Tag Archives: research

Content Filtering in Libraries

Happy New Year! Just a quick post on this poor neglected blog to signpost to some research done by some people involved in the Radical Librarians Collective on content filtering in public libraries.

The study sought to find out what filtering is in place within public libraries, because there is the potential for excessive filtering to act as a barrier to freedom of access to information. The team felt that although filtering is a very tricky topic and there are often good reasons for libraries to want to filter content, that the methods used to do so may take a very broad brush approach with the potential to do more harm than good. This builds on the MAIPLE study conducted by Loughborough University.

The research team used Freedom of Information requests to ask every local authority in the UK the following questions:

1. Do you employ the use of content filtering software on the PCs
based in your libraries which are connected to the internet and
intended for use by the users of your library?

If answer to 1. is “yes”, please:

2. Provide the name and annual cost of the content filtering
software.

3. Provide a full list of the categories of websites blocked (e.g.
“pornography, gambling, phishing etc.”). If these differ according
to the user profile accessing the PC (e.g. child, student, adult,
staff etc.) please provide a full list of categories of websites
blocked for each user profile.

4. Confirm whether you also block specific URLs in addition to
categories, and provide a complete list of these URLs.

5. Provide the relevant policy document or written documentation
which outlines the procedure a user must follow in instances where
they would like to gain access to a website that is blocked.

6. From January 2013 until the present day, please provide a list
of the URLs where users have requested access to despite them being
blocked by the content filtering software.

7. Of the list provided in 6., please detail which URLs access was
granted for and which were denied.

Most local authorities provided information (although some did refuse). The data was collated and has now been published on figshare.

The aim of the research team is to do some analysis of the key trends and write an article around it, as well as to present the work at the LILAC Conference in Dublin in March.

The data has been picked up by The Register and I was asked to talk to them about it for an article they published today.

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Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England

Libraryland and the media are abuzz with the newly (finally) released Independent Library Report for England. The recommendations from the report can be broadly summed up as:

  • build a ‘national digital resource’
  • write a strategic framework for libraries in England (Wales have already done this and Scotland are working on one right now)
  • have national strategic leadership (led by councils)
  • appeal to everyone
  • get wifi in all libraries
  • improve library spaces so they’re up to “retail standard”
  • share best practice through guidelines for volunteers and community-led libraries
  • remember libraries are about learning and literacy
  • support digital literacy
  • use central government funding allocations for related services
  • (perhaps) national library cards
  • get copyright law changed so that public libraries can lend ebooks better than they can now (remote loans)
  • strengthen the workforce especially through new recruits and graduates

Unsurprisingly I’ve got some thoughts about this, some of which I’ll be talking about in various radio interviews in the coming days, but a quick and dirty summary:

The talk about a digital network for libraries is grand, and I’m pleased there’s also an emphasis that this should not be to the detriment of physical stock.

None of this is new. Being more like retail outlets, encouraging community involvement etc. are all recommendations that have come out of previous reports and things that librarians have been talking about for years. Some local authorities responded to the recommendations from the last umpteen reports, but some of them had already experienced such budget cuts that it was impossible to actually do the things they wanted and knew they needed to do. How will it be different now, with the next round of cuts coming up? I don’t see a big pot of money emerging from anywhere for doing things that don’t obviously contribute to the current administration’s neolibprivatisationcitizenconsumerbigsociety agenda, so I expect the majority of libraries – that will probably have to compete with each other to get the necessarily limited funding, which somewhat contradicts the ‘we’re all in this together let’s have a standard level of service nationally’ – will only be able to get wifi, redecorate, put a coffee bar in and get self service machines if they don’t already have them. Money won’t as easily be made available to invest in the qualified staff trained in supporting information and digital literacy, digital fluency, whatever different stakeholders are calling essentially the same thing. As a result, emphasis is going to be made on the how libraries contribute to employability agenda rather than the concept of libraries as an intrinsic public good. And that’ll be disappointing, and probably not help with the goal of articulating the value of public libraries that Sieghart talks about. Spending a bunch of cash on helping libraries deliver services associated with the digital by default agenda of government doesn’t really help libraries, it just helps government deliver services unrelated to libraries, through libraries. It might force a few more people to enter the library building against their will, but it’s not going to get them invested in the notion of the public library.

WiFi. Yes, god, yes. It blows my mind that all public libraries don’t already have WiFi, but it’s for two reasons: 1) there’s no money 2) local authorities make it an absolute nightmare for libraries to install it. I’d like to see a whole bunch of money for it, and I’d like to see the government write a standard document for councils to use as a policy for installing wifi, and one standardised document that can serve as an Acceptable Use Policy for all of the library services to ask users of the computers and library WiFi. Scotland’s already working on this, I recommend England get on board. Similarly, elending as it stands is a complete shambles so I can only support efforts to make DRM less restricting and make ebooks through libraries fit for purpose, which they currently categorically are not.

