Competency L – Research Methods

Competency L – Research Methods

Competency L: Demonstrate understanding of quantitative and qualitative research methods, the ability to design a research project, and the ability to evaluate and synthesize research literature.

Meaning and Importance
While designing research projects and evaluating research literature seem more at home with academic librarians, information professionals across all types of libraries need to be able to understand and use research methods to their advantage. A public librarian may do a research project on how best to host a new program, or to secure grant funding. A school librarian needs to understand research methods in part to be able to explain them to students, but also perhaps for evaluating reference services. An academic librarian may be intending to public research on a subject as part of their job, and so need to use best practices for doing so.

Whatever the reason, information professionals use research to better their libraries, further their careers, and help their patrons. This makes it especially important to understand the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, and to best evaluate and synthesize research literature.

There are two main methods of conducting research: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative research seeks information about reasons, opinions, and motivations, e.g. non-numerical data. An example of this in a library would be conducting a patron survey after a program, or collecting comment cards from reference desks, or soliciting feedback on a website. Qualitative research can be useful to get a feeling for how happy or dissatisfied patrons are with their library and its services. It can be a good way to understand the motivations behind library patrons, and to assess how the library (and its staff) can be of better service.

In comparison, quantitative research uses numerical data. An example of this would be perhaps doing a headcount during a series of programs, and using attendance data to gauge overall patron interest. Or perhaps a library counts how many people check books out over the course of the year, how many are returned, and how many are lost, and then uses that data to understand its collection better. Quantitative research is a good way to get hard statistical data, which can be used in conjunction with qualitative data and turned for use in funding, staffing decisions, hours a library is open, and so on.

In order to get qualitative or quantitative data, an information professional needs to be able to design a research project. The most useful way to start any research project is to have end objectives in mind. Not knowing where the project is going or what it is supposed to achieve is a waste of time, energy, and resources, so it’s better to have a clear goal right at the start. This also makes it easy to gather any necessary materials, funding and staff, as well as research any previously published literature on the same or similar topics.
This builds into the evaluation and synthesizing of research literature. Luckily, librarians are already used to evaluating pieces of data and literature, as we do it almost every day for collection development, program design, budget balancing, and more. Evaluating research literature is much the same: gather as large of a sample that can be found, then pull the most important parts of the research out and see how it fits with the rest. Then, use those parts to build a data narrative, while critically evaluating where the data comes from and how it was obtained and presented.

Though I have always enjoyed writing research papers in undergraduate school, I had never thought of how other people would construct one, or how I might help someone build a research project. I took INFO 285 Historical Research to help myself figure that out. Our final assignment was a project proposal on a topic we chose. We weren’t supposed to do actual historical research ourselves– instead, we were to pull relevant and recent research literature, evaluate it, and synthesize it. Then, we were supposed to find the gaps in that research, and use that for our proposal.

My topic for my final paper was American philanthropists [prior to 1950?]. I spent almost the whole semester building up to that final paper. This involved preparing an annotated bibliography of relevant reference sources, writing a historiographic essay reviewing 10+ historical sources, and conducting a primary source survey of places that might have data for my project. To locate these sources, I had to utilize many different methods, including searching databases, web searching, looking through footnotes in professional papers, and checking end notes for professionally published books. Finally, I synthesized everything I learned and researched over the course of the semester and turned it into a formal research project proposal.

This proposal included an overview of my topic and why it’s important to research, a critical literature review, a discussion of methodology and primary sources and an outline of proposed chapters. It was a lot of work, but it was extremely useful to me because it formalized all the things I had done in undergraduate school, and furthered my understanding of how professional researchers (and information professionals) conduct a research project. It also helped me understand more deeply the importance of qualitative and quantitative data, as many of the sources I found used a mixture in their research.


Future Application
Due to my coursework at SJSU, I feel confidant that I’ll be able to use my understanding of qualitative and quantitative research methods, as well as my ability to build a research project, in any future library job I may have. I’ll also be able to use my knowledge of how to evaluate and synthesize research literature in multiple avenues, including my own formal research.

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