Review of the work of the LIS Research Coalition – presentation at LISRC10 by Michael Jubb

The stage is set for the LIS Research Coalition conference

In his introduction to the conference (“Review of the work of the LIS Research Coalition and its support of LIS research in 2009/10, and plans for 2010/11”), Michael Jubb set the scene by explaining the background to the Coalition, then introduced some of the key themes for discussion throughout the day.

Jubb outlined the history of LIS research in the UK. He emphasised the need to understand the history in order to understand where we find ourselves today. He went back to the 1960s when a number of new library and information schools were founded in universities such as Sheffield, Loughborough and Strathclyde, joining the longer established school at University College London. This followed the trend in the US, where similar schools had already existed. A number of scholarly journals in the field also emerged at this time. These developments were accompanied by a shift from work-place based, practitioner-led studies to a more academic, scientific approach to LIS research.

The reactions to these moves were somewhat mixed. They included a report commissioned in the mid-1980s by the then university grants committee that was critical of the state of library and information research. In addition, Jubb cited tensions between groups of researchers allied to LIS: information scientists; computer scientists; researchers in the academic community; and practitioners.

The Research and Development department at the British Library brought LIS researchers together and provided the main support for library and information research in the UK until 1994. Director Brian Perry played a key role in this. After Perry’s death discussions took place around the broad proposal of founding a new body (or similar) to look at some of the issues that had arisen both during Perry’s tenure, and since the move of reponsibilities for LIS research from the BL to – in turn – the Library and Information Commission, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and – ultimately – the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

During these discussions, the tensions highlighted became more important, together with other concerns, including issues related to: the quality of LIS research; weak relationships between people in LIS and other research communities; and poor links between research and practice. The result of the discussions was a consensus that there was a need for some kind of structure to build a more coordinated approach to LIS research in the UK.

Work began in 2006 to bring together some of the key organisations to establish (what has become) the Library and Information Science Research Coalition. The five founding bodies (the British Library, CILIP, JISC, MLA and RIN signed a memorandum of understanding in March 2009. The Coalition was finally in a position to appoint Hazel Hall in August 2009, and get to work. In March 2010 the Strategic Health Authority Library Leads (SHALL) joined the Coalition as an associate member. Jubb took the opportunity at the conference to announce that the Committee on Library Co-operation in Ireland (COLICO) has just confirmed that it will be taking up associate membership. Funding of the Coalition to this point has been fairly modest, but Jubb gave credit to Hazel for achieving an extraordinary amount with the time and funds available.

In the absence of any other body that can take a synoptic view of the landscape and the drivers underlying that landscape, Jubb stated that there is a clear role for the Coalition in the future. The diversity of the landscape and the porous nature of the boundaries means, however, that it would not be appropriate for the Coalition to try to set a rigid research agenda for LIS research in the UK. In a wider research landscape where inter-disciplinary research and grand research challenges are the order of the day, he feels that the LIS research community does though need to play its part in shaping that research agenda. He also believes that the practitioner community needs to play its part too, despite inhibitions about engaging in such debates in the past.

To bring us up to date, Jubb described what the Coalition currently has in place. This includes an online presence with – amongst other things – links to events, sources of funding research networks, and LIS research centres. These show the Coalition’s role in coordinating information. The Coalition also has a very active Twitter community which, again, acts as an information hub for the community. In emphasising the importance of providing a coordinated space where information of this kind can be found, Jubb highlighted the irony that the LIS community has not, in the past, been very good at bringing information like this together. The Coalition is attempting to change this. He also described how the Coalition has also been working to engage with the community through activities such as conference presentations, publications, and responses to consultations.

Jubb concluded on the work of the Coalition by outlining some of the specific plans for the next year, including a proposed workshop for prospective authors with journal editors, the development of a practitioner researcher starter kit, and plans for creating interactive space on the Coalition web site.

Jubb outlined what he sees as the key research challenge for the LIS community: that the value and the impact of LIS research, and of library and information services themselves, will become increasingly important. This is largely due to working in “difficult times”. In such a climate funders must question the value they get in return for the funding they give: the community needs to be in a position to provide convincing answers to these questions.

Jubb confirmed that the LIS research community needs to go beyond addressing relatively easy questions that involve measuring the number of things that are done, to tackling the much harder question of the impact of what is done. Admittedly there has been a lot of advocacy work, but Jubb emphasised that the priority now is really hard-headed studies of impact and value. This is a tough challenge, and this is not the only community that has experienced problems in addressing it.

Finally, Jubb stressed three key issues for the LIS research community and the LIS community more broadly:

  • the issue of research quality
  • the issue of impact and value of research
  • the issue of engagement

To tackle either or both of the first two issues, there is a need for better engagement between researchers and practitioners. The Coalition can work to improve this situation, but needs the engagement of the broad community.

If you want to find out more about this session, take a look at the slides below:

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