Category Archives: Learnin'

Tips for PhD New Starters

I don’t even want to think about how it became mid-October. The last time I looked up it was the beginning of July. But, it’s just been the beginning of a new academic year and there are lots of new PhD students popping up around the place. I’ve been working from home near Leeds over the summer and I’ve not seen the inside of my department for a while, so I’ve mostly been hearing about the trials and tribulations of the new starters on social media. I’m part of a network (which I’ve mentioned before) on Facebook, the PostgRAD Study Gang, which I have to say has been incredibly helpful in terms of support and gee-ing for me as a student working remotely, and also in terms of being a way to organise meetups and shut up and write sessions in the physical world!

I wanted to offer some suggestions for new students, based on what I’ve found helpful. I’m six and a half months (the half matters) away from scheduled submission on a thesis based in Library and Information Science with a hint of pedagogy, youth studies, politics, personal construct psychology, phenomenography and critical theory, so I hope my experiences so far can be helpful to those at the beginning of their studies in and around the field (and maybe further through and in other areas, who knows).

1) Decide on what software you’re going to use for writing your thesis in now. I’ve used Microsoft Word throughout and it gets to a point, even on a laptop that was new at the start of your studies, where somehow, Word gets creaky and it can’t handle the amount of text and formatting you’re using. You will be told by the more technologically advanced that LaTeX is the way to go and these people will scoff at you and say they told you so when Word stops responding, hangs in mid-air, or even, as mine started doing, starts deleting lines and lines and lines of your work infront of your very eyes when your hands are nowhere near the keyboard and will.not.stop. I decided to divide my thesis into separate chunks in different documents (which I’m sure will be a whole new nightmare when I need to merge it) and keep my cursor as far away from the heading toolbar as possible (which evidently seems to be the root of the problem) rather than changing over to using a whole new piece of software. I weighed up the pros and cons of sticking with Word or changing to LaTeX and I decided that at the point I was at, I’d find it more stressful and upsetting to change over than to handle Word when it played up. You might want to make a decision now to save yourself some strife.

2) As I just mentioned, my copy of Word doesn’t like my use of headings, but I do. If you don’t already have experience of using them, I really recommend you start. It means that if your department requires you to use a numbering system for your thesis sections they (theoretically) update automatically, it makes the layout of your document clearer, and helps you to visualise the structure of your writing both figuratively and literally through the navigation pane. You can jump around your document with ease, and if you use the subheadings you can drag and drop, or delete, entire chunks of writing. Start using this tool straight away and it’ll save you from having to implement it on an existing large document later. I also use it as a way of working out structure when I get to the stage where what I have and what I want to have are very different things.

3) Use your library. I can’t recommend it highly enough, of course, as a librarian…but some features will be a godsend. Different universities use different systems, but if you can’t get hold of a journal article, the library will probably be able to get it for you. Likewise with books, but I also recommend finding out if your department has a budget for staff- and student-driven stock requests. If there’s something they don’t have that they really should, because it’s useful to you (and other students), then ask for it! If the library doesn’t (or no longer) subscribes to a journal that’s core to your field, try finding out why. Which leads me to…

4) Find out what journals are core to your field, and which journals in fields related to your topic are key for you to be aware of. This is useful not just for getting hold of stuff to read (though I do recommend searching through different databases rather than individual journals) but also for planning what journals you’d like to try to publish through. Have a look through the Directory of Open Access Journals as well as subject databases on the library website to find out what’s out there relevant to you.

5) Start thinking about getting published early. The process often takes a long time, so it’s good to think ahead, but it also helps to have in the back of your mind an idea about how your thesis could be turned into publications. So far I’ve had publications from my literature review, methodology and initial findings, and I’ve had a book chapter about how my methods and findings can be used in practice accepted. Not all of these are peer reviewed, and not all of them need to be, but it helps. There’s value in finding out about the different kinds of publication that there are, working out how you feel about open access, how you want to communicate your work to other students, academics, people working in whatever field you’re in, the wider world etc.

6) Get to know people, particularly other students (in your department, online, elsewhere) because they have a kind of empathy you won’t find elsewhere. Also the people working in the office in your department, they will save your life one day sooner than you expect.

7) Get to know your supervisor. Don’t be afraid of them, they are human too. Probably a very stressed human, but one with responsibilities for you nonetheless. Find out what they expect of you and have a chat about what you can expect from them. This will change throughout the process – in my first year I had a weekly meeting with my supervisor, then it became less when I needed less guidance about the direction of my reading and instead had my head down analysing data. Books like this can be really useful – this one in particular has a section on supervision.

8) Don’t worry about your topic changing, either immediately or a few months in. At some point it’s inappropriate to change your topic wildly of course, but there are lots of good practical and theoretical reasons for it being necessary in the early days. Mine was going to be about how public libraries support democracy, but it became apparent early on that public libraries in the UK are bad places to do fieldwork in right now, democracy is a complex concept, the methodology I was going to use wasn’t informed by enough theory, the theories that had been used in related work were too flawed for me to accept, and that the topic was too broad to handle. It’s now using a different research site, a specific notion of democracy, looking at a specific area of LIS (information literacy) and using (too many) strong theories. Talk all this through with your supervisor and always make sure they know what direction you’re heading in.