The development of a library taskforce will in many ways be duplicating various other fragmented groups and communities of practice that already exist, but fine, whatever. My main concern with this is the recommendation that it be led by councils, who, in my experience, are possibly the least informed, least knowledgeable and least engaged stakeholders in the whole shebang. The representatives from councils usually haven’t set foot in a library in the last 30 years, if ever, know little about the ethos of public services let alone the specifics of public library ethics, and aren’t motivated to connect the strategic aims of the council’s wider services and duties to public libraries. When you have to spend half your time explaining to the council members that public libraries are a statutory duty, how they’re about more than just books and how they contribute to literacy, community, and the general public good, you’re on to a loser. If the council members involved in the taskforce are the ones who’ve already been converted or have always been on ‘our team’, then fine, but I’m not sure how the message is going to be communicated to the council members who’ve never given a hoot. If the DCMS doesn’t mandate a national set of standards and actually hold councils to those standards, nothing’s going to change in those authorities that are running poor services. (I get the impression from the report that trying to compel the DCMS to do its job was decided to be a bad move politically – Vaizey’s thrown his toys out of the pram before and libraries are a sore spot.)

I’m also concerned about the idea that working “in partnership with others interested in the sector” – if these interested parties have the same amount of power and influence as those in the taskforce who actually spent time learning about libraries, and use experience, research and evidence to inform their opinions and approaches, rather than principles from retail or some kind of profit motivation – then that’s going to be a problem. Support from other areas will be of benefit, no doubt, but it’s the voice of the profession that needs to have the ultimate say, not individuals and groups with ulterior motives and less knowledge. I don’t have (much of) an issue with the organisations listed (apart from the LGA who still don’t acknowledge that libraries are a statutory service and don’t understand the first thing about libraries), it’s the “amongst others” that concerns me.

If you want greater cross government recognition you need to fund research to produce evidence about the educational role of libraries, for example. You also need researchers who can do this. We’re losing our library schools in universities, and the researchers who work in them. The two aren’t especially compatible.

If you want your 21st century librarian to have digital and commercial expertise you already have those, but there aren’t any jobs for them. You also, by the way, need to teach them about how commercial principles can only be applied so far in public services where there isn’t a profit motive, and that kind of critical engagement isn’t done enough on librarianship courses (although some places do and that’s great)*. If you want these wonderful impresarios to work for a service, you need to pay them properly. Public librarians get paid very low wages. You need to pay them for their expertise.

What exactly is it that makes people in positions of power think communities could or should be responsible for the management of public services? Fine, get opinions and make sure consultations are actually meaningful, don’t ask for opinions if you’re not prepared to actually act on the feedback if it’s strongly for or against something. Fine, get communities involved in making decisions about colour schemes for decorating or new book stock, but the ultimate decisions need to be made by people who’ve actually learnt about what colour schemes aren’t going to work with the principles of universal design, and what book stock should or shouldn’t be included in a collection because not stocking it for political or religious reasons would be censorship, or stocking it would be harmful to individuals and groups within a community. This is stuff communities mostly won’t know or think about, and do you know, I don’t necessarily think they should have to. I think that’s what taxes are for – paying for public services that are run by people who know stuff about how to do it properly, in the public interest.

Encouraging community involvement in library management “through a variety of models” surely just adds to the inconsistencies across England (and the UK more widely) in terms of library management. They already sit in several different directorates across different local authorities, there’s already a mishmash of different service structures that are the result of differing approaches to salami-slicing cuts for the last twenty-odd years. Asking for different models of management at the same time as asking for increased consistency is a contradiction.

There is hardly any attention given to the role of libraries in supporting literacy and learning, be that for school-aged children or older learners. Schools are mentioned three times – once to do with how TeachFirst has been good, once to mention that school libraries exist, and once to mention in passing that partnerships with schools and public libraries would be good. The fact that there’s so weak a relationship between the education system and libraries is something that continues to baffle me, but I think it’s probably linked to the lack of research and evidence for something that ought to be a given.

So yes, that’s my initial take on it, but I may well change my mind on things the more it’s discussed!

* Pedronicus has written a post on the precarious position of librarianship education in the UK which is well worth a read.

Featured image CC by interactivesomerville

Radical Librarians Collective (Part One)

Part One of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

This post discusses what RLC is, where it was held and what sessions happened. I’ll be writing more posts about the sessions I attended soon!

What’s the Radical Librarians Collective?

