Fall update: getting back into research mode

Getting back into research mode takes a bit of adjustment. Course assignments for LIS classes notwithstanding, it’s been over 3 years since I tackled legitimate academic research outside of my coursework. The time has come to jump back on the wagon* and I’ve been thinking: how will it be different this time around?

Before, I was working on a master’s degree in the humanities, now it’s a master’s in the information sciences. Before, I was studying a text, now I’m studying people. Before, my organizational system was entirely analog, now it is almost entirely digital. I want to explore some of these changes in more detail.

Transition #1: From Humanities research to the Information Sciences

This is the hardest of all the transitions. When I first learned how to do proper research, I was studying English literature and using methodology texts like Booth’s The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press). Now, I look to reference works such as Creswell’s Research design : qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (Sage Publications) and Neuman’s Social research methods : qualitative and quantitative approaches (Pearson). More than just the subject matter and the audience, the way that I think about a research project in terms of its objectives, its methodology, and its impact has fundamentally changed. For one, it has become more social. While humanities research, especially in the digital realm, is moving toward more collaborative opportunities, the subject has traditionally been a place for the solitary researcher. The infrastructure of scholarly communication and peer review requires a certain amount of cooperation, but the humanities scholar can do her most complex research almost entirely on her own. To some extent, it is even expected. With LIS research, the expectation is very different. Quite often, research is done as part of a team. Working well with others is a prerequisite for the job and, at least in my LIS program, heavily emphasized.

Transition #2: From working with texts to working with people

Not only has the method changed, but so has the medium. As a humanities grad student, I focused all my time and thought on a particular text or groups of texts. My attention was spent examining the words on the page, searching for an essential “thing” in the work. As an LIS students, my attention is drawn to the thoughts, actions, and needs of other people, the user. Research in the information sciences focus on the relationship between people and information, how they interpret it, how it affects them, and how they use it. What is most practical is often deemed as the most essential. While social theory, cognitive science, and hermeneutics certainly play an important role in literary and historical theory, in the information sciences, they are the sina qua non.

Transition #3: From analog organization to digital organization

If the conceptual changes were not enough, my work flow has changed dramatically since my days as a humanities student. It was not until late 2007 that I fully jumped on the bandwagon of digital knowledge management. Up until then, I still kept notes on paper (or printed them out) and stored research in binders and hanging file folders. I preferred monographs to serials and print editions to electronic (which probably crippled many of my undergraduate papers). Still, it was easier to manage all the information that way: if I couldn’t lay it all out in front of me, it was too much. Now, I keep everything in digital format. I have not gone as far to adopt a universal inbox like Evernote; I still set up hierarchical folders for all my information. But everything is synced to the cloud and all my information is available from multiple devices.

Moving forward is going to be rough. Once I manage to settle on a topic and begin the research process, I will probably find myself stumbling along the way. Obviously, some of my findings and thoughts will work their way to this space. My plan is to build the foundation for a legitimate research project by the end of next year (when I will graduate) that could be continued (possibly with funding) in more depth under the auspices of some institute of higher education. We shall see. Until then, my objective is to get back into research mode and to start thinking like a serious academic again.

So what are your thoughts?  Have you transitioned from one field of research to another?  What was your experience?  Please share it in the comments!


*I made a promise that if a certain opportunity didn’t pan out (it didn’t), I would utilize my free time toward a research project. Hence…

Leisure is…

“a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear. Such stillness as this is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness […] Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion in the real.”

Pieper, J. (1998). Leisure: The Basis of Culture. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press.

Running universities like wikipedia?

Asks The Chronicle:

“First, it wouldn’t have formal admissions, said Mr. Staley, director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at Ohio State University. People could enter and exit as they wished. It would consist of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students “not unlike the original idea for the university, in the Middle Ages,” he said. Its curriculum would be intellectually fluid.”

Hm, I don’t know about this… Wikipedia’s purpose is to inform. A university’s purpose is to educate. The two are not synonymous. But I would support increased collaboration, even within the administrative sphere, between faculty and students.

