Public Library Research by Public Librarians

By Meghan O’Leary, MLIS
Collections and Reader’s Librarian, John M. Cuelenaere Public Library
Prince Albert, Saskatchewan

Most people reading this blog will already be familiar with the research process, so this post will not go into much detail on that. What I am going to talk about are research methods public librarians may want to utilize, as well as some other factors they will have to consider before getting started on a research project.

First, what type of research methods work well for public library research projects? Most of the research I do at my public library is statistics based; however, the following are some research methods that could work well for public library research. Leedy and Ormrod’s (2013) Practical Research: Planning and Design was the textbook we used in school and it is a great resource if you are trying to think of appropriate methods for your project. You may have a different method you think would work well in a public library setting, so I encourage you to comment and share your ideas!


    • Reference interviews
    • Focus groups
    • Photo narrative with follow-up interviews – Shailoo Bedi & Jenaya Webb (2017) wrote an excellent article about using photographic methods in library research. See the full reference down below.
    • Public consultation sessions
    • Qualitative questionnaires


  • Statistics (patron stats, collections stats, usage stats, etc.)
  • Anonymous surveys
  • Quantitative questionnaires
  • Behavioural mapping

The second factor public librarians need to consider before starting a study is the ethical framework behind their research methodology. When I was in library school I was taught that if you are dealing with one-on-one humans, asking personal questions, you need to get ethics approval before getting started. With the help of Virginia Wilson, Director of C-EBLIP, I contacted Beryl Radcliffe, Human Research Ethics Specialist (Behavioural) from the University of Saskatchewan’s Research Ethics Board (REB) and asked her some clarifying questions about research ethics for public libraries. According to Beryl, public libraries are not required to go through a REB to do research, nor is there really any mechanism for them to do so. There are some for-profit REBs out there but applications are expensive and are usually only used for clinical trials. Public library research tends to deal mostly with improvement of programs, assessment, and physical space; therefore, it is not necessary to get ethics approval. There is no point in wasting funds to get approval you do not need. If there is no need to go through a REB for public libraries where can public librarians go for approval of their research project? The first step would be to talk to your superiors and seek approval from your library’s Board of Directors. Second, check with your local professional association, for example, the Saskatchewan Library Association, to see if there are any research guidelines listed for their members.

On top of answering my questions, Beryl also gave me some helpful ethics tips for public librarians wanting to do research:

  • Go through an REB application process, even if you do not intend to submit it because it will help you with planning your research project and will usually provide templates for consent forms, agreements, etc. The University of Saskatchewan REB documents are online and free to look at and use. Institutional REBs, such as the University of Saskatchewan REB, cannot approve unaffiliated research, but going through the process will ensure that you have covered all your bases, so to speak.
  • Tell people why you are asking them questions and what you plan to do with the information you gather. If you let people know how you plan to use the information people tend to be more open with their answers, which can provide better data.
  • If you are still concerned about research ethics you can take the TCPS 2 Tutorial Course on Research Ethics (CORE) and get your certificate of completion. Here is the link:

Since I briefly mentioned it before, I will now talk about the third factor that public librarians should consider before starting their research project – funding. Doing research does not have to cost a lot of money. There are, however, unavoidable expenses that come with doing research. The money for travel costs or honorariums, for example, needs to come from somewhere. There are grants available online, and if your research is going to be used to further develop and improve your library, attaining one of these grants should be a simple matter. Consider which sector your research falls under and search for grants in that area. For example, if your research deals with programming for senior citizens, consider a grant from Employment and Social Development Canada or New Horizons for Seniors. If your research is specifically about the library building, apply for community infrastructure grants. For example, last year Western Economic Diversification Canada offered a Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program grants.

If you are unsuccessful in obtaining a grant, try pitching your research project to your library board. Explain why you want to do the research, why it is important for the library, and why you need funds to accomplish it. There may be reserve funds that can be brought forward to help with your research. Another option is to approach your professional organization and see if they offer grants for research, or ask if there are any funds available for research in exchange for future conference presentations.

The last thing public librarians should consider before starting their research projects is how to gain access to scholarly articles when, generally speaking, public libraries do not have access to academic journal databases. Or, if public libraries do have access to some academic journals through a database subscription they tend to be quite limited. There are a few options one can consider. First, check to see if you have access to your alma mater’s online journals. Most of the time, as an alumna, you will have access to the journals if you are physically on site. If this is not possible for you due to distance, your next best option is to search for open access journals. Evidence Based Library and Information Science hosted by the University of Alberta Learning Services is an excellent resource, but also check out the Directory of Open Access Journals to find some peer-reviewed journals in the discipline you are researching. There are some other ways to get the articles you need, such as the Twitter #icanhazpdf hashtag, SciHub, and LibGen; however, it would be better to try and get what you need through more official sources.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post, and I hope if you are a public librarian wanting to do research you found this article helpful. If you have any other tips for public librarians please leave a comment!