9) Don’t worry about wasting time reading things that later become irrelevant. Also don’t read too much. This sounds like an awful truism and is an abstract thing to think about balancing before you’ve really started, but keep it in mind. It’s one of the most valuable things my supervisor told me.

10) Keep an up to date document of things you’ve done, like training, publications, presentations, conferences attended etc., including dates and brief details. This will be invaluable for putting together upgrade or progress reports and your CV.

Image: CC by Joachim Schlosser

Two(ish) Years

I just gave a presentation to the department about my research so far (although strictly my two year review is in April because of the three month internship I did over the summer). I talked about what I’ve achieved in the last year, what I’d found out in the literature review, how it shaped my research approach and methods, what I actually did in terms of my methodology, how it went, what data I’ve got and what I think I might have found out about. I’m not sure, I’m knee deep in transcription and don’t want to make any sweeping generalisations based on hunches before I do any actual coding. However!

If you’re vaguely interested in the ramblings of someone who’s not entirely sure where things are going right now, the presentation’s below.

image of a rainbow coloured umbrella

Umbrella 2013

Just a quick post to share my Umbrella 2013 presentation, ‘A critical approach to information literacy’, and to thank everyone who attended and got involved with it on twitter for being such a welcoming and interested audience. The presentation and ‘paper’ (which I turned into notes but didn’t stick to at all!) are here:

1. Introduction

This paper introduces the concept of critical information literacy; an approach to information literacy (IL) that embraces the political nature of education, and the necessity of a critical approach to pedagogy in order to empower citizens to meaningfully engage with democracy and challenge social injustice.

The library and information science (LIS) profession has a social responsibility to engage with issues of critical pedagogy, and although LIS often claims to serve democratic goals, it often falls short of its worthy claims. Several problems with IL practice are discussed, and the ways these can be overcome through engagement with critical pedagogical theory are explored. It is argued that IL has the strong potential to secure its place as a relevant democratic and educational tool in a learning society, provided that researchers and practitioners engage meaningfully in substantive issues of pedagogy, politics and professional jurisdiction. Some examples of the ways in which members of the profession are already engaging with critical pedagogy through critical information literacy in practice are identified.

The brevity of this paper does not allow for in-depth discussion of the concepts introduced, the complexity of critical pedagogy and the implications of critical approaches to information literacy, so further reading of sources referenced is strongly recommended.

2. Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy is an educational movement which gives students the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and sense of responsibility necessary to engage in a culture of questioning. These abilities allow young people to challenge perceived inevitabilities of social injustice that they may have, and engage in meaningful participation and leadership (Giroux, 2010). Henry Giroux (2011, p.144) argues that civic education is the cornerstone of democracy, in which people must not only have the right to participate, but should also be educated in order to be able to participate. Giroux advocates for the necessity for critical pedagogy in education in order to “help students to develop a consciousness of freedom, recognise authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, connect knowledge and truth to power, and learn how to read both the word and the world as part of a broader struggle for agency, justice and democracy” (2012, p.116).

In order to enable people to possess the political agency advocated by critical theorists, education systems and educators, including librarians, must take a critical approach and challenge the frameworks and processes that prevent people from being able to see alternate perspectives and think critically. Although critical pedagogical theory has not yet widely been applied to LIS and very much remains on the margins of information literacy discourse (Cope, 2010, p.24), it has been recommended by a number of theorists within the discipline who believe it is an important area with which to actively engage, particularly with regard to information literacy provision (Elmborg, 2006; Eryaman, 2010; Gage, 2004; Kapitzke, 2003).

3. Information Literacy

Information literacy is an increasingly important area of work in LIS, often presented as the foundation of the profession’s educational jurisdiction (O’Connor, 2009, p.272). A number of frameworks for information literacy have emerged, including the SCONUL Seven Pillars Model, which is especially popular in UK higher education libraries, and the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, which are commonly used in the United States. Frameworks offer a means by which practitioners can assess individuals’ levels of information literacy, offering a useful, standardised set of performance indicators which can then be tailored to meet individuals’ or institutions’ needs. The SCONUL framework for example, offers a ‘core’ vision which can then be added to with a series of ‘lenses’ which represent different learner groups (SCONUL, 2011). Information literacy can be seen as a ‘cognitive schema’ – a way of thinking – which can offer continuity and a means to obtain resources (Whitworth, 2013), which are beneficial features. However, information literacy is an evolving concept, with some problems that need to be addressed in order for it to properly fulfil the role it claims to perform. A number of criticisms have been made about the aspects of the development of IL, which will be discussed below.

3.1 Origins

IL has been criticised for the nature of its origins. For example, Foster (1993, p.346) claimed that IL is “an effort to deny the ancillary status of librarianship by inventing a social malady with which librarians as ‘information professionals’ are uniquely qualified to deal”. Tyner (1998) suggests that the lack of a simple definition of IL, may in part be due to the idea that the IL as a concept exists as the result of a need of the library profession to market their role to the educational community. He suggests that this occurred as a result of the LIS community strongly feeling that they had been excluded from educational policy, particularly the US report A Nation at Risk (1983). Similarly, O’Connor (2009b, p.493) suggests that IL was a concept developed out of a reaction to the threats faced by traditional access-oriented librarianship roles. She suggests that IL legitimated the profession in that it created a more flexible, educational jurisdiction for librarians (p.499). This in itself is not necessarily negative and does not negate the value and relevance of IL (p.506), but does become potentially problematic when librarians make claims to teaching roles (p.502). The majority of librarians in the United Kingdom do not have teaching qualifications and have not studied educational theory. It could be suggested that this may be a contributing factor to why IL has not yet fully engaged with substantive issues such as pedagogical theories and limit the ability of LIS to best meet the needs of learners through IL provision.

