Friday, March 23, 2018

Nobody listens, nobody should

Toward the end of a fantastically resonant blog post, Carrie Wade asks "what would it take for our profession to take theory seriously on a systematic level?"

I think the short answer (which Wade, herself, touches on in the post) is: LIS programs need to engage more with theory and teach it to students, even if the profession sees the MLIS as a practitioner degree.

Here is my longer answer:
I am taking a course this semester titled Qualitative Methods in Higher Education. It is a wonderful survey course where we learn the mechanics of qualitative methodology through reading how-to texts as well as articles in which these methods are applied.

What I have learned about qualitative research so far is that unless you are doing grounded theory research in which the theoretical framework emerges from the data, at the outset of a project qualitative researchers choose theoretical framework to guide their research.

It is my sense from reading LIS literature that much of it could be considered qualitative research, by which I mean that this literature often tries to make sense of the behavior of library users in some kind of context. It is also my sense that LIS is an interdisciplinary field, which is to say that people who study LIS come from varied backgrounds and bring their own interdisciplinary frameworks to their work and, as a result, LIS lacks its own set of theoretical frameworks.

(A parenthetical digression: One could correctly state that LIS does have its own theoretical frameworks, especially around organization of information. It would be wrong to overlook this part of the argument, so I'm acknowledging it. But I also think that much of our literature is not strictly about the organization of information, so I'm not sure how useful IO theoretical frames are to the whole of LIS scholarship.)

I think that when people criticize LIS research for not being rigorous enough, what they're actually criticizing is the fact that many LIS researchers do not engage with theoretical frameworks as part of their qualitative research. As a result, a lot of LIS scholarship ends up accidentally being grounded theory research. There are, of course, exceptions to this--notably Maria Accardi and Emily Drabinski--and I think this is why some LIS scholarship seems both more resonant and more rigorous than others.

In fairness to those engaged in LIS scholarship, my background preparation also leaves me as woefully unprepared to apply theoretical frameworks to my work. As I have tried to work through my research question for my Qualitative Methods in Higher Education course, I have struggled to identify an appropriate theoretical lens through which to view my research question. I feel certain that this isn't because a framework doesn't exist but, instead, that I have not been trained to find it.

The problem of LIS practitioners being unprepared to successfully engage in qualitative research is not, in itself, particularly problematic. Where the waters get troubled is that many academic librarians--especially those on the tenure track--are required to produce scholarly work. And while I haven't done any research into how many American LIS programs offer social theory courses, my sense is that the number is pretty low.  And if you're an academic librarian without a background in qualitative research, the scholarship you produce is only as good as your background and/or your capacity to take on learning about theoretical frameworks you can apply to your research question.

I think the answer to the question that Wade posits in her post is that LIS program administrators and accreditors need to consider how well LIS programs prepare librarians for the life of scholarship often required for academic librarians and make adjustments to the curriculum to make space for engagement with social theory. Doing so would improve engagement with theory, both in the creation and consumption of scholarship.

Stay positive,