Leedy, P. D. & Ormrod, J. E., (2013). Practical research: Planning and design. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bedi, S. & Webb, J. (2017). Through the students’ lens: Photographic methods for research in library spaces. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 12 (2). Retrieved from

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

(Small) public libraries do research too!

By Meghan O’Leary, MLIS, Collections and Reader’s Advisory Librarian, John M. Cuelenaere Public Library

Last October I attended the Centre of Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice Fall Symposium and quickly came to the realization that I was the only public librarian in attendance and the year before that there were only two of us. Almost all the presentations were geared towards special or academic libraries, which got me thinking, “Hey! Public librarians do this kind of research too!”

Of course, public libraries do research! Admittedly, research in the LIS discipline is dominated by academic librarians. Even research about public libraries tends to be done mostly by academic librarians. Why is that? Public librarians do not need to publish in the same way that academic librarians need to, but why don’t we publish more research? Do we not have the time or funding? Do we not consider what we do as research worth publishing? These are important questions, but not what I want to discuss today.

What I do want to talk about is what small public libraries, specifically the one I work at, does as far as research is concerned. But, first, some background information. I live in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and work as the Collections and Reader’s Advisory Librarian at John M. Cuelenaere Public Library. Prince Albert has one full branch and one satellite branch out on the west side of the city and a population of roughly 40,000 people. Compared to Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, etc. we are a rather small library.

Small public libraries, like mine, do engage in research. However, the research we do is generally not seen as “traditional” research because data collection is usually an ongoing process and we often do not share it with the LIS community. Matthews (2013) offers a model of “Try, Assess, and Reflect” for public libraries embracing evidence-based librarianship and says, “try something, gather some data about the effectiveness of the change, and then make some adjustments” (p. 28). Here’s an example of how we used this model: A couple of years ago we looked at what other libraries were doing and made the decision to launch a small video game collection. After a few months, I gathered statistical information about the new collection. Based on that we tweaked how we were doing things. Some of the items were not being returned, so we limited checkouts to two games per patron. E-rated games were being used more than M-rated games, therefore I altered my buying habits accordingly. Each month I gather statistical data on the whole collection to see what is being used, what is not being used, and what current trends are.

That is an example of how small public libraries use quantitative research methods to guide change; however, there has been a shift in research trends in the LIS community from quantitative to qualitative methodologies. Another project I want to talk about is our most recent strategic planning project. It has been ongoing for a few months now and we have done various different types of information gathering. We use statistical data like gate counts, usage stats, website metrics, etc. to guide us in creating a new strategic plan, but we also had three separate strategic planning sessions where we gathered qualitative data. Our first session was with the members of our board and library management, the second was with the rest of the library staff, and finally, the third session was held with the public. The major topics up for discussion were Facilities, Technology, Collections, Programs, and Community Outreach. The topics were written on large pieces of paper posted around the room, then everyone who attended the session was given a marker (and a cookie, because you have to lure them in somehow) and asked to go around the room and write their ideas under each heading. Each session built on the previous session and we analyzed the information gathered and have started developing a work plan which will target each of the major points. The information gathered has already helped us with the designs for our renovation project, as well as with our budget allocations.

I could write more about the various types of research small public libraries, such as John M. Cuelenaere Public Library, do but I do not want to turn this blog post into an essay! If there are any Brain-Works blog readers out there who are also from public libraries and conduct other forms of research please comment! I would love to hear what other public libraries (large or small) are doing.


Matthews, J. R. (2013). Research-based planning for public libraries increasing relevance in the digital age. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

EBLIP and Public Librarians: A call to action!

by Pam Ryan
Director, Collections & Technology at Edmonton Public Library / Twitter: @pamryan

As a former academic librarian, I’m often asked what the biggest differences are between public and academic libraries and librarianship. My short answer is usually something about having only worked for one (each excellent and probably non-standard) example of each so it’s difficult to know if the differences I’ve experienced are more organizational or sectoral. However, an increasingly concerning difference is the relationship that public librarians have with the research and evidence base of our profession.

Low public librarian participation in research and publication is not a new phenomenon nor is the small overall percentage of LIS research articles about public library practice. Research in 2005 showed that over a four year period just 3% of article authors in North American LIS journals were employed in public libraries. Even in Public Library Quarterly, only 14% of the authors were public librarians. An earlier study in 2001 showed that only 7% of LIS research articles were public library orientedi.

The recommendations in the 2014 Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel report on Canada’s libraries call for increased sharing of research and statistics to support evidence-based practice in public libraries. The recommendations specifically include a call to action for public libraries to make their work visible by posting evidence-based studies on library websites for the benefit of the entire library community, in addition to continuing to share statistical data freely with CULC and other organizationsii.

