Action Research and Academic Library Value

Editor’s Note: In this post, Lesley Farmer of the University of California-Long Beach, and co-editor with Douglas Cook of the ACRL book “Using Qualitative Methods in Action Research,” discusses how action research can be used to demonstrate library value.

To optimize their impact, academic librarians need to incorporate assessment throughout their work, and structure efforts to make significant valid and reliable claims about the library program’s offerings and their effectiveness. Such efforts are needed in an atmosphere of accountability, and show pro-active initiative that can garner credibility and status. Moreover, by systematically examining their practice with the intent of improving the library program, academic librarians become reflective practitioners of research.

In terms of administration, action research is a practical way to optimize library operations in a cost-effective and evidence-based manner. Action research entails systematically examining the work environment, formulating a problem, identifying possible contributing factors underlying the program, reading what other people have to say about the problem, gathering data about it, analyzing the facts, drawing conclusions about ways to solve the problem, and then acting on the recommendations. As a result of this action research, new questions often emerge generating a cycle of inquiry.

All kinds of data can be collected in action research. Traditionally, librarians tend to use quantitative data such as circulation and user numbers. However, qualitative data are equally important, such as analyzing reference interactions, surveying users, and assessing student work. While numeric data can describe a situation, qualitative data can get to the “why” of that situation. Increasingly, researchers use mixed methods (a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches) to get a fuller picture of library issues.

The action research librarian is very participatory. The librarian investigator provides inside information while being able to contextualize the issue. Library stakeholders who participate in action research feel that their experiences and opinions matter as their perspectives are taken into account to improve the library as a whole. As voices are heard, largely captured as qualitative data, resultant action is more likely to be effective: students learn more, collections are more responsive to needs, staff are better utilized, and facilities are better managed.

Particularly in academic settings, librarians are expected to be researchers, preferably published ones. Academic librarians also need to collaborate with their classroom counterparts in action research in order to optimize learning and improve academic programs as well as demonstrate collegiality.   More globally, by sharing the research with the larger professional community, librarians contribute to the body of knowledge in the field as well as help their colleagues who might have similar issues to confront.

– Lesley Farmer

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