It’s both an online and physical space, where people who are starting off from the general point of view that there are some problems in the way that libraries and information services of various kinds function in society, can discuss those issues. It covers all sorts – how we catalogue resources, how we do outreach, how library management is structured, how education is viewed in society, how publicly-funded research is often not accessible…

“Radical Librarians Collective aims to offer a space to challenge, to provoke, to improve and develop the communications between like-minded radicals, to galvanise our collective solidarity against the marketisation of libraries and the removal of our agency to our working worlds and beyond.”

Last year the first RLC event was held in Bradford, and this time round it was held in London. They’ve taken the form of ‘unconferences’, where there’s a general structure to the day but it’s far less formal and planned. I had the pleasure of being involved in the organising and running of the RLC event this time round, and can very much recommend getting involved in whatever capacity you can if this is the kind of thing you’re interested in. I found both events especially positive for lots of reasons.

Attendees were starting on the same page despite the wide variety of industry and work backgrounds they came from and it wasn’t necessary to spend a long time getting past the fundamentals, like the radical notion that access to information is a good thing, or that claiming libraries are democratic needs to be backed up in their actions. At other events I’ve often felt like there’s too much of a leap between the normative and uncritical point the event takes off from to get to the critical and challenging stuff, and it’s great to be able to miss the middle bit and head straight to the meaty stuff.

The question of “what do we do about it?” was very much in focus throughout, and people were happy to share practical examples and suggestions about how they can improve situations. So many ideas were being thrown around and the day ended with a plenary session where we shared what things we can do as individuals and groups to improve the things we want to improve. Mega-positive. Even discussions where I was able to share a negative feeling about something and have someone else not be able to fix it, but say “yeah that’s a thing and it sucks, it’s not just you”, I found really helped me feel less isolated and far more resilient. It sounds obvious but I think I’d forgotten that there’s such power in finding out you’re not alone. However, that certainly wasn’t the main content of the day and productivity far outweighed any sense of hopelessness.

There was a real emphasis on the non-hierarchical nature of the events, and it very much felt like although attendees definitely varied in levels of experience and different backgrounds, everyone’s input was respected and valued. I’m aware that different people have different levels of comfort about participating in discussions, but of all the events I’ve been to, this felt like one where there was a very non-judgemental environment and there was plenty of space for anyone to say pretty much whatever they liked (within the safe spaces policy) without fear of reproach. I was on both sides of discussions that started with things like “oh god I was so intimidated by you but you’re like, a normal person” and “I’m so sorry if I offended you, I was just disagreeing” and it was a complete breath of fresh air to be able to actually disagree with people and them be okay with it and stand up for what they thought and work out where there were differences and commonalities to work from and to just feel comfortable with a bunch of totally awesome people. I really hope that was everyone else’s experience and if not I’d really like to know how I can be part of making things better next time round if anyone did feel uncomfortable. (I harbour fears of coming across as a complete jerk, rightly or wrongly, and being anxious about not being told if I’m a jerk is the suckiest thing.)

All of the things I’ve talked about above are issues that RLC have been very aware of since the beginning and served as part of the motivation for getting started in the first place, so I’m really glad that it seems to have happened in action.

What’s LARC?

The London Action Resource Centre (LARC) is a collectively run building providing space and resources for people and groups working on self-organised, non-hierarchical projects for radical social change. The resources of the building include:

  • a main hall area with chairs and couches, a small kitchenette with tea making facilities, used for meetings or small gatherings
  • an office space with chairs, desks and internet facilities
  • a rooftop garden
  • a radical reference library that overlooks the main hall area
  • a banner-making and tool space in the basement

I was so impressed with this space. The people involved in LARC were so helpful and generous during the planning process and it served our needs really well. I think RLC-folk in London intend to use the space again, and I think that’s a really great idea. The only problem I can think of would be that it’s not an especially accessible building, so that would need to be taken into consideration for any future events. However, it was easy to get to, the wifi held up, there was plenty of space and the rooms were great. For fear of tooting a horn I shouldn’t be, I think the organisers did a grand job of overcoming some of the obstacles that needed sorting before and on the day (chairs! cups! coffee!)

a photo collage from radliblon

What happened on the day?

The structure of the day went a bit like this:

Registration and pitches (10-10:25)

Turn up, get your name ticked off, make a name badge, have a cuppa, listen to some session pitches and maybe pitch a session yourself. Some people had added their suggested sessions to the wiki beforehand so we had an idea about how many people wanted to ‘run’ or facilitate a session, but some people (like me!) just suggested something on the day. There was a real emphasis on the fact that if you were interested in a topic, you should pitch it and see if anyone else was interested in talking about it, and preparation was not an issue (in fact, positively discouraged!)