Criticisms of the origins of IL do not mean that it is not a valuable part of library and information provision, but does suggest that practitioners and those writing about IL need to be aware of the background and rationale behind it, in order to question the practices and activities we encourage and discourage. Reflection and understanding of the sometimes reactive and defensive origins of parts of the discipline can help us to meaningfully define and articulate the role of IL in the future.

3.2 Theoretical Grounding

IL has been criticised for a lack of theoretical depth. Buschman (2007, p.1492) criticises LIS for being simultaneously both under- and over-theorised in approach, arguing that “LIS cast as a science has flattened libraries and information systems/products into objective and neutral entities studied without reference to context or power”, while suggesting that at the same time there has been “an over-theorised notion of power and domination proliferates within areas of LIS theory adapted from postmodern sources”. Similarly, Cope (2009, p.11) suggests that “LIS commentators tend to shy away from more complicated discussions of social and political power”, and Day (2010, p.2) argues that LIS research has shaky conceptual foundations.

Gage (2004 p.73) accuses the library and information profession as having become a “hollowed out reification of consumer society” which systemically fails to problematize issues of importance. This lack of deep engagement with critical theory has led to an overemphasis on a positivist approach (Kapitzke 2003, p.11), which critics argue impedes the development of critical reasoning (Pankl and Coleman 2010, p.6).

Doherty and Ketchner (2005) question whether the library profession is aware of the structures of power and hierarchy that it has built around information literacy tuition. They argue that “information literacy is not as empowering as the library profession would like to think”, citing Kapitzke (2003) who argues that “[f]ar from contributing to equitable education outcomes, this [information literacy] framework for school library research masks an exclusionary ideology”.

3.3 Skills-Based Frameworks

The ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards (ALA, 2000) represent an approach to information literacy education that a number of theorists find problematic. Pankl and Coleman (2009, p.8) criticise the ACRL Standards for “hindering the transformation of…students and inhibiting their impact on the world”. Webber and Johnston (2000, p.384) identify a step-by-step process approach to information literacy, which they suggest “facilitates the mapping of information literacy onto current assignments and class curricula, focusing exclusively on skills”, which they argue “reduces the complexity of learning and knowledge to limited and isolated units”.

Whitworth (2013) also criticizes standardised competencies, particularly the ACRL definition of IL which implies that information literacy is a linear sequence in which the learner deliberately engages, which he says fails to account for other ways and forms of engaging with information and learning. He also believes that standardised competencies have become cognitive schema; ways of thinking to which people are expected to conform, which promotes one way of thinking over others without allowing for the ways in which learners develop their own criteria for establishing what information is important and relevant in their own contexts.

The skills-oriented approach has also been criticized for isolating information from its social, cultural, historical, and technological contexts (Jacobs and Berg, 2011, p.386). Špiranec and Zorica (2010, p.142-143) suggest that adopting a skills-oriented approach “is a limited perception of [information literacy] as a neutral process which is entirely unaffected by any kind of social, political or historical background”.

This approach to information literacy emerges from the idea that information literacy is a problem needing to be overcome (Jacobs and Berg, 2011, p.387). Librarians see the ACRL standards as a solution, based on the assumption that students are lacking information literacy skills. As a result, information literacy is treated as the learning of “survival skills” (p.387). This is problematic, because it means that the focus of information literacy practitioners is on practical survival skills and more pressing information needs (Kopp and Olson-Kopp 2009, p.58), and not on more abstract goals such as the development of critical consciousness and the critical aims of IL according to the Alexandria Proclamation, which emphasises the need for IL to extend “beyond current technologies to encompass learning, critical thinking and interpretative skills across professional boundaries and empowers individuals and communities.” (IFLA, 2006).

3.4 Critical Information Literacy

Critical information literacy takes the theories of critical pedagogy and critical literacy, and translates these into the practice of IL. Whitworth (2011) argues that it is important to have a clear idea of what IL is for and an awareness of the conflicting views about this because it raises political challenges for LIS. He connects the concept of noöpolitics, which is interested in control over informational resources (Whitworth, 2011, p.191), to a critical approach to IL, and argues that in order to challenge the transmission of cultural hegemony (manipulation of culture by those in control in order to present social, economic and political injustice as inevitable). LIS needs to be aware of noöpolitical issues and equip learners with the ability to critique and scrutinise information in order to challenge and question the messages to which they are exposed.

