“Best Practices” …or “Good Practices”?

by DeDe Dawson
Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

Much of evidence-based library research is focused on our professional practice. We want to improve our services, better streamline our processes, or be more effective instructors. We often look to other libraries to learn from their experiences, and commonly try to determine best practices.

I’m embarking on just such a research project right now. I’m interested in determining best practices in the provision of scholarly communications support services. I hadn’t thought much about the term “best practices” until I came upon the Jisc R & D Project page: “Open Access Good Practice.” Wait a minute… “good practice”? Is this just another way of saying “best practice”? Or is there an important nuance that I’m missing here? Hmmm… (This is one of the things I love about being on sabbatical so far: the time to explore these tangents!).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines best practice as “commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective.” And the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science (ODLIS) has a much wordier, but similar, definition:

“In the application of theory to real-life situations, procedures that, when properly applied, consistently yield superior results and are therefore used as reference points in evaluating the effectiveness of alternative methods of accomplishing the same task. Best practices are identified by examining empirical evidence of success.”

Interestingly though, neither the OED nor the ODLIS has a definition for “good practice.”

My random Internet searching seems to confirm that “best practices” is more commonly used, and in a wide variety of sectors. Some interesting insights from:

Finance: “Best practices are often set forth by an authority, such as a governing body or management…”

Technology: “A best practice is an industry-wide agreement that standardizes the most efficient and effective way to accomplish a desired outcome.”

The term “best practice” seems to imply that there is one known, empirically proven, or agreed-upon method/procedure that will work in every context… when properly applied (I enjoyed that caveat in the ODLIS definition. They may as well have said: “If it doesn’t work for you then you done it WRONG!”).

Best practice defined this way doesn’t fit very well with my experiences providing library services. So much depends on situation and culture and individual personalities of those involved. Context is everything. What works at one institution will not necessarily work well at another. Heck, it might not work well with another user group at the same institution!

When trying to find some discussion of “good practice” I came across this blog post, with this key sentence:

“Best Practice is what we aspire to but Good Practice is what we work with every day – today we do this activity this way but tomorrow we will adapt it to a new Good Practice on our way to a Best Practice if we ever get there.”

I think this is true. In much of our professional practice there may never be a “best practice.” But we can always strive to make our good practices better for the situations we find ourselves in.

By the way, the new title of my sabbatical research project is “Supporting Researchers in Complying with Funders’ Open Access Policies: Good Practices of Library Outreach and Awareness-Raising Programs.”

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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