Incidental information acquisition in academic libraries

In her 2006 article, Heinström discusses an event called “incidental information acquisition.” We’ve all experienced it before: while looking for one piece of information, you come across another piece of information the you had unsuccessfully searched for in the past. For example, a while back I remember hearing a review of a book on the radio that caught my interest, but by the time I arrived at work, I’d forgotten the title. I searched unsuccessfully online. NPR hadn’t published its stories for the day on its website yet and so I forgot about it and moved on to other tasks. Until one day a few months later I was in a bookstore and saw the book on a display of new releases and I remembered having searched for book.

Heinström studied 3 groups of users: college students, older adults, and 6th-12th graders. Of those surveyed, 77% claimed they had had similar IIA experiences. Heinström wanted to know if there were any psychological characteristics that predisposed users to IIA. She determined that the following characteristics encourage IIA events:

  • the tendency to regularly and broadly scan information sources
  • having previous knowledge of the subject
  • intrinsic motivation
  • general feelings of confidence, certainty, and satisfaction

Roberts (1989) also looked for similar psychological characteristics and determined that attributes such as sagacity, awareness, curiosity, flexible thinking, and persistence increased the likelihood of IIA.

As librarians, how can we influence and encourage these characteristics to support serendipitous discovery of information? If we are lucky enough to teach semester-long courses or have specific students assigned to us (check out Drexel’s new program), perhaps we may have the opportunity. But between the ready reference questions and the one-off sessions, when do we ever have the chance to help students develop deep, psychological traits such as “curiosity” or “sagacity”?

Perhaps we should look elsewhere. Williamson (1998) examined information seeking, communication behaviors, and telecommunications uses and concluded that personal characteristics, socio-economic circumstances, values, lifestyles and physical environments influence IIA in some way: specifically, those aspects influence how often and effectively people monitor their world. Again, with the exception of physical environments, there seems to be little here librarians can work with to influence the particular factors that affect and increase the potential for IAA.

Nonetheless, librarians are trying and doing what they can given the time and resources they have to increase discoverability. As librarians, we are changing the way we use space and designing libraries that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but that offer a wide range of resources and tools (information commons, media labs, coffee shops, lounges, group study rooms, multi-media classrooms). We are reinterpreting our online catalogs using pre-indexing functions to improve search results and redesigning them to improve their look and feel. Librarians are reaching out to student groups and moving beyond the walls of the library, both physically and virtually, to increase their visibility and let students know that someone is always available to help, even at 4am in the morning. We are changing ourselves and striving to change our environments and transform the context in which users access and seek information.

But is it enough? Can friendly circulation staff inspire curiosity? Does redesigning a search interface build confidence? Can virtual chat reference change someone’s economic circumstances? Do RSS feeds in the OPAC promote critical thinking skills? Can a collection development policy inspire lifelong learning? Can a coffee shop increase the equitability of access? Can metadata teach users about confidentiality?

Forecasting aside (as delightful as that diversion is), there is still the issue of how librarians can encourage IIA when so many of factors that encourage it are out of our control. A recent article by Schroeder & Cahoy (2010) may provide an answer. In their analysis and discussion of the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and the AASL Standards for the 21st century Learner, they call upon librarians and educators to pay more attention to affective learning outcomes. In their definition, this includes “a person’s attitudes, emotions, interests, motivation, self-efficacy, and values”: the very same characteristics mentioned above that encourage serendipitous discovery of information! While they recognize the time constraints imposed on most librarian-student interactions, Schroeder & Cahoy provide a conceptual model for encouraging the traits that favor IIA and inspire “positive feelings” in students. Perhaps, we should start here.

What do you think? Is it the goal of an academic library to create an environment that fosters incidental information acquisition and helps students build personal traits that encourage it? If so, how? If not, why?


Heinström, J. (2006). Psychological factors behind incidental information acquisition. Library & Information Science Research, 28(4), 579-594.

Roberts, R.M. (1989) Serendipity: Accidental discoveries in science, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Schroeder, R., & Cahoy, E. S. (2010). Valuing information literacy: affective learning and the ACRL standards. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(2), 127-146.

Williamson, K. (1998). Discovered by chance: the role of incidental information acquisition in an ecological model of information use. Library & Information Science Research, 20(1), 23-40.

