LIS DREaM Project Launch: Conference report

19th July, 2011 – British Library Conference Centre, London

LIS DREaM (Developing Research Excellence and Methods) is a one-year LIS Research Coalition project led by Professor Hazel Hall of Edinburgh Napier University. My attendance at the project launch conference was supported through a ‘new professional’ award sponsored by leading LIS recruiters TFPL, Sue Hill and Glen Recruitment. As the first of five events, the DREaM project launch focussed on establishing the project goals, opportunities for participation, setting the scene on its key messages, and also began generating discussion and ideas on how these might be achieved.

It was the conference theme of ‘Out of the Comfort Zone’ that attracted me to the LIS DREaM project. Having come to LIS research late in my career, and with a background in new projects and start-ups, comfort zones are something of an enigma to me, and so I felt that here at last I might be able to channel some of my innate career promiscuity and opportunism to good effect.

Project Overview

Professor Hazel Hall opened the proceedings with an introduction to the project, outlining opportunities to become more involved, including a set of three workshops on research methods, a variety of networking fora, and a Practitioner Research Excellence Award. At the outset of my PhD and research career, the research methods workshops are of particular interest, both from the practical perspective of learning new skills, but more especially as a medium for developing a research network, or ‘cadre’ (as coined by Prof Hall) of like-minded individuals who are open to new ideas and challenging the status quo.

Critique of LIS Research

In his opening keynote, Professor Blaise Cronin then gave a comprehensive review of what aspects of the status quo needed to be addressed; where LIS research had become too comfortable. He challenged the rigour of research in the discipline, its marginality, and quoting Charles Oppenheim, suggested that it is “often poorly funded, poorly conducted, poorly recognised”. Particularly harsh criticism was targeted at so-called ‘cookie-cutter research’, and the weakness of research practice in areas such as meta-analysis, experiment design, lack of longevity and generalisability. Having latterly discussed these points with colleagues at the University of Sheffield Information School, there was considerable agreement, but it was also pointed out that LIS is not alone, and that other disciplines may also suffer from some lack of rigour, if not the lack of recognition.

Opportunities for LIS Research

Just as I was beginning to doubt my new career choice, Cronin then moved on to look at the opportunities for changing this seemingly desperate situation, making the case for libraries and information science as generators of significant impact and value, then offering evidence that finally other disciplines are recognising the worth of what we do. Citations from other disciplines are on the rise, over-taking LIS citations since 1997, suggesting a degree of openness, at least from outside LIS, to cross-disciplinarity and collaboration. Given this situation, he then made the point that we must be unambiguous about what LIS research is all about, so that others are clear about where we can support them.

Strategic Focus

Interestingly, the iSchool movement was presented as one of the reasons for confusion about the nature of the LIS domain, sullying the purity of the discipline, and since my employer, the Information School at the University of Sheffield, has recently become an iSchool this might give rise for concern, especially given his later remarks about strategic investment and positioning, where the fields of Information Retrieval and HCI in which I currently work are presented as a middling and minor in the LIS context. However, in the context of increased collaboration across disciplines, I feel that some blurring of boundaries actually helps to forge alliances. The real issue is then setting out areas of responsibility once the partnerships have been established. In my mind, there is also undoubtedly a need for a continuing and increased focus on information use and users, and it therefore follows that HCI should therefore be a key area for development, either within the LIS domain, or via collaboration.

Networking for Success

Cronin also suggested ways of reaching out to other disciplines, implying that we need to do more to increase our visibility and to create opportunities for collaboration. Digital networks and dissemination are a key factor in connecting researchers, supporting knowledge sharing and transparency, but with the caveat that the strongest partnerships are sustained in close physical proximity. We may therefore need to work harder at sustaining partnerships at a distance or find ways of combining the physical and virtual spaces. Ironically, here, at last are some areas where I feel more comfortable, and perhaps also have the benefit of experience (and learning) about how to manage the challenges of virtual collaboration. Indeed, I suspect that these issues, whilst prominent for some time to come, may become less prevalent as newer generations of researchers enter the field, as their online connections are significantly stronger and more intuitive than before.

Out of your Comfort Zone

As an antidote to the harsh realities presented by Professor Cronin, Dr Dylan Evans in his closing keynote, gave an optimistic and upbeat view of cross-disciplinarity. His personal account of discipline hopping was both entertaining and inspiring, complete with amusing anecdotes and confessions. The message from Evans was clear – opportunities are to be made, risks are to be taken – and most of the time the outcomes are positive, and you can always go back to a previous career point if you the change is not what you expected.

This seemed a little rose-tinted, and could perhaps have been tempered with the reality of the economic climate, funding cuts and fewer employment opportunities, although some suggestions of cross-disciplinary funders were made, including the Wellcome and Leverhulme Trusts. It also true that career change often involves some harsh financial transitions, as many areas (including LIS and academic research in general) will require you to retrain, or at best, make only a lateral move. Only the individual can decide if they are in a position to take on these realities. I for one am glad that I did, and look forward to being outside of my comfort zone for some time to come, whilst I forge a path through the LIS domain and collaborate with colleagues in many disciplines, including the polar opposites of computer science and cultural heritage as part of PATHS, my current research project.

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  1. […] it was full of proper academic-y types, who are doing PhDs and know about theorists and quote philosophers in their event reviews. I can be that kind of […]

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