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Intuition-based librarianship?

Not long after I started working in the library, I heard someone talking about “Evidence Based Librarianship.” Like the good little kind-of-a-librarian I’d become, I looked it up and found this article which states that:

EBL employs the best available evidence based upon library science research to arrive at sound decisions about solving practical problems in librarianship.

My immediate response was, of course, What the $#!&% is everyone else doing?

The sad truth, of course, is that in general folks working in libraries do not use the “best evidence” based on “library science research” because, like many of the practitioners I met when I was in the education world, they (a) don’t know most of the research and data, and (b) are convinced that their users are so magical, so special, so utterly unique, that there’s no point in looking to the research and are better off just going with their guts.

That’s an over-simplification, of course. But I have found, across a bunch of situations, that practicing librarians tend to think:

  1. their time is much better spent directly helping patrons than reading about research regarding how to help patrons,
  2. “data” (defined incredibly loosely) derived from reference desk interviews are sufficient to make decisions
  3. “I know my patrons better than anyone”

The logical conclusions to this is that:

  1. Most library research is essentially being thrown down a dark hole because the people that could most benefit from it don’t read it
  2. We’re assuming that the 99.999% of users who never talk to a librarian (many of whom, in fact, never enter the library building) have the exact same needs and perspective as those who engage in reference interviews
  3. Librarians, as a group, confuse casual and/or episodic interaction with self-selected patrons with actual social-science research.

And the over-simplified solutions:

Make reading a job requirement — for real! Make librarians responsible for keeping up with the literature — “responsible” in a “prove to your direct manager that you spent two hours reading and writing this week”.

Librarians as a group, I think, want to use the research. But not so much that they’re willing to let Curmudgeonly Old Faculty Member #2 hang tight for a few hours while they brush up.

Use the data you already have! Your systems — your ILS, any reference desk software, your proxy server, your web server — all collect data. Warehouse the data. Mine the data. Provide both colorful graphical interfaces and ugly powerful analysis functions for the data. Figure out how to do something with the freakin’ data!

Most (all?) libraries have gobs of data that are pulled out once a year for ACRL statistics. And even if they’re looked at by someone, they’re certainly not easily available to everyone.

Push access to the data and associated visualization tools as far down the stack as you can. At least people will know what kinds of questions can be answered.

Don’t pretend to do research — do real research! Do real social science research — something that certainly doesn’t have a front-seat in library schools as near as I can tell. Find some MS students in Sociology or Anthropology who are looking for a project and ask them to find something out, with real honest-to-god case study methodology, text analysis, data analysis — the whole nine yards. Better yet — hire someone to do it, and for god’s sake don’t put down that they must have an MLS.

Times are tight all around, of course — no one has enough time, enough money, enough resources. But that’s exactly why now is the time to focus on existing research (it’s free — someone already did it) and data (it’s free — your systems are already collecting it) — to find out what’s being used, what’s being ignored, how to market your under-utilized resources and which populations need some outreach.

Going with your gut might seem to work, but maybe that’s only because you’re not actually using any solid criteria to evaluate what you’re doing now.