These recommendations follow from the fact that public libraries are increasingly called upon to show their value and prove their impact yet we are not actively in charge of telling our own story by sharing our organization practice findings or enlisting our librarians to share their work outside of internal operational functions. We need to heed this call to action both as organizations and as individual professionals. I am keenly aware of all of the good program evaluation and assessment work that goes on in public libraries to inform services and innovation yet it is too frequently not taken the step further, to openly available publication, to build our evidence-base, inform our collective practice, and be available to tell our stories.

Of particular note in this call to action is to openly and freely post this work of our public libraries and librarians. A very distinct and frustrating difference between academic and public librarianship is access to the literature behind paywalls. I am well-aware of how frequently I beg sharing of PDF articles of academic colleagues and also, embarrassingly, how less frequently I dip into the literature because access to it isn’t as seamless as it was when I was an academic librarian. Open Access publishing options for our own literature needs a much higher profile than it currently has and is something our entire sector needs to work on.

Where to start? As examples, Edmonton Public Library (EPL) recognizes that research and its dissemination are integral to being innovative. EPL provides two recent librarian graduates from the University of Alberta’s School of Library and Information Studies with one year research internships. These new professional librarians conduct research that is invaluable to EPL’s future planning. Recent assignments on digital public spaces and open data; digital discovery and access; 21st century library spaces; and analyzing the nature and types of questions received at service desks have also included the expectation of openly sharing internal reportsiii via the EPL website, as well as publication in Open Access forumsiv v vi vii. Librarians working on innovative projects are also encouraged to share their practice and findings openlyviii ix. Providing the encouragement, support, time, and expectation that sharing need be an integrated part of public librarian practice is something all libraries can foster. We need to collectively take responsibility for changing public library culture and take ownership of telling our own stories and sharing our evidence.
iRyan, Pam. 2012. EBLIP and Public Libraries. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. Vol 7:1.

iiDemers, Patricia (chair), Guylaine Beaudry, Pamela Bjornson, Michael Carroll, Carol Couture, Charlotte Gray, Judith Hare, Ernie Ingles, Eric Ketelaar, Gerald McMaster, Ken Roberts. (2014). Expert Panel Report on The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory. Royal Society of Canada, Ottawa, ON. Pg. 120.

iiiPublications. Edmonton Public Library.

ivArnason, Holly Kristin and Louise Reimer. 2012. Analyzing Public Library Service Interactions to Improve Public Library Customer Service and Technology Systems. EBLIP and Public Libraries. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. Vol 7:1.

vWortman, Beth. 2012. What Are They Doing and What Do They Want: The Library Spaces Customer Survey at Edmonton Public Library. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vol 7:2.

viDaSilva, Allison. 2014. Enriching Discovery Layers: A Product Comparison of Content Enrichment Services Syndetic Solutions and Content Café 2. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vol 9:2.

viiCarruthers, Alex. 2014. Open Data Day Hackathon 2014 at Edmonton Public Library. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vol 9:2.

viiiHaug, Carla. 2014. Here’s How We Did It: The Story of the EPL Makerspace. Felicter. Vol 60:1.

ixCarruthers, Alex. 2015. Edmonton Public Library’s First Digital Public Space. The Library as Incubator Project. January 20, 2015:

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.

Open Data and EBLIP – How open are we?

by Pam Ryan
Director, Collections & Technology at Edmonton Public Library

When we talk about evidence based library and information practice (EBLIP), we’re most often talking about research – conducting our own or finding and integrating research and best-available evidence into our practice. Part of this continuum should also include working towards making our own library service and operations data openly available for analysis and re-use.

This isn’t out of line with current library initiatives. Academic libraries have long supported the open access movement and for many, services around managing institutional research data are a current priority. Influenced by open government developments in their municipalities, public libraries are increasingly working to increase open data literacy through programming, encouraging citizens to think critically about government services and learn how to unlock the value of open data.

Why does open data matter for libraries? It aligns with our core values of access to information, sharing, openness, transparency, accountability, and stewardship. It supports our missions to provide information and data literacy, it can provide others with information to help us in our advocacy and value of libraries initiatives, and maybe most importantly, it can fuel research and initiatives we ourselves haven’t yet thought of.

My own place of work has a current business plan goal to: Develop an open data policy that includes how we will use and share our own data; participate in Edmonton’s Open Data community and support data literacy initiatives. We’ve begun to make progress in these areas by developing a statement on open data and collaborating with the City of Edmonton on public programs:

• Edmonton Public Library’s Statement on Open Data:

• EPL’s 2014 Open Data Day program:

Has your library started a discussion about what your library’s approach to open data will be?

Further Reading:

Thompson, B, The open library and its enemies, Insights, 2014, 27(3), 229–232; DOI:

Data is Law / Civic Innovations: The Future is Open / Twitter: @pamryan

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.