Elmborg (2006) argues that in order to align themselves with the democratic values they invoke, libraries must engage in critical literacy and focus on the links between educational processes and the politics of literacy (p.193). This includes the need for educators to be aware of the ways in which schools and curricula themselves present and protect traditional, authoritative knowledge, whilst failing to “respect students as people capable of agency and meaning- making in their own right” (p.194). Elmborg (2006, p.195) argues that literacy must be looked at in a pluralistic, non-judgemental way, which with respect to information literacy requires IL practitioners to help learners to present information that meets the standards expected of their learning environment, but also to help them understand systems of thought, information flows and to be able to “critically evaluate the system itself” (p.196).

Critical information literacy puts to work the democratic ideals of LIS, which are frequently recited but often ignored (Buschman, 2007). The following section briefly details some examples of LIS professionals engaging with critical information literacy, which indicates that critical pedagogy may be having some positive influence on IL practice.

3.5 Critical Information Literacy in Practice

Pankl and Coleman (2009, p.9) recommend the encouragement of sharing and dialogue between students, which can be achieved through creating a space where students are facing each other and are not behind computer monitors. They also advocate the fostering of “intellectual curiosity” in students, which can be achieved through promoting research that is “relevant to the students’ personal and academic lives”. Cope (2009, p.25) says that classroom practices of critical information literacy “would entail a move away from the demonstration of technical search processes and simplistic claims that some sources are “authoritative” because authorities have decided that they are”.

Torrell (2009, pp.89-103) describes her application of critical library instruction in her library workshops. She aims to create situations in which students are enabled to identify when they are being manipulated by outside forces such as newspapers, and learn to be less uncritically willing to accept the authority of the written word. Contact zone pedagogy techniques are used to maximise student agency and engagement.

4. Conclusions

Although IL has contributed to an understanding of the role of the library and information professional and provided a rubric by which we can chart the performance and abilities of learners, it is vital for the LIS profession to view IL as a more meaningful educational device. If we are to consider ourselves as educators, we must engage with educational and pedagogical issues. If we are to consider ourselves as supporters of democracy, we must engage with political issues. The nature of information, knowledge and education is inherently political, and librarians must be able to justify the decisions they make and consider the political implications of the practices they choose. The decisions we make about our approach to education must be explicit and transparent; neutrality is not an option (Elmborg, 2006, p.193).

Engagement with critical approaches to information literacy would not only help librarians to justify the existence as a profession and demonstrate their values to the institutions in which they work and the learners they serve, but also contribute to the strengthening of democracy through providing citizens with the abilities to become active agents in society, motivated and able to participate through a sense that the information they are able to access, critique and understand can be used by them to effect real social change.

Taking a critical approach to information literacy is a complex task, which requires much reflection on the part of those involved. We must be conscious of the need to work within ethical constraints and to avoid interfering in the political lives of others, at the same time as working to ensure that we do not shy away from political issues concerning our educational values and wider ideals for society. Developing an overall policy for critical information literacy instruction and would allow the LIS profession to lay the groundwork for specific tuition based on the needs of learners within each learning environment.

3.7 References

  • Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) (2000) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. American Library Association, Chicago, IL. [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • Cope, J. (2009) Information Literacy and Social Power. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.13-28. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • Cornelius, I. (2002) Theorizing information science in: B. Cronin (Ed.) Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST), Vol. 36, Information Today, pp. 393–425.
  • Day, R. E. (2010) “The Self-Imposed Limits of Library and Information Science: Remarks On the Discipline, On the Profession, On the University, and On the State of “Information” in the U.S. at Large Today”. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(2).
  • Doherty, J.J. and Ketchner, K. (2005) Empowering the Intentional Learner: A Critical Theory for Information Literacy Instruction. Library Philosophy and Practice, 8(1), pp. 1–10.
  • Elmborg, J. (2006) Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), pp. 192-199.
  • Eryaman, M.Y. (2010) The Public Library as a Space for Democratic Empowerment: Henry Giroux, Radical Democracy, and Border Pedagogy. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science, eds. G.K. Leckie et al., pp. 131-142. Libraries Unlimited, Oxford,
  • Foster, S. (1993) Information Literacy: Some Misgivings. American Libraries, 24(4), pp.344–346.
  • Gage, R. A. (2004) “Henry Giroux’s “Abandoned Generation” & Critical Librarianship”, Progressive Librarian, 23(Spring 2004), pp. 64-74.
  • Giroux, H. (2012) Education and the Crisis of Public Values. Peter Laing, New York.
  • Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum, New York.
  • Giroux, H. (2010) Lessons to be learned from Paulo Freire as education is being taken over by the mega rich. Truthout [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • IFLA (2006) Beacons of the Information Society: The Alexandria Proclamation on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • Jacobs, H.L.L.M. and Berg, S. 2011. Reconnecting Information Literacy Policy with the Core Values of Librarianship. Library Trends 60(2), pp. 383-394.
  • Kapitzke, C. (2003) (In)formation literacy: A positivist epistemology and a politics of (out)formation. Educational Theory 53(1), pp.37-53.
  • Keer, G. (2009) Critical Pedagogy and Information Literacy in Community Colleges. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.149-160. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • Kopp, B.M. and Olson-Kopp, K. (2009) Depositories of Knowledge: Library Instruction and the Development of Critical Consciousness. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.55-68. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • The National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • O’Connor, L. (2009) Information literacy as professional legitimation: The quest for professional jurisdiction. Library Review 58(4), pp. 272-289.
  • Pankl, E. and Coleman, J. (2009) “There’s nothing on my topic!” Using the theories of Oscar Wilde and Henry Giroux to develop critical pedagogy for library instruction. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.3-12. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) (2011) The SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: Core Model for Higher Education [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • Špiranec, S., & Zorica, M. B. (2010) Information Literacy 2.0: hype or discourse refinement? Journal of Documentation, 66(1), pp.140-153.
  • Torrell, M.R. (2009) Negotiating Virtual Contact Zones: Revolutions in the role of the research workshop. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.89-104. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • Whitworth (2013) The politically and socially empowering dimensions of information literacy. Chat Literacy Blog [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • Whitworth (2011) Information literacy and noöpolitics. Information Literacy: Infiltrating the agenda, challenging minds, eds. G. Walton and A. Pope, pp.187-218. Chandos Publishing, London.
picture of a mug of tea. the mug says 'where there's tea there's hope'.


