Research and the “value agenda”

A debate about the form, purpose, and quality of academic librarians’ research is taking place right now in the editorial pages of some of our flagship journals. In the November 2016 issue of the Journal of Academic Librarianship, Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Blakesley claims that academic librarians produce poor quality research because we lack the necessary knowledge, time, and resources to make “data driven decisions.”

In the most recent issue, Kristine Brancolini counters that “practitioner-researchers” are, in fact, well equipped to answer “the critical research questions that affect our work,” thus providing evidence of the value of our collections, services, and spaces.

In a 2016 issue of College & Research Libraries, Emily Drabinski and Scott Walter call for a broader view of research, one that acknowledges that “theory and practice should be mutually informative in our field, and inquiry into ‘values’ should occupy as privileged a place as inquiry into ‘value’.” How does this debate relate to the question of academic librarians and the PhD?

Academic librarians are increasingly focused on value. Despite their differences, Blakesley and Brancolini share a view widely held in the profession that academic librarians ought to engage in a particular kind of research—action research.

Action research?
In the words of Brancolini, action research is “integral to our practice” because it equips us with “useful,” “effective,” and “appropriate” answers about outcomes and impact. It is through this kind of research that librarians “seek to make a difference.”

Action research and the “value agenda” go hand in hand: the first goal of the ACRL’s Assessment in Action (AiA) professional development program, part of the Value of Academic Libraries initiative, is to “develop the professional competencies of librarians to document and communicate… value…primarily in relation to their institution’s goals.”

Action research in academic libraries is largely intended to support managerialist narratives of accountability, audit, and value—operationalized as return on investment. For me, the value agenda meant years of struggling with action research projects—in part because the MLIS hadn’t adequately prepared me to do them—when what I really wanted to understand are the larger social and political economic drivers behind this agenda, behind the push to make higher education more like a business and to treat students as clients and librarians and faculty as entrepreneurs.

Action research couldn’t help me answer these questions.

Question

I’m not saying that action research has no merit; in the context of higher education today, academic libraries must provide evidence of their impact in order to compete for resources. The ideology of consumer capitalism regulates our work. And as long as this is the case, programs like AiA fill a gap in LIS education.

What I am saying is that other kinds of research are important, not least because the relentless focus on demonstrating value may serve to normalize the corporatization of higher education and libraries and “limit our vision for the future of our field” (Drabinski & Walter, 2016). In addition to measuring what we do, we should ask ourselves why we’re doing it (Fister, 2012).

My own unease with the value agenda and desire to understand it was partly responsible for my decision to enrol in an LIS PhD program as a solution to a mid-career crisis: In order to regain some faith in the profession, in order to answer my questions and challenge the status quo, I needed a more critical perspective and the knowledge, skills, structure, and support a PhD program provides.

(To do a PhD, I also needed structural supports and resources. Not everyone has these.)

Implications of the value agenda
What are the implications of the value agenda in relation to academic librarians’ research and the PhD? I have many questions but few answers. The model of the practitioner-researcher who conducts action research prevails in several Canadian academic libraries where non-LIS scholarship doesn’t “count” towards promotion and tenure or merit.

  • Are librarians compelled to do action research because it’s what is rewarded?
  • Have we created a kind of professional echo chamber, where we all do the same work in the same way, read the same journals, engage in the same research, all with a view to demonstrating the same foregone conclusions?
  • Should the PhD should be the new terminal degree for academic librarians? I don’t think so. But how can we create space and provide supports for librarians to explore questions outside the scope of action research without requiring them to pursue another degree?
  • Would those who choose the PhD be better served by a degree in LIS because it may align more closely with workplace priorities?
  • And what of librarians whose research seeks to question the principles, systems, and structures that privilege outcomes, assessment, and audit?

Critical librarianship, for example, engages in reflexive inquiry in an attempt to explore the ways that “libraries and librarians consciously and unconsciously support systems of oppression” (Garcia, 2015). Is this kind of research valued? Or are librarians who challenge mainstream views and practices labeled change resistant, inflexible, or traditional?

Finally, is critical librarianship incompatible with career advancement? I hope not … but I wonder.


Karen Nicholson, Manager, Information Literacy, University of Guelph, is a PhD candidate (LIS) at Western University.