Jumping into the Deep End: Reflections of a Librarian Practitioner-Researcher

by Charlene Sorensen
Services to Libraries, University of Saskatchewan

I am always curious as to how people find their way to librarianship. I myself didn’t plan on becoming a librarian. But suddenly after I completed my undergrad a friend was going to this thing called “library school” and I was intrigued. A couple of years later I decided to obtain my Library Technician diploma as a way to ease into library work and find out if I liked it. I worked as a library technician for three years and then decided it was time to get my MLIS. I can’t exactly remember why or how I made that decision but I knew it was the next step for me. I quit my job, moved away, and hoped to find work when I was done. I enjoyed library school – though I’m glad I chose a 12-month program – and did get a job right away. I worked some contracts and my first longer term job was as a serials cataloguer and I have thoroughly enjoyed where this fairly accidental career path has taken me.
San Antonio Public Library (Central) – San Antonio, Texas

I find that being a librarian permeates my life and defines me in many ways, even though I didn’t plan for this to happen. It affects what I read, some of my activities, who I spend time with, and many of my values and beliefs. Being a cataloguer also colours some of my day-to-day activities, probably in fairly stereotypical ways such as wondering why the KD isn’t beside the rest of the pasta in my grocery store – should they not be classified together?
Public library classification system – Albufeira, Portugal

When I came to the University of Saskatchewan, I was following this path of working with serials but I had now started along another track that I had never imagined – I was now a researcher. Even though I love being a librarian – and even find myself seeking out and taking pictures of libraries when I travel – I didn’t know much about librarians as researchers until recently. When I accepted a position at the UofS, I suddenly had standards for tenure to fulfill and not a lot of time to fulfill them. It really was a matter of jumping into the deep end and discovering that I COULD swim.
Bibliothèque Louis Nucéra – Nice, France

I have, however, been thinking more about what it means to be a practitioner-researcher librarian. I have an on and off relationship with this definition of myself and feel the need to embrace it more fully. Now that some time has passed, I’m hoping I can think more clearly about what I would like to do in this area of my work, and less about what I need to do to get tenure. I have the urge to wade more carefully into these waters and discover what’s there. And on a lighter note, I’m thinking about how this aspect of my career could/should be affecting my life like “librarian” and “cataloguer” already do.

And so I have questions for you, dear reader. How comfortable are you with defining yourself as a researcher? Do you see this aspect of your career come out in your personal life? Do we yet have stereotypical behaviours for librarian researchers, much like we have for other librarian roles?
Biblioteca Municipal Álvaro de Campos – Tavira, Portugal

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.

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.

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. http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/18901

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.