This post may well be incredibly vague, but I’d like to write it anyway for a few reasons – hopefully something I write might be of use to other people doing research in the same kind of area as me, people might have helpful suggestions, and I feel a bit of pressure (probably all from myself) to write something to keep this blog remotely up to date and have something in it about what I’m doing. So. This is a sort of ‘things I’ve learnt from fieldwork’ post, but I have to keep things vague for obvious reasons. I’ve applied the general idea that if someone involved in my research reads this post, it won’t give anything away, or cause upset, or influence the data I’m collecting.

I’m three weeks into a twelve week stint of fieldwork for my PhD. I’m in a secondary school with 1,000 students or so, from age 11 to 18 (years 7 to 13 in England). I’m focusing most of my research on people aged 14-16. For those who don’t already know, my research is about critical information literacy and political agency or, less elegantly, how young people form opinions and make decisions about political issues based on the information they encounter in all its forms, and whether they’d be in a better position to participate in political processes if libraries and educators taught them about how culture promotes certain views and approaches above other ones, and how they can use an awareness of this to address various forms of social injustice. I’m doing this because I want to address how librarianship needs to be more critical in its approach to information literacy, because we can help with a lot of the issues and need to stop perpetuating some of them.

I’m three weeks in and still finding my feet. I’ve written down some very general and quite specific things I’m learning, most of which is probably blatantly obvious, but I hope it might be at least a little bit useful to someone if they come across it when they’re in a blind panic about their research.

Some Things I Am Learning:

1) It’s nigh on impossible to describe your research

I’ve done elevator pitches at numerous training events, I’ve presented my work at conferences, I’ve written abstracts with incredibly limited word counts, I’ve bored the ears off my boyfriend’s friends at work parties, I’ve even, I’m fairly sure, managed to squeeze the gist of my research topic into a couple of tweets. I’ve done a fair amount of media interviews that have required me to discuss complex issues about libraries, local politics, and public services in a way that’s comprehensible and at least a little bit interesting and engaging. Put me in front of a year group, however, and I lose the ability to describe what I’m doing and what I want to find out about completely. I’ve written information sheets to go out with the consent forms and these seem to make sense on paper, but don’t translate well in speech for some reason. I’m fairly sure at one point last week I found myself describing it as “if people are thinking about stuff when they think about stuff”, or something along those lines. This is for a few reasons, one of which is that I really have been immersed in the academic language for a long time and what makes sense to me doesn’t make sense to people who haven’t been reading about critical theory. This is actually a problem that’s raised by Rex Gibson in Critical Theory and Education (1986) – critical theorists are buggers for using long words that are difficult to think about in an everyday context. Library theory’s similar – information literacy isn’t a concept that all teachers have necessarily heard of even though it’s (arguably) a central concept for librarians. On top of that, I’m using an ‘out there’ method as part of my research – repertory grids. It’s a faff to explain and is very much one of those ‘you’ll get it when you sit down and do it’ things that works fine when you actually do it but involves several stages that are hard to describe in words. And of course, when I’m describing it, one of my usual approaches is to give “for examples”, which I don’t want to do because it might alter the responses I’d get from participants.

2) Good luck getting consent forms back

When it’s difficult to explain your research and methods, it’s difficult to explain why participation would be great and valuable and not that time-consuming and so on. As I said, my research is based in a school, where paper forms are circulated regularly and get left and lost as a matter of course. I’ve tried several approaches to urging people to bring consent forms back because I literally cannot do anything other than observe if I don’t have permission from a legal guardian because they’re under 18. There are very good ethical reasons for this, especially because although my research carries few risks and is in no way dangerous and of course participants will be anonymised, it’s about political views and where people get information from, which is potentially something that guardians don’t want their children to be involved in, and that’s entirely fair enough. I’m taking the active consent approach rather than the passive consent approach because I think it’s really important for guardians to know about what I’m doing beforehand – and if the consent forms aren’t being brought back, I can assume that the information sheets aren’t making their way into the hands of guardians.

