Research that is (un-)related to librarianship

by Kristin Hoffmann
University of Western Ontario

I have noticed that conversations about librariansi doing research often lead to discussions about whether librarians can or should do research that isn’t related to librarianship or library and information science (LIS). Most often in those discussions, librarians express a desire to do research in any discipline or bemoan the fact that their institution’s policies or practices don’t permit or support them to do research that is un-related to librarianship.

In a recent study that I did with two colleagues, Selinda Berg and Denise Koufogiannakis, we surveyed academic librarians who work at universities across Canada to explore how various factors are related to research productivity. As part of our survey, we asked participants to report their LIS-related research output over the past five years. A handful of participants remarked on the idea of LIS-related research with comments such as:

“What is LIS research? Is it only research that has been published in LIS journals? The research that I do is primarily focused on teaching and learning. I believe that this also informs LIS, but am unclear if it would be considered strictly LIS research?”

“My area of research is not LIS-related, but librarians [at my university] are restricted to ‘work-related’ projects when applying for sabbatical.”

“Peer-reviewed, published research in non-library fields raises the image and acceptance of librarians as faculty and participants in post-secondary activities in my opinion.”

I admit having had a strong personal opinion on the matter: that librarians should do research related to librarianship. It has seemed like common sense to me that we research within our discipline. I also feel that “librarianship” is vast, far beyond the realm of “related to what I do as a librarian,” and so I haven’t perceived this boundary as a restriction.

But I find myself now wanting to be less fixed and more open to considering other ways of looking at this. I am curious to explore the issues around research that is and is not related to librarianship. Questions that interest me include:

What does “research related to librarianship” mean, and how might that meaning differ for librarians who are more or less interested in doing such research?

How does collective agreement languageii affect the kind of research that librarians do or the kind of research that they want to do?

How do subject expertise and other advanced degrees influence librarians’ research interests or confidence to carry out research, either related to librarianship or not?

I hope that this exploration will help me, and others, to better understand what is at the root of various perspectives about research that is or is not related to librarianship, so that we can better support and encourage each other as researchers.
iMy experience is limited to conversations about academic librarians doing research.
iiIn Canada, most academic librarians are members of faculty associations and their responsibilities, including research or scholarly activity, are outlined in collective agreements or similar documents.

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.

6 thoughts on “Research that is (un-)related to librarianship

  1. I grapple with this question as well, so was very interested in your study – interesting, and my mind has been turned somewhat as well.

  2. So since 1994, I have prepared an annual bibliography on Margaret Atwood, always with an English professor as co-author which is published by the Margaret Atwood Society, a branch of the MLA. Since the bibliography is mostly used by English scholars not librarians would that count from your perspective?

    P.S. I have a MA in history and have edited books in that subject as well. My own university has promoted me to be a full librarian, based largely on this work. Surely academic freedom should trump any insistence that librarian’s research must be library-focused!!

      • Your response to the academic freedom point. Surely all academics should be free to decide on their own research projects and not have restrictions imposed on them along the lines you are discussing?

  3. There are a couple of things to unpack here. One thing to consider is that, at its core, librarians either have academic freedom or they don’t. There may be an expectation that the bulk of research is carried out in the library field, but as soon as it becomes mandatory, it becomes a violation of the academic freedom of librarians. I think, realistically, that the majority of research done by librarians will end up being library-related research regardless of policy. But I do not think it should be policy that librarians only conduct research directly related to librarianship.

    Another thing to consider is that librarians take a very different trajectory to their career than most academics – because there is no undergraduate librarianship, we have a diverse background that isn’t necessarily found in other fields. A faculty member in, say, biology, has typically studied biology from their undergrad through to their PhD. A sociologist has typically studied sociology. And so on. But my undergraduate degree was in anthropology and classics. My colleague next door studied psychology. Other librarians I know studied physics, art, geology, philosophy, music, math. I think it is a hard ask to expect librarians to abandon their other interests and education once they enter the discipline of librarianship, as though that education was merely a stepping stone to their MLIS, with no inherent value of its own, and no place in the career as a librarian. (What of librarians with advanced degrees in other subjects? Are such degrees only to be of value to librarians on their tenure application? And what of murky areas; would research on the history of the book be librarianship or history? If I co-publish with a team of nurses in a nursing journal wherein my contribution has been primarily related to search strategy development and methodology, is that nursing or librarianship?)

    Finally, I think there is value to be found merely in librarians conducting research, regardless of what field it occurs in. My MLIS thesis explored librarians as researchers, and throughout the study, many librarians and other faculty members noted that librarians being able to speak the ‘language of research,’ as it were, was extremely important to librarianship – that the nature of research did not matter so much. It was the act of engaging in research itself that made them feel they were better librarians. Additionally, there was benefit in that librarians engaging in research in non-LIS subject areas were more able to communicate along interdisciplinary lines, something which most librarians felt was extremely important. I think that this value of non-LIS research for librarians shouldn’t be ignored, especially given that universities in general have been pushing more and more to become more interdisciplinary in recent years.

    • Maureen, thanks for these comments. You’ve identified many of the issues and questions that have come up in my conversations about this. There really is a lot to unpack!

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