This topic – the role of evidence in guiding our beliefs and behaviors about library practice – is something I’ve touched on here many times, but it comes up so much and in so many different ways that I thought I’d say a little about what I’ve come to think of as my “evolution” as an academic: from a very theoretically minded philosophy student/lecturer to an empirically-based library practitioner/scholar (i.e., someone someone who works in a library and is also required to publish stuff to obtain tenure).
Many librarians have a humanities background and I think this has an impact on the nature of our thinking. It did, at least, for mine. By the time I got to library school, I had spent my entire adult life studying philosophy, a discipline based mostly on a priori argumentation and speculation about how things might (or ought) to be, and very little on empirical data. I remember sitting in classes in library school and thinking teachers were nuts for doing studies. Surely it must be the case that x! I remember thinking to myself all the time. That seems totally wrong! But surely and that seems are not very convincing in the social sciences, which is what information and library science, in fact, is.
Even by the time I got around to working on my master’s paper – a requirement for all UNC SILS master’s students – I was still being cautioned by my adviser that I was thinking too broadly, too philosophically/humanistically, and not social-scientificey enough. I wanted to argue that something was the end all be all solution to a particular problem, instead of being careful, and showing that my study seemed to demonstrate, at least in this particular case at this particular university, that my hypothesis seemed to be confirmed. I had a tendency to want to say more than the evidence allowed, a tendency that I think, in retrospect, was sort of based on a classical education in the humanities, instead of one in the sciences or social-sciences.
But something in me has changed: I’m now pretty hardcore about evidence based practice. I don’t want to hear about “theories” of learning, I want to see evidence that your preferred method actually does improve student learning. I don’t want to hear your opinions about why the reference desk is so unbelievably charming and wonderful; I want to see evidence that it gets used a lot and that the questions are robust. I don’t want to hear about how important it is to have this book in the collection; I want to see evidence that it gets checked out and used (Ranganathan and all that, remember?).
Now, look, sometimes theory and philosophies inform practice. Of course they do: I’d think you were weird and not a reflective practitioner if they didn’t. I’ve just got no patience as a practitioner for abstract philosophizing or anything that falls much under the heading of “theory,” when that theory is not also borne out by the facts of empirical study (even though some of my own published scholarly work seems philosophical or theoretical, it is not: every attempt is made to ground it in the relevant evidence and data). I’ve become sort of a pragmatist about things: I wanna know what works and what doesn’t, and I wanna get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work in favor of what does. And the way we can figure out what works and what doesn’t isn’t by sitting in our offices and (just) thinking about it, or by defending something because it’s what we’ve always done: it’s going to be by doing it and collecting data and testing whether or not it actually works in practice.
Now, as I say, I wasn’t born thinking like this; quite the opposite. So what happened? Well, I was thinking about this last night, and it occurred to me that the answer could be summed up in two words: North Carolina. That’s what happened to me. I went to library school at North Carolina.
Let me explain.
I think I got to thinkin’ about this recently when someone I was talking to said something vague like “Well, most library degrees are done online now,” lamenting the fact that people weren’t really getting the proper training. I didn’t really say anything to the contrary (I was, you know, trying to be polite (fun fact about your boy KMK: he’s like, shockingly, exceedingly polite). But I did get to thinking: what did I learn at North Carolina that I might not have gotten if I’d just done my degree online, or if I’d never gone there at all?
I should say, before I get into the actual answer, a million things: I’ll be a champion of The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill until they bury me. I just can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone there. It was that important. But anyway. I think one of the most transformative things for me from having attending UNC’s SILS, in person, was the emphasis in my classes and program that professional library practitioners – the one’s with MLS’s – were in a sense defined by the fact that they were evidence based practitioners – reflective practitioners who methodologically test their assumptions about their practice by conducting research in their local environments and always seeking improvements based on these results. My SILS classmate and now collaborator Alex Carroll defined evidence-based instructional practice in a very similar way in our recent LOEX presentation. That what North Carolina did to change my thinking: it instilled in me the belief that professional practice = evidence based practice.
This (as Alex and I tried to argue in our talk), is par for the course in other professional programs and professions, such as nursing, social work, and medicine (and, thankfully, it’s increasingly the case in education). And, of course, it’s central to the very nature of librarianship itself: librarians are in the business of evidence – we provide people with evidence so that their beliefs are based on the best available evidence within a particular domain. That’s just what we do. It’s just what we’ve always done.
So here’s why I’m still writing about this: it sometimes still amazes me how controversial the central lesson I learned at North Carolina is. Because it is. It’s controversial. Rock stars – library instruction rock stars – approached us after our talk to tell us that they thought this was the wrong approach. (I guess when you’re a rock star, you can just say things and people just believe them and then it’s annoying when people come along and want reasons to believe what you say …I don’t know?) And it’s not just the rock stars (who, let’s face it, as a punk rock kid from way back, I’ve never cared much for rock stars, anyway): we see it in our practice, day in, and day out, locally and profession-wide. People defending stuff not based on evidence. It’s ubiquitous.