I’ve got a handful of returned forms and I’m still trying. That makes me worry about the time I’ve got left – I’d wondered about getting someone to circulate them before I got here, but they wouldn’t have been able to answer questions that people might have and I don’t think it would have helped. However, establishing and negotiating consent is an ongoing process, and as I have to alter my methods, I’ll keep talking to participants about what I’m doing and why. Kay et al. (Eds.) (2009) Researching with Children and Young People: Research Design, Methods and Analysis has been a really great source of recommendations for issues to take into consideration, like making sure potential participants don’t feel coerced into doing the research. It’s also encouraged me to do things like just ask the participants how they’d like to do something – would they prefer to have a chat as a group, or would they rather do it alone? Is this sort of thing hard to talk about, or is it fine? Would they rather stay after school or meet at lunchtime? These are decisions I’d had to make during the methodology design that don’t necessarily meet what the participants would prefer, and it’s no great shakes for me to change my plans. After all, what I want is lots of rich data, and that comes from the participants feeling comfortable and happy to take part, especially when part of what I want to know is what are the political issues that they feel most passionately about and see how they construct their world of political information.

picture of a consent form and a textbook about repertory grids

3) It’s about quality over quantity

At least, that’s my argument and I’m sticking with it. For the type of research I’m doing, a small sample isn’t the end of the world. Given my issues with consent forms, I won’t have a huge sample. I think this will be okay – I’m not trying to identify trends or to make generalisations across a large group. I’m trying to get a sense of individuals’ perceptions and how that connects to information literacy, and the majority of the data collection is qualitative. As long as I record my field notes and observations in great detail and write about my methodology transparently, hurdles and all, I’m hoping it’ll be acceptable. If I don’t have enough data from the fieldwork, I’ve written a couple of backup plans into my methodology and can bring one of those out if it’s needed.

4) Organisation is key

Key to a) keeping on track and b) keeping you on the rails. I’ve got a spreadsheet with a page for a Gantt chart, a page with daily timetables, all kinds of things. This helps me make sure I’m getting stuff done, reorganise my schedule when I need to so that I still have time to record what I need to, and also make me feel like I’m vaguely on top of things. I also have a page where I’ve got a chart in which I record all my activities on a lesson by lesson basis. It’s easy for a day to slip by without feeling like you’ve achieved anything even though actually you have got stuff done and you don’t need to be so hard on yourself, and it’s also easy to miss opportunities for getting hold of pupils when you’ve often only got a 20 minute window per day during registration period. Google Calendar continues to be a godsend, because it reminds me about things I need to do that aren’t fieldwork. Keeping track is helpful.

I’m finding NVivo really useful not only for typing up observations (and soon I’ll be transcribing interviews), it’s also really useful for daily memos and reflections on what I’m doing and how things are changing based on circumstances and the decisions I’m making. I can imagine this will be helpful when I’ve forgotten what I was thinking when I decided to alter a way of going about something and I need to write about it.

5) No, no, flexibility. Flexibility is key.

I’ve had to make so many amendments to my planned research methods for practical reasons that I’m quite glad I don’t have anything too set in stone. Being organised (in theory) helps me work out how I can reorganise, but being flexible makes it possible. Even in terms of a research approach, I’ve found that the way I think about things is changing as I learn more about the research environment and the participants. Sometimes, no amount of theory can prepare you for reality. (I promised you I’d be vague…)

6) School life is really tiring!

This is a bit whinge whinge moan but also practical. It’s important to look after yourself and pace yourself! I’m not a late riser so I thought I’d be fine, but good grief 6:30am starts are kicking my ass. There’s something especially draining about strip lighting and the way air circulates around school buildings that I’d forgotten about. It’s also really hard to regulate your temperature (increasingly so as the weather gets warmer) and really easy to forget about lunch (or as happens more often for me, eat your lunch at 10am because 7am is no time to put food in yourself). I get home shattered and I’m good for nothing, which is not great because I could really do with putting another couple of hours in in the evening. Early nights are my friends. As is tea.

picture of a mug of tea and a laptop

7) Doing something creative and/or destressy is really important

I’m worried about not collecting enough data. I’m worried about not collecting the right data. I’m worried about running out of time. I’m worried about doing something wrong. I’m worried about not being able to talk to the participants well. I’m worried about technical issues. I’m worried that I still haven’t got a proper neat and tidy literature review let alone a well-written methodology. I’m worried that I haven’t even started writing a conference paper that’s due in less than a fortnight (even if I do have a detailed plan carved out of the last productive anxiety streak). I’m worried about my cats in Glasgow even though I know they’re being very well looked after by my incredible friend. I’m worried that all of my friends have forgotten me and never liked me anyway. Inwardly, I’m a knot of anxiety. I really don’t know what I’d be like if I didn’t have knitting and spinning to come home to.

picture of a hand wearing a knitted glove

picture of a knitted shawl close up

I’ve made about 70 projects since last February, from facecloths to cardigans and elaborate shawls. I’ve tried as wide a variety of techniques as I’ve felt brave enough for (not onto steeking just yet…). I’ve also taken up spinning, which I swore I Would Not Do until I was a Grownup and had the time and money to devote to another craft. I was also a bit reluctant to go Full Yarny I think. However.

picture of a spinning wheel

This is my Joy. It’s from a second hand shop and is the victim of a terrible stain-job. It needed a bit of doing up, which helped me get to know how it works and what it needs. It’s very helpful when I’m feeling too shattered to do anything complicated. I can’t tell you how theraputic spinning is. It can be the complete opposite of course when you’re learning, but although I’m not very good yet, I have got to the stage where I can spend a couple of hours spinning merrily away making consistent yarn and drafting (badly) without it breaking and having to stop to set things back up again. I’ve started taking my drop spindle on train journeys for when my brain’s too fried for reading or knitting. It’s relaxing and the source of some interesting chats with passengers. Spreading the fibre love! (Yeah…I’m one of those now.)