For the sessions, we used three rooms and three sessions ran at the same time. People were welcome to wander in and out of them as they fancied, but I think for the most part people stuck around.

First round of sessions (10:30-11:25)

  • Neoliberal Education: In the context of an ’employer-led’ education system, and amidst increasing marketisation and penetration of neo-conservative ideology, what can the college or school library do to promote free-thinking and wider reading? Where is the dividing line between promoting open-mindedness and pushing your own beliefs, and are there any professional risks to going ‘off-message’ in a college library service?
  • Censorship: Is it okay for librarians to promote the signing of a petition to ban The Sun from libraries? Spoilers: no – but why and why do some of them think it is? What can we do about it? How can we prevent censorship in general? (I pitched this and will be writing about it later)
  • Libraries as a feminist issue: A discussion about inequality within and without LIS structures. Or, indeed, possible solutions/opportunities for change.

Second round of sessions (11:30-12:25)

  • Public Service Mutuals: The coalition government wants to see public services ‘spun out’ into staff-led mutuals and co-ops as part of their vision for ‘open public services’. York Libraries and Archives have already gone down this route with Birmingham Libraries following closely behind. The implications are that public libraries will have to become more business-like, how does this fit with our ethos? Do SocEnts, trusts and co-operative councils pose the same threats? Is this part of a genuine desire to maintain strong public services, empower workers/users/communities and improve service quality or an ideologically driven desire to shrink the state and cut public spending?
  • Information as Commodity: challenges and implications for libraries and information workers. Using Marx’s analysis of money-commodities cycle in Capital vol. 1 as a starting point.
  • Radicalising the Professional Routes: (Ian won’t mind me saying that the pitch didn’t really reflect the reality of the discussion so I’ll describe what was discussed!) Problems with professional qualifications, vocational vs. theoretical focus and benefits/drawbacks, preparation for the workplace, opportunities for discussion, employer support, how to fix the problems (I went to this session and will be writing about it later)

Lunch! (12:30 – 1:25)

A delicious vegan spread catered by Shambhu’s. I have to say, one of the most valuable things I learned on the day was that cucumber and fresh coriander are a heavenly combination.

After lunch we had a second round of pitching, because we’d deliberately left some space in the afternoon for more sessions that might come out of discussions in the morning.

Third round of sessions (1:30 – 2:25)

  • Critical Theory in LIS: Should employers be training employees and academic courses be encouraging those undertaking LIS studies to be producing and developing critically-founded knowledge? Libraries have a steeped history in social politics and the neutrality that emanates from the contemporary sphere appears to continue a wider narrative of passivity from individuals that have lost agency in the political domain: Is the often assumed objective, neutral position of the profession is a flawed limitation, and is there a lack of critical foundation within the field of LIS? Has this contributed to a depoliticisation (or political apathy) across the field? Without critically aware staff, how can the library and information professions be said to be informing, enhancing, assisting, teaching or training information skills to their patrons? Can we locate and provide relevant information and sources of information without critically evaluating at subjective and intra-subjective levels? (I was involved in this session and will be writing about it later)
  • Surveillance: Discussion about the abuse of digital assets, governments and third parties collecting data and the importance of knowing our digital rights.
  • What is a ‘Professional’?: Discussing issues and problems with the divisions created between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ staff. What does ‘professional’ even mean?

Fourth round of sessions (2:30 – 3:25)

  • Libraries and Youth: Discussion about how insights from youth work can help us get youths using libraries and more. Do youths need to be using libraries? What does effective outreach look like?
  • How do we put these discussions into practice in the workplace and how can we deal with problems in the workplace?
  • How can we do things as citizens and get more people involved? The little and big things we can do to try to make a difference.
Plenary (3:30-4:30)

Round-up of the key things that had come out of the sessions, working out what to do next. The organisers of this event would very much like to just be able to attend the next one, and really don’t want to create the sense that it’s a small group of ‘usual’ organisers who are in charge of anything. This belongs to everyone and it’s someone else’s go to do it next! It’d also be great to get smaller, more regular little meet-ups going on a regional basis, and the @RadicalLibs twitter account can help put people in touch with others in their area. There’s going to be a delegate list where people can add their regional and contact details on the wiki. If anyone needs help with using a wiki, @RadicalLibs can help there too.

And then we had a lovely time having some drinks and playing some music and talking about skate videos of the 1990s.

 There’ll be plenty more written about what happened on the day (not just by me!) so do let us know if you’ve written something so we can put a link to it on the wiki.

picture of a mug of tea. the mug says 'where there's tea there's hope'.

Fieldwork

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.

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.