Quote of the day: The Librarian edition

[setting: job interview at library]

Administrator: What makes you think you could be the librarian?

Flynn: I know the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, research paper orthodoxy, web searching, I can set up an RSS feed…

Administrator: Everybody knows that. They’re librarians.

Unbalanced questions

Can friendly circulation staff inspire curiosity? Does redesigning a search interface build confidence? Can virtual chat reference change someone’s economic circumstances? Do RSS feeds in the OPAC promote critical thinking skills? Can a collection development policy inspire lifelong learning? Can a coffee shop increase the equitability of access? Can metadata teach users about confidentiality?

Rampant, mercurial self-portrayal

“We live in a time of rampant, mercurial self-portrayal. We can, if we wish, post, profile, tag, chat, friend, transform, lie, project, stalk, date, connect, complicate, simplify, vex, blog, tumble, and identify ourselves with dazzling velocity through a protean real-time landscape of social networks […] That poetry continues to explore human consciousness in its slippery, manifest, and veiled complexity binds me to its emerging voices and embodiments.”

Lisa Russ Spaar, writing for The Chronicle.

Just don’t go over budget

Librarian: I’m trying to save the world here.

Administrator: Just don’t go over budget.

The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice

Current research: September 2010

The upcoming issue of Reference Services Review has a great collection of information literacy and instruction articles. Here are three that caught my attention:

Johnson, A.M., Sproles, C., & Detmering, R. (2010). Library instruction and information literacy 2009. Reference Services Review, 38(4).

Every year, the Reference Services Review publishes a bibliography of Library Instruction and Information Literacy research. This year’s collection includes open access journals (such as the  Journal of Information Literacy and Communications in Information Literacy), blog posts (notably In the Library with the Lead Pipe), and a number of monograph titles. The authors also broadened the international scope of the bibliography to include reports of IL efforts in many areas outside the United States. Of particular note, the authors indicate that approximately 20% of the publications listed this year concern collaboration, especially with writing instructors at universities.

Mizrachi, D. (2010). Undergraduates’ academic information and library behaviors: preliminary results. Reference Services Review, 38(4).

In this preliminary stage of a larger study on the “information ecologies” of undergraduates in situ (i.e. their dorm rooms), Mizrachi examines the information seeking habits of students at the University of California, Los Angeles. Two of the results should not be surprising given similar research: (1) that the majority of students did not begin with library resources in their research but rather turned to publicly available websites and course-related materials; and (2), as at least one student noted, that going to the library wasn’t seen as necessary for passing the course. However, Mizrachi highlights two findings that are contrary to popular beliefs about “digital natives” and could be useful for librarians trying to convince administrators of the myth of the all-digital future of libraries. She finds that for many of the students, the library is important as a physical place and is viewed positively by most of the students. Mizrachi also found that many students preferred to read articles and resources on paper, rather than on the screen, and that many do not take their laptops to class.

Mizrachi offers a number of recommendations that are worth contemplating, including: (1) not discouraging the use of public resources but rather highlighting the richness of library resources; (2) recognizing students’ awareness of their need to focus; (3) promoting critical thinking skills; and (4) using library student workers to create “positive interactions” with their peers using library resources.

Miller, I.R. (2010). Turning the tables: a faculty-centered approach to integrating information literacy. Reference Services Review, 38(4).

In this study, Miller (Eastern Washington University) describes a three-year “student research skills initiative” that sought to improve information literacy skills among undergraduates by working with faculty to redesign the curriculum and integrate IL skill building activities. What is particularly striking about this study is the high level of buy-in and engagement from faculty and university departments. Grant funding was used to pay faculty members a stipend to participate in a multi-day workshop at the beginning of the semester, integrate IL standards into their course assignments across the curriculum, and provide quarterly feedback. Faculty valued the experience and recognized the importance of IL skills and librarians’ expertise.

It’s so dead

The act of pronouncing things dead is SO dead! Harry McCracken of Technologizer looks at all the technologies we’ve collectively declared as “dead” over the last few years. Vinyls, however, still keep truckin’ 😉