As well as really enjoying the process, I also really enjoy the feeling of having made something. When I feel like everything’s going wrong, to be able to wrap myself up in a shawl that was a pile of fluff not very long ago, and feel like I’ve created something beautiful makes all the difference.

I guess all I’ve really said in quite a lot of words is that I’m finding it helpful to work hard but keep a sense of perspective. I’d love to know how other people are finding or found their first few weeks of fieldwork, because it can be quite an isolated and detached experience.

One Year In

A very overdue update on what I’ve been up to!

I’ve reached the one year mark in the PhD process and although there’s a very long way to go with a lot of hard work ahead, apparently I’m on track! My research topic’s altered slightly and become more specific, from the role of public libraries in supporting and encouraging democratic engagement, to the ways critical information literacy instruction can enable people to have political agency, which isn’t all that different in the ultimate goal of contributing to a stronger democracy, but is significantly different that I’ve got to connect the dots and make it clear that it does connect to the original proposal somehow.

So, I submitted a written report on my progress so far and where I’m going next, and yesterday I gave a presentation to my supervisors and another member of the department, who made really helpful recommendations and suggestions. It really wasn’t as terrifying or stressful as I was expecting! It was a positive experience and has re-enthused me after a bit of a difficult winter. I have a lot of work to do still, but this is where I am so far:

In terms of presenting on my work and library-related things, I’ve had some great opportunities in the last year, most of which I’ve already written about. Here’s the presentation I gave at the SHARP Conference in Dublin, and updated and gave to some Masters students in the department a couple of weeks ago:

What’s next? My fieldwork starts in April, so I’ve got to get my methodology up to scratch before then, I’d like to make more progress on my literature review and I’ve got a couple of papers to write for the LILAC and Umbrella conferences, both of which I’m really looking forward to. The LILAC paper will focus mainly on my methods/methodology and what I’m aiming towards, and the Umbrella paper is a discussion of professional issues regarding the responsibilities of library and information workers to engage with substantive, political issues in information literacy education. I’ve applied to present at another couple of conferences and I’m going to try for an ESRC internship for the summer/autumn.

LIS DREaM Workshop 3: Edinburgh

Last week I attended the last of three workshops in the LIS DREaM series, in Edinburgh (I’ve also reported on workshops one and two). The sessions were all informative, and some were of particular interest as potential research methods for my PhD.

Repertory Grids

I found the session on repertory grids particularly useful. The repertory grid (RG) is an interviewing technique that enables the researcher to elicit “both the conceptual content embodied in an individual’s mental model and the relationships which exist among these concepts” (Latta and Swigger, 1992). This is something I’m going to investigate further because a lot of the reading I’ve been doing around political behaviour and how people conceptualise politics highlight the issue that politics is a very personal topic. In addition, people’s attitudes and behaviours are not always rational or directly influenced by knowledge, and are often influenced by heuristics or rules of thumb.

I want to talk to teenagers about their attitudes towards politics and participation, and what political issues they think are important to them, rather than assuming that I know what matters to young people. In order to do that properly, and talk about issues that are actually relevant, I need to be able to identify and define those topics. The use of repertory grids as a scoping tool prior to in-depth interviews seems like a good way of doing this. Dr. Turner pointed out that using a method like this with cards and scraps of paper is a very unthreatening way of getting a lot of information out of people, and I think this will be a benefit when talking about such a personal and potentially emotionally-charged issue.

I can also use my findings to identify any possible trends and groupings of concepts when the data from the grids is turned into chart form. Dr. Turner recommended Repgrid for this, but there’s also an open source alternative. OpenRepGrid – this is an add-on to R, which is free statistical computing software. I’d never heard of R until a Researcher’s Digest session in my department a few weeks ago, and I’ve never used statistical software before, so at some point in the future I’m going to have to acquaint myself with it. I imagine bucket-loads of coffee will be required.

This week I’m reading about the use of RGs in Information Science, including the following journal articles:

  • Birdi, B. (2011). ‘Investigating fiction reader characteristics using personal construct theory’. Aslib Proceedings, 63 (2/3), pp.275-294.
  • Crudge, S.E. & Johnson, F.C. (2004). ‘Using the information seeker to elicit construct models for search engine evaluation’. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55 (9), pp.794-806. 
  • Latta, G.F. & Swigger, K. (1992). ‘Validation of the Repertory Grid for Use in Modeling Knowledge’. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 43 (2), p.115.
  • Madigan, D. et al. (1995). ‘Repertory hypergrids for large-scale hypermedia linking’. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 43, pp.465-481.
  • McKnight, C. (2000). ‘The personal construction of information space’. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (8), pp.730-733.
  • Mengshoel, O.J. (1995). ‘A reformulation technique and tool for knowledge interchange during knowledge acquisition’. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 43, pp.177-212.
  • Oppenheim, C., Stenson, J. & Wilson, R.M.S. (2003). ‘Studies on Information as an Asset II: Repertory Grid’. Journal of Information Science, 29 (5), pp.419-432.
  • Potthoff, J.K. et al. (2000). ‘An Evaluation of Patron Perceptions of Library Space Using the Role Repertory Grid Procedure’. College and Research Libraries, 61 (3), pp.191-203.
  • Rugg, G. & McGeorge, P. (2005). ‘The sorting techniques: a tutorial paper on card sorts, picture sorts and item sorts’. Expert Systems, 22 (3), pp.94-107.
  • Whyte, G., Bytheway, A. & Edwards, C. (1997). ‘Understanding user perceptions of information systems success’. The Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 6 (1), pp.35-68.