So you have to ask yourself: what gives? What on earth makes what I learned at North Carolina so controversial on the ground?
The best answer I can come up with is: resistance to change.
We don’t like to change.
And we don’t like to be wrong.
For individuals who struggle with having a growth mindset, one’s ego is often tied up with ones beliefs. “If my beliefs are wrong it means I”m wrong.”
So we resist change.
Let’s also not discount laziness here: when you’ve been doing something one way for a long time it’s often a pain in the ass to change.
So here’s the thing North Carolina didn’t quite teach me: even though this idea of evidence based practice is what it means to be a professional librarian, on the ground, this will often be the exception and not the rule. Following the evidence – pursuing the truth – will more often than not be met with resistance.
But you can’t let that stop you. You plow ahead and pursue your work and do what you know is right.
You believe in evidence over opinion, yourself over the expectations of others.
You do what North Carolina taught you.
5 responses to “What North Carolina Did to Me: Some Thoughts on Evidence-Based Library Practice”
Very important points here — and I say this as a long-time peer reviewer for the EBLIP journal, one-time editor of the Journal of the Medical Library Association, one-time MLA Board member who was involved in developing the framework for the MLA Research Agenda, etc., etc. I mention this just to position myself as one is firmly in your camp. But allow me to tweak you a bit about a certain lack of, um, evidence in your argument here. You appear to be making the claim that your library school experience in person is what formed your EBL mindset, that had you gone through an online program, that wouldn’t have happened. But I see no causal link between the two. Why couldn’t a well-designed online program have the same emphasis on evidence and research and result in the same outcomes for its students?
Hi Scott, thanks for your comment. I certainly don’t think that UNC has a monopoly on worthwhile library science education, as anyone who suffered through having me as a student there will surely attest to. All I can say with confidence is that they have the greatest college basketball team ever to have existed. Also, try the Snickerdoodle coffee in the Student Stores if you’re ever in Chapel Hill: it’s delicious.
I did actually think about this whole online thing and also whether I was going to be interpreted as saying UNC is the only library school that you can get a decent education at, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that (and I”m certainly no spokesman for the university or any of its programs – I don’t have a ton of confidence in ANY institution having unconditional support for people who actually have opinions in the year 2015 – although I do get occasional nice letters for them where at the bottom they politely consider whether I would like to make a small donation …).
What I think was great about the program – purely from my own perspective – was its consistent focus on evidence and research. There is no reason in principle to think that this can’t happen elsewhere – although I do certainly think that it’s something that library students will want to check on. If I were advising students (and sometimes I do get asked this kind of stuff) on where to attend library school, I would tell them I think that you should investigate the opportunities you will have to get hands on experience with evidence-based practice and research. I do think this is one advantage UNC has – that they actually require students to do a master’s research project that contains a study. I think one reason this is important is because so often I’m told by people that they don’t know how to do this, even if they’re on board with the basic premise of EBP. And, alternatively, for people who aren’t on board I am constantly surprised that any of this is CONTROVERSIAL. What I always say to myself is .. wait … didn’t you learn this in library school?!
So I don’t know: if someone is doing an online program where they get a chance, in person, to work with cutting edge librarians who supervise them doing actual professional level work (as they do at, e.g., UIUC, Indiana, or UNC) and also have the opportunity to engage in supervised action research projects, that sounds to me like a very good online program. If not, …well, I would wonder why that isn’t a priority for that program. But that is the same for in-person programs as well.
Let me also say something that will be controversial but is simply fact: not all experience will be equal. Not all mentoring will be equal. I say this because sometimes I think you hear this thing from people getting degrees online, or in person, where they’re like “Oh, yeah, I”m getting experience.” It has to be of the right kind, where (a) it’s actual professional experience for the THING YOU WANT TO DO (e.g., if you want to be an instruction librarian, you need actual experience working as an instruction librarian) and (b) you have great mentors (a great mentor is not simply a nice human being, although hopefully they are that. A great mentor will be an evidence-based practitioner who is on top of what’s going on in the field.) and (c) you actually work on a master’s research study. Librarian school experience that meets criteria (a), (b, and (c) will be superior to experience that includes only one or two or none.
It’s worth saying, too, that no library school will just drop this in your lap: you’ll have to put in the hard work of gaining that experience, finding that mentorship, and so forth. It’s not granted with your tuition.
At any rate, I’d be curious if anyone is aware of any other LIS programs that require MLS students to do a study at the culmination of their program. I don’t have time to look that up right now but my understanding is that this is the exception rather than the rule. Anyone in the know please feel free to weigh in …
I’m very curious to hear more about the reservations people expressed about evidence-based practice. I didn’t go to UNC-CH but I became a convert to EBP back when I was a medical librarian in the late 1990s. It’s not a flawless approach but to hear someone say it’s “wrong” is suprising.
I did a lot of thinking about this and I’m actually going to respond in an entirely separate post (may take a few days to appear, I’m getting sick and am off to bed …).
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