Introduction – Qualitative Research and the Modern Library


Valeda Dent Goodman

November 2010

What do you think of when you hear the word “research”? When I first learned this as a vocabulary word in grade school, I remember thinking that it meant looking for something once, then looking for it again—doing a “re”-search. In actuality, that description is not too far off the mark. Research is the practice of discovery, and there are many different roads that can be taken to find what you are looking for.

Research means different things to different people. If you are a student, you might think of a research paper that you had to write. A pharmaceutical historian might think of the brutal Tuskegee drug research trials. My husband, who is a child psychologist, thinks about one of his favorite research studies, the “strange situation” studies conducted by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s to learn more about children and their attachment to their caregivers. Regardless of the topic, research is a way to help reveal hidden information, answers, and clues about the world around us. It has become such a part of modern-day society that many of us just assume that most of what we eat, watch, are treated for, and wear, has been tested in a research setting in some way. Scientific research in the United States has a rich and sometimes troubling past, but no one will argue that the greatest advances in medicine, for instance, are due to ongoing research efforts.

Research is changing. The web has added an entirely new layer to the research mosaic that involves collecting and analyzing data on Internet behavior. Social networking sites, combined with GIS technology, gather data related to who and where our “friends” are. Media research powerhouse A.C. Nielsen recruits families to provide feedback about the shows they watch on TV, and why they like or dislike them. Schools collect and store a wide variety of information on students that is later examined to determine everything from financial aid to roommate assignments. Some research takes place in laboratories, in settings that we can probably imagine (white coats, cold temperatures, metal doors). However, not all research is conducted in this way. Although the sense-making part of research will always require human intervention, the fact is quite a bit of data on a variety of phenomena can now be gathered, analyzed, and disseminated without any human intervention at all.

Libraries have traditionally been seen as service centers, community centers, and learning spaces. They are known to be places where people go to find quiet, to find resources, to find subject experts, to find community. They are not necessarily known as hotbeds of research. In fact, it is quite rare to find a library, regardless of the type, that grounds major service and collection decisions solely on research outcomes. It is not hard to figure out why. In most sectors, research is necessary because the stakes are quite high. Whether it is a public health or medical setting, product marketing, or a political campaign, not knowing about the likes, dislikes, habits, opinions, backgrounds, and needs of the public can be quite costly. Libraries do not face the same challenges, so why discuss or write about the need for and application of research in library settings?

Libraries and other information environments continue to face challenges now magnified by the burgeoning technologies that surround us. Library users are changing. Library collections are changing. Library staffs are changing. Even library buildings are changing. As a result of just trying to keep up, it is becoming increasingly difficult for “the library” to define itself moving forward. Many years ago, there was a great deal of discussion about when (not if) the library would become obsolete. The newest neighbor on the block, the Internet, had so much more to offer users, it seemed: convenience, speed, and 24-hour availability. Why bother an actual librarian when Google is easy, fast, and increasingly accurate? Why check out a book when you can read it online, for free? The digital revolution is actually not a revolution; it has settled in to become just another way of life, and libraries are still having a hard time finding their place. Some argue that the main role of the library is to provide access to subject experts—librarians that have a unique and comprehensive knowledge of different subject areas. This is that unique skill that cannot be duplicated by technology (at least, not yet). Others suggest that the library should be a place where rare materials that cannot be made available digitally should be available. Still others wonder if libraries should not just be places for people to gather and find real-world community, as opposed to virtual ones. Libraries actually continue to be all of these things and more, but there is still an uneasy sense that there is something more out there that libraries should be embracing.

Is there any strategy that might help libraries move towards a better-defined, more attuned existence, amidst all of these changes and technological advances? Is there a way to help mitigate the existential crisis that has been brought on by the digital tidal wave? In other sectors, research is used to help define products and services, to test their strengths and weaknesses, to get rid of what does not work. Perhaps the targeted application of research methods to investigate library user needs, user habits, and the user environment, can play a role here. It would not be inaccurate to say that many libraries use surveys and questionnaires routinely to assess user needs. However, no librarian reading this would disagree that surveys only scratch the surface of what we really want to know about our users. What we are interested in is understanding them better—not just asking them if they want extended hours. And understanding users requires a far more in-depth approach than a survey, no matter how comprehensive or well-designed.

To that end, this book is about qualitative research approaches and how they might be applied in library settings to address library and information-specific problems faced by librarians and users. It is not a book about how to conduct a research study; rather, it is a glimpse into some of the ways that user-focused qualitative research, combined with other approaches, might help those who work in libraries find out more about their users, and perhaps generate questions they did not know were out there. There are a number of very well-written books (Wildemuth, 2009; Berg, 2009; Nachimas and Worth-Nachimas, 2008; Denzin and Lincoln, 2000; Miles and Huberman, 1994; see References for Chapter 1 for details) that discuss qualitative research practices in the social sciences in great detail, and this book does not attempt to duplicate those efforts. These books are highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the research process in general.

We can never fully expect to know all there is to know about our users. Although I refer to them here as a single group, they are in fact incredibly heterogeneous, and changing all the time. Each of us is constantly influenced by the world around us, and it will not ever be possible to define, absolutely, the “typical” library user. It is possible, however, to employ a wide variety of creative and interesting information-gathering techniques to learn what we can, and to build on what we already know.

This book has ten chapters. The first chapter provides a definition and very general overview of qualitative research, and some of the approaches that are commonly used. Chapter 2 takes a look at how qualitative approaches are used in other settings and disciplines to learn more about users, consumers, and patients, and what the library and information world can learn from these applications. Chapter 3 provides an in-depth look at the ethnographic approach, since it has a special relevance for library and information environments. In Chapter 4, I discuss how librarians and others might educate themselves about the relevant areas of research and scholarship that might be germane to their own work settings. The user experience is a very popular topic these days, with lots of discussion about its relevance for library and information settings. Chapter 5 discusses research within the context of examining the user experience. Chapter 6 examines some common library user challenges that might be examined by way of qualitative approaches. The qualitative study of librarians within their own work environment is rare, and Chapter 7 takes a look at ways to evaluate the workplace using qualitative techniques. Libraries operate all over the world, and Chapter 8 explores an example of a global qualitative research project. Librarians do not typically receive formal training as researchers, so Chapter 9 explores some ways in which librarians might learn more about qualitative research. Finally, the last chapter summarizes the message of the book— just do it! All in all, each chapter seeks to shed a little bit of light on how librarians and others might collect and explore qualitative data to learn more about their users, and improve their services. There is no one right way to do this—there are many right ways. Conducting this type of research is often trial and error, but it pays to start somewhere. And every little piece of information that we can learn about our users will only serve to make us all better at what we do in the long run.