Discussions about research and practice

Much as the sessions were all interesting introductions to different research methods, I found that the conversations snuck in between talks were also of great value (and wish we’d had time for more). Along with the final session of the day – impact snakes and ladders – I found that some issues I have about the ‘state of the profession’ and current goings on are shared with others. For the final session we were split into groups and asked to answer some questions, then join with another group to share our responses, which roughly lined up with one another. My group, full-time PhD researchers, was paired with the group of public library workers.

The questions we were asked to answer were these:

  1. To what extent do you consider that it is a PhD student’s responsibility to ensure that their PhD study has impact?
  2. What strategies have members of your group developed to ensure that your PhD project is having/has impact?
  3. Are there any particular difficulties with ensuring that your project has impact when you are a PhD student?

And the public librarians were asked these:

LIS researchers would like to complete projects to support librarians in delivering their services.
a) What do researchers need to do to make this happen?
b) Are there any particular difficulties for public librarians in accessing and using LIS research? How could these be addressed?

We were asked to discuss issues of relationships between research and practice and come up with recommendations about how to improve communication and getting research into practice etc. The usual suggestions came up, including ‘continuous discourse’, ‘networking events’ and ‘communicating with each other’. This is all well and good, and I appreciate the value of events such as the LIS DREaM Project and the work that goes into them, but I think the issues we have go far deeper than putting researchers and a few interested practitioners in a room with each other. No amount of that will solve the underlying systemic issues that exist within higher levels of the profession, and stem from a lack of appreciation of the values and principles of public libraries and the point of academic research.

This isn’t something new and is an ongoing problem. A number of our ‘solutions’, ironically, were things that used to exist. And quite frankly, it’s a crime that they don’t any more. Public Library Journal, for example, was the only UK journal that published the kind of research that’s actually useful and potentially implementable by practitioners. And without consultation or notice, CILIP killed it.

We suggested publishing research that promoted improvement and innovation in library services, and demonstrated the value of libraries to society. If only there was some kind of government department that ‘got’ that kind of thing. It could maybe include related services…museums, and archives, perhaps. We could call it the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. What’s that, we had one? Oh, the coalition government got rid of it? Bummer.

A number of us also felt quite strongly that although high-quality research is being conducted in academic departments across the UK, its impact is severely limited if those in control within library services find it inconvenient to listen and respond to the results in a meaningful way. This is if researchers can even get access to library services to research within in the first place, which for various reasons can be incredibly difficult.

Thanks to Hazel and everyone involved in the workshop for another useful and thought-provoking day.

SHARP Conference, Dublin

I’m going to be speaking at the SHARP Conference in Dublin at the end of June, with Professor Claire Squires and my supervisor David McMenemy. In fact, we’re lucky enough (?) to be the very first session on the very first day of the conference. The programme is available here.

Our bit is about this:

The Fight for Libraries: 21st Century Advocacy, Austerity and Alliance

  • David McMenemy (University of Strathclyde) Losing the library faith? The public library ethos in an era of austerity
  • Lauren Smith (University of Strathclyde) Advocating for libraries in an era of cuts
  • Claire Squires (University of Stirling) Uneasy Alliances: Libraries and the UK Book Trade in the 21st Century

I’m really excited to be presenting for the first time as a PhD researcher (although what I’ll be talking about isn’t within the remit of my research and is based on my experiences and what I’ve learnt over the last couple of years as an activist/advocate/interested party) and it looks like a really varied programme with an audience who might not usually be exposed to library and information science research and goings on, which is always a good thing. I’m a bit disappointed that I’ll be missing Alistair Black’s session, which will be happening at the same time as mine, but I’m looking forward to the rest of my time there.

Here’s a bit of blurb about the conference:

The 20th Annual SHARP Conference
The Battle for Books
26-29 June 2012
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

“In a city like Dublin, which has been home to Swift, Wilde and Joyce one
naturally thinks of ‘The Battle for Books’ in terms of censorship,
constraint and restraint. This major international conference will address
these topics but will also consider the concept of ‘the battle for books’ as
broadly as possible.

More than 180 papers will be presented at the conference. Keynote speakers
include Professor Ann Blair (Harvard), Professor Germaine Warkentin (Toronto),
Professor Nicholas Cronk (Oxford), Professor Claire Connolly (Cardiff),
Professor James Raven (Essex), and Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS.

This conference will bring the leading practitioners in the field of ‘book
history’ from around the world to Dublin, a city which has recently been
designed as a UNESCO City of Literature.

If you are interested in books, and the cultural, social and economic
conditions in which books are produced and consumed, you should not miss this