LIS DREaM Workshop 2 – Report

British Library, 30th Jan 2012.

The second of three workshops on ‘Developing Research Excellence and Methods’ in the LIS domain, and we’re at the British Library again for a busy day of presentations, unconference talks and breakout tasks, and trying to fit in a bit of networking during the breaks. As previously, the sessions were interesting and often immediately useful, giving insight into new techniques and fresh perspectives on others.

Peter Beresford’s session on user involvement in mental health research projects was an interesting and weighty start to the day, providing theoretical positioning (positivist vs ethnographic/experiential) and practical challenges (consultation fatigue, changing the nature of the evidence base). Whilst not situated directly in LIS research, the lessons could be applied to any research context where service users and marginalised groups are the main subject of enquiry. The emphasis on using research to effect change, echoed later in the closing session by Nick Moore, made me think about how I might incorporate such ideals into my own PhD research (Answer: not sure, need to think on it). Similarly, the issue of research involving as yet unengaged potential service users or non-users; representing both a challenge and an opportunity in times when budgets are being cut and many services face uncertain futures.

Another aspect I found interesting was the differentiation between research about and involving users as data subjects, and research by users themselves. The latter clarified something I have had in mind for some time, and whilst no specific guidance on how to approach this type of research study was provided, it was useful to be able to distinguish it as a method, and something to explore more fully outside of the workshop. Tied in with this is the idea of changing the nature of the evidence base to allow for more qualitative, subjective, experiential data to be used, which brought to mind Peter Brophy’s recommendations for the LIS field to take greater account of narratives and to develop what he refers to as ‘narrative-based practice’.

Next up was Thomas Haigh’s session entitled  ‘Techniques from history’, the one I was most looking forward to in advance of the workshop, although on the surface possibly the least relevant to my current research practice. On the first point it did not disappoint – lots of fascinating discussion of stories and sense-making, craft vs science, and the dangers of ‘presentism’ or placing a contemporary lens over archival materials.

Five different historical approaches were offered (intellectual, social, cultural, institutional histories, and history of practice or labour), which seemed a particularly useful way of defining the research domain and associated sources and methods. Yet when it came to selecting one of them in the workshop task it became clear that this fundamental decision in the research design is not at all easy to make – we narrowed the field down to three approaches! It also occurred to me later that this type of classification of research approaches might be useful within LIS, and that there might be some cross-over with these historical research categories.

Another consideration that hadn’t previously occurred to me was the difference between research undertaken by discipline specialists vs research undertaken by history specialists, including their varying methods, interests, and outputs. Again this might have interesting parallels for LIS research, and perhaps provides a case for constructing multi-disciplinary teams, with both subject and domain specialists. In addition, and echoing Peter Beresford’s earlier talk, in the history of technology field  there is a trend towards researching the perspectives and experiences of users as well as those of  producers and inventors. I particularly like the idea of comparing the two, as so often technologies or information systems are designed with only one group in mind, or worse still (and this is evident in more than one research project we have reviewed for PATHS) the gathering of information from experts on what they think users need.

To end this session we had a go applying historical approaches to our own research. Working in a group with Ella Taylor-Smith, Rachel Steele, Elaine Fulton and Aislinn Conway, my research project relating to the use of narrative in digital cultural heritage was put under scrutiny. We managed to come up with a research question — ‘Whose narrative is it anyway?’ — taking forward the idea of contrasting user and expert interests, and narrowed down to three historical approaches (intellectual, social & cultural), with a long list of potential sources. With more time we might have refined this further, but as it was the feedback from Tom at the end of the day that most groups had been too ambitious, too broad/unfocussed, and had approached the task as a whole project design rather than a sub-set of the research was certainly true.

Lots of food for thought then, and in retrospect I can confirm that this session was indeed the one I enjoyed the most, but also that I was wrong and there are possibly many ways in which I can could incorporate historical perspectives into my work, especially with regard to the ‘narrative’ focus of my PhD.

After lunch was Mike Thelwall’s session – an Introduction to Webometrics, about which I had got completely the wrong end of the stick in advance. I had been hoping for some background on weblog analysis (something I will be working on shortly and about which Mike kindly pointed me towards relevant resources). Instead the focus was on the more recent areas of inter-linking and network analysis to measure impact and collaboration, and sentiment analysis to measure attitudes. Both of these tools are being used on the PATHS Project, my work research project, although by another partner organisation, so the insight was useful in knowing more about what they might be doing at some point in the future!

Given that these tools are both using essentially quantitative methods to measure somewhat subjective phenomena, I must declare a little scepticism at this stage, especially when dealing with the semantics of conversational data such as Twitter feeds. I do however see that they might be useful tools where nothing else exists, and in triangulation with other methods to verify findings and explore them further.

The last formal session of the day was given by Nick Moore, talking about his personal experience of making links between research and policy. This was a different perspective on using research to effect change, this time focussing on doing research and creating output in a format that policy makers can use. Much of this session was about how to create a research agenda, how to focus it and how to make sure that it is relevant and useful, and can probably be applied across any research practice, not only that directed at policy. Similarly, lessons learned and mistakes made are broadly applicable, not only in research, but in business and work in general.

Most interesting for me was the ‘information policy matrix’, a way of differentiating distinct research areas and prioritising efforts. The differentiation of three areas of work (ICT & networks, legislation & regulatory, skills), matched to three levels of interest (information sector, organisations, society) offers the potential to very clearly direct research and to filter out noise, whilst retaining an idea of context and the bigger picture. In terms of my own research, I think I am in firmly in the skills area, although with an organisational focus for PATHS, and a society focus for my PhD. It also strikes me now that this matrix could possibly be used to inform a set of LIS research approaches, as mentioned earlier.

That’s the main conference sessions finished then, but I want to wrap up this post with mention of some of the excellent unconference talks, and other informal discussions that for me were some of the highlights of the day. Marshall Dozier (@mafrado) made great use of metaphors to describe the literature search behaviours of PG students – I see great potential in this for talking to users in many different contexts about their behaviour, as well as defining personas in user experience research. Sue Childs (@Northumbria_RM) introduced us to the JISC Project on ‘Managing Research Data’, and I will definitely be looking up the information and training directed at new PhD researchers. Ella Taylor-Smith (@EllaTasm) talked us through the design of her ethnographic study on e-participation, providing a vision of clarity of purpose and organisation that I can only aspire to at the present time. Finally, a very useful chat with Elaine Fulton from the Scottish Library & Information Council about my PhD ideas on narrative in cultural heritage which has given me lots to think about and new perspectives.

Thanks to all – organisers, speakers, fellow delegates for a productive and enjoyable day!

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