Friday, 31 March 2017

Mirroring researchers

Why do we do basic research? To learn about ourselves. - Walter Gilbert
It's around 10 AM on a Thursday in March. All around me, people are working in silence in front of arrays of monitors. Some are writing or reading papers, some are writing software code and some have the colourful graphics produced by data analysis programs like Matlab. I am working on a report on how the group could impact policy and in addition to about twenty tabs on my browser, each with a different policy document I intend to skim today, I have three Word documents open. The first is the report I'm working on, the second is a time sheet where I am tracking what I'm doing rounded to the nearest 5 minutes. The third is my research log. I've taken a little break from working on the report because I want to note down what I'm thinking and feeling facing down those twenty tabs. I write:
Sometimes when I’m looking through these policy documents I feel like the group would do better to hire a legal expert. Sometimes when I’m working on the ontology report I feel like the group would do better to hire a computer scientist or PhD in semantics. Sometimes when I’m working on proposals about impact I feel like the group would be better off hiring a science communication specialist. I think the benefit of being a person who is interested in information and research is the ability to be more agile than a specialist. I won’t do any of those things as well as an expert, but I can try my hand at them and develop a rough idea, and perhaps point them toward expertise. I don’t know if that’s a useful role for a research group to have – a resident jack-of-all-trades – but I think that many of these tasks are things that take away from researchers’ time. Like ______ spoke about the other day, she has to prioritise her time and focus on producing articles for peer-reviewed publication and cannot do the policy inquiry as much justice. But then, she is able to contribute so much more to the conversation, having the research background in economics. Two and a half months into the project and I feel no closer to answering the question about whether an embedded librarian can or cannot be a useful role in a research group.
It's a worry that's been repeated over and over again in my research log and no matter how often I try to exorcise it by putting it in writing, it still keeps cropping up. This is new territory for me. In many ways it's new territory for librarianship. I am learning so much but am I providing a service that is valuable to my temporary colleagues?

For the last three months I have been an embedded librarian based with a research group in Engineering and doing action research on the future potential for such a service. For three days a week I sat in the same office, worked on parallel projects, talked to, helped and got to know the researchers. On the other two days I conducted the business of analysis as well as keeping up with my role in the library. It was a little like having three jobs simultaneously, two of which were well outside my comfort zone, so it will not come as a shock to anyone that I have arrived at the end of the project at the end of March totally exhausted, yet having learned an incredible amount in a short space of time.

It's difficult to reflect on what you're learning while you're in the process of learning it. People have asked me if I found anything that surprised me during my time with the research group, and I tend to struggle to provide an answer. There were behaviours I saw more or less of than I expected, but a lot of times social research is about making explicit things that were already tacitly understood. It's taking norms out of their context and labeling them as 'culture'. But I finally realised that everything I learned that surprised me was what I learned about myself.

To do social research is to see yourself reflected in other people and to see other people reflected in you. It is an an alarmingly autobiographical process that unfolds you and asks you to inspect yourself in a new context. I found myself understanding much better not just what researchers in the department do from day to day, but what it felt like to be a researcher. I found myself surprised at letting go of 'best practice' in favour of what I needed to do in order to get things done. I found myself humbled by the realisation that there is not always a library- or training-based solution to problems and that sometimes researchers really do have to figure things out on their own. And I found that the librarian's skill set of solving problems and thinking about information structures was useful, but that even when you sit next to researchers every day it is not easy to make the case for what we do.

I learned so much about the research group but more than that I learned so much about myself as a teacher and librarian. It was an incredible opportunity and I hope that we can repay the research group for their kindness by innovating new services and training that will benefit the entire department. I'll produce a write-up about the project, initially as a report to be shared internally, especially with the research group. With their approval, I'll share that online. After I get feedback from them I hope to produce an article for publication as well. I'll share a lot more about that on this blog in the coming months.

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