From perspectives to policy: how an examination of evidence, value and impact can inform the LIS research agenda by Charles Oppenheim

Charles Oppenheim kindly accepted the challenge of summarising the proceedings at LISRC10 in his closing presentation. He started with a blank PowerPoint template on the morning of June 28th 2010, which he added to throughout the day, helped by the student rapporteurs who gathered ideas from the main conference sessions and the breakouts. By the time that his conference slot came round Oppenheim was fully prepared with a fine set of slides. The content of the presentation is summarised below.

Charles Oppenheim finds a quiet spot to work on his presentation

The conference programme committee had given Oppenheim the title “From perspectives to policy: how an examination of evidence, value and impact can inform the LIS research agenda”. It was hoped that this would give him a framework for pulling together the main themes of the day.

Oppenheim started his presentation by asking “Why do LIS research?” The responses he offered highlighted intellectual interest, greater engagement or empowerment at work – especially for practitioners, and a desire to influence policy and decision-makers.

Oppenheim then went on to outline his perceptions of the landscape in which this research is conducted. He referred to scattered effort, low levels of funding, poorly appreciation of the full range of available research methods, and a lack of recognition of completed work. LIS research is supported by a plethora of uncoordinated funding bodies, which – understandably – leads to degree of confusion amongst a researcher community that struggles to follow all the different agendas and requirements.

Oppenheim admitted that another one of his concerns prior to attending this event focused on identifying the next generation of researchers. Those advertising lectureships commonly complain that insufficient numbers of candidates with a good track record of research, and a clear understanding of LIS research, put themselves forward for academic job vacancies. However, Charles now felt much happier after his experience of the LIS Research Coalition conference. He was very impressed by the PhD students who summarised their work in the One minute madness session, and he would be leaving the conference with much more optimism about the future tenureship of LIS research. A further positive point made by Oppenheim was that of LIS research conducted worldwide, UK researchers contribute a good range of studies.

However, the current economic context places pressure on LIS researchers and practitioners to produce research that justifies their existence, and also means less money is available to fund that research. A big issue related to measuring value and impact is that LIS services are controlled by “the bean counters”, who demand robust measurements that they can relate to using the vocabulary of “return on investment”. To illustrate the kind of message that needs to be promoted Oppenheim cited again the research (to which Dillon had referred in the conference’s opening keynote paper) which shows that for every $1 spent on public library services in the US there is a return of $7. Unfortunately, research output such as this is sometimes viewed as self-serving, so even when we try to speak the language of the accountants, the target audience is not always convinced. Added to this, Oppenheim made the point that cost (e.g. $1) is easy to measure, whereas long-term benefit is not: $7 might be saved in staff time costs, but how does this improve services delivery?

Oppenheim also noted that adopting the language of accountants often goes against the deep-seated principles of professionals who may consider themselves more altruistic than most. A profession that focuses on helping others is reluctant to see service represented in numeric form.

Turning to the key concepts that emerged during the day Oppenheim pointed to the terms “impact” and “human angle”. Addressing impact first, he reminded the audience that “impact” is currently a buzz word, particularly for those who work in higher education and are preparing for the next assessment of research in the form of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Oppenheim referred to the funding council’s current guidance on research quality and what constitutes impact. He explained that there is more to come with REF. In the guidelines available to date the presentation of case studies with a strong narrative is recommended as a means of demonstrating impact.

As far as the “human angle” is concerned, LIS research focuses on how humans create, store, disseminate and use information. We can only be successful if we understand the ways humans interact with information, so we should not be concerned simply about information retrieval systems as technologies, but also about how humans wish to interact with the systems. Oppenheim illustrated this point by referring to Google’s success. These remarks echoed the sentiments of Andrew Dillon’s opening keynote, where it was emphasised that we need to view the technologies as enablers, some of which have limited life-spans. Oppenheim restated that we need to understand enduring behaviours so we can help library and information services users meet their goals. Thus most LIS research necessarily involves overlap with endeavours in psychology and sociology, as well as an understanding of history. This is especially important since experience shows that what is apparently articulated as information need by end-users, for example in survey responses, is often not what is seems. (Later in the presentation Oppenheim discussed the LIS research community’s over-reliance on survey research. He asked Hazel Hall to confirm the status of a bid to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to fund a series of methods workshops that will develop the methods repertoire of UK LIS researchers. Hall responded that the outcome of the bid would be known in July 2010.)

Oppenheim continued his presentation by highlighting future important research areas. These derived from his listening to conversations throughout the day. Included here was the theme of information overload and the stress that it induces. The challenge here is to make it possible for end-users to access valuable information as relevant to a particular task from the vast quantity that faces them in their daily lives.

Towards the end of his presentation Oppenheim considered how the LIS Research Coalition could continue to support the LIS research community, as based on the output of the day. As well as the plans for research methods workshops and the other initiatives to which Michael Jubb referred in the presentation that opened the conference, the Coalition could take a role in disseminating anonymised “lessons learned” stories based on projects that did not deliver as expected. The Coalition should continue to lobby and promote the value of LIS research as key in an information/knowledge economy, while ensuring that research ideas, researchers and research funding are connected together to best effect.

Oppenheim concluded by relating the story of a classic impact experiment encountered 40 years ago. The scene was a library exit point where users had to offer their books for inspection as they left the building. As part of the experiment, the security officer on duty touched the hands of random visitors as their books were returned to them. Research into library satisfaction rates revealed that those visitors who had been touched on their way out were happier than those who had not been touched. This tells us something fundamental about library services: that they are valued for human interaction as well as for information services delivery.

Oppenheim’s slides from this presentation are available below:

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