as well.

I would like to suggest that the term “practitioner-researcher” has the potential to also be a limiting label. I agree with much of Kristin’s argument: We are both researchers and practitioners and we want to embrace the distinctive knowledge about research and practice that can only come from our unique vantage point. My concern is that this label will not only inform our identity as researchers, but also dictate our image as researchers. It is not only about the way we view ourselves from the inside, but also how we are viewed from the outside. Ultimately, naming is a not only a personal issue, but also a political one.

One of the primary texts on the practitioner-researcher identity is Peter Jarvis’s The Practitioner-Researcher published in 1999. There are multiple examples in Jarvis’s book where the research of professionals and practitioners is presented as second class. One such example is:

[Practitioners] often are not recognized a researchers. They certainly do not have the traditional image of the researcher, and they may not always be in a position to conduct their research in a most satisfactory way, nor do they necessarily meet the stringent demands of some members of the traditional research community. Nevertheless this does not mean that they should not be viewed as practitioner-researchers, because that is what they are. (Jarvis, 1999, p.9)

This description of practitioner research as low quality and sub-standard is disheartening, but not necessarily rare. The library community of researchers to which I belong strives to produce high quality and valuable research. (At the same time, we recognize that there is always lots to learn and ways to grow as a researcher). No researcher wants their output to be viewed as unsatisfactory or low quality, but this may be the reality of how the practitioner-researcher’s work is perceived. It has been suggested that we need to reclaim and redefine the term practitioner-researcher and make it into what we desire. It is likely, however, that we can only reclaim and redefine this term for ourselves. The ways those on the “outside” view the practitioner-researcher will likely be quite different, and I fear that their perceptions will be more aligned with Jarvis than what we desire. This image of practitioner-researcher is limiting and will continue to limit where we, as librarians, are able to take our research.

I would like to provide one concrete example of how this inaccurate view of our research could be limiting—funding. I have heard on three occasions about academic librarians applying for SSHRC[1] grants, and being told (either from within the formal feedback process or from outside of the formal process) that academic librarians should not be applying for these grants, because these grants are “not for them, but for faculty researchers.” I do understand the magnitude and significance of the SSHRC grant. However, if it is not our research itself, but rather our image or even identity, that is precluding us from such opportunities, I see this as deeply problematic. In the future more and more librarians will have the credentials, supports, and research programs that meet SSHRC’s criteria: They should not be limited by their image. While a SSHRC grant may not be of interest to all, these same kinds of limitations may play out in the type of journals we publish in; the conferences we are comfortable at; the institutional funding we have access to; and our overall position in the research community.

I recognize the importance of the interplay between our professional work and our research; yet I also believe that before we embrace the term ‘practitioner-researcher,’ there must be acknowledgement and recognition that labels and naming are not only personal issues, they are also political issues.

Jarvis, P. (1999). The practitioner-researcher: Developing theory from practice. Josey-Bass: San Francisco.
1. SSHRC: Social Science and Humanities Research Council is Canada’s federal research funding agency that promotes and supports postsecondary-based research and training in the humanities and social sciences.

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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