Jackie Freeman

Depending on where (and when) you attended library school, a research methods class was probably a requirement. These types of courses are designed to provide students with theoretical knowledge of research methods – and if they are particularly fortunate – students may have an opportunity to work with a library practitioner on some aspect of that librarian’s research. Due to the length of most library school programs, these opportunities when offered are necessarily brief and often do not allow for sustained engagement with a project from inception to completion and dissemination. The typical library school student can expect to finish their degree having some exposure to the types of research studies that library professionals conduct; they will have some experience in conducting a search for literature and writing a limited review, and they will likely have written a proposal for a research project. The goal of the latter work is to ensure that students understand the elements of research and think through planning for them. In many cases, this learning takes place in the final semester of the program and the proposal is often considered a capstone project.

It is no wonder then that new librarians in their first positions after graduating have little experience with conducting research in real life. Many of us teeter on the edge hoping to take our theoretical knowledge and apply it to a real project. We may still lack some experience that will help us judge an interesting and worthwhile question to pursue as well as deep knowledge about theoretical frames and tools to support our efforts. The desire to contribute knowledge to the field of librarianship also has to be balanced with the requirements of our new roles, which in some cases include instruction, liaison activities, roles on library committees, and roles we play in professional associations.
All of these aspects of librarianship are certainly present in my experience, but this year also brought the opportunity to engage more deeply in research through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Through the grant, a group of current library school students, an early career librarian, and senior librarians are brought together to work on a research project. Mentorship between all of the levels is fostered by this arrangement.

There have been several activities since I joined the project team that have helped bridge the gap between the theoretical learning about research in library school and conducting and disseminating research in real life. On our team, we had two successful submissions of conference paper proposals based on our research. While the work to produce the proposals began before I joined the team, in many ways the timing proved very fruitful. This timing offered an opportunity to consider and work on research outputs – to think about audience and the tailoring of our presentation for each conference. Other activities that have bridged the gap between theory and practice have included data collection, coding, and analysis. While in library school I had the opportunity to develop a plan for data collection, this project brings out all of the practical decisions that need to be made when actual data collection is in progress.

Research in real life is challenging. Finding time to devote to it is perhaps the biggest challenge I currently face. While a student, projects were necessarily limited in scope or duration to match the academic schedule. Early career librarians in particular are likely considering a balance between research, instruction, liaison responsibilities, committee work, and preparing for promotion. For anyone considering whether to become involved in research given this balancing act, my response is yes – it’s worth it AND (always the Boolean AND) be prepared to be persistent: the time scales are longer than they were in graduate school and you’ll want to surround yourself with a good team so that you can learn and deepen skills that you’ll use again and again.

Jackie Freeman obtained a B.A. in English and French from Kalamazoo College, a M.A. in English from Michigan State University, and a MLIS from Wayne State University and is now an Informationist at Taubman Health Sciences Library at the University of Michigan.