Connecting research and practice in the Information Profession

There is a slide I use in most of my talks about the library and information profession that asserts that we are mid-way through a profound period of transition. Despite the continuity of values and ethics, we are moving away from a well-known, well-established ‘framework’ for the management and delivery of library and information services and toward something as yet undefined.

This transition has been triggered by several factors – digital disruption, social, economic and political change – but the destination toward which we are heading as a sector is not yet set. As the generation responsible for picking up our tents and moving with them into this new landscape, we have to decide to what extent our future sector will be defined by the culture and practice of our shared professional past.

This is, of course, both an opportunity and a challenge, The opportunity is to redesign our sector almost from first principles so that it better reflects both the needs and capabilities of the communities we serve. The challenge is to overcome the inertia of habit and our cultural resistance to change.

A shared process of invention

The future of the library and information sector is therefore a shared process of invention. And as with any process of invention, the more voices, perspectives, minds and passions directed at it, the better the outcome is likely to be. It therefore follows that our approach to defining this future should maximise the intellectual contribution of everyone who has a stake in it.

When we look at who those people are, several groups come to mind. The public, external stakeholders and funders, politicians, potential partners, for example. But these are mostly ‘clients’ of library and information services – they constitute the ‘demand’ side of the equation. There are also several groups closer to home who have a common interest in both the past and the future of the sector*:

  • Academics, students and researchers in LIS and related disciplines
  • Professionals working to develop services in the sector
  • Institutions, agencies, professional associations and development organisations

(* To this in the longer-run, it might be useful to add others who have an interest in designing the future of libraries and information services – planners, architects, urban designers etc).

Where is the future of the sector conceived?

If one asks ‘where is it that the future of the library and information sector is conceived?’, the answer must currently be ‘everywhere’. At the moment, a thousand different ideas and perspectives proliferate in many different rooms, heading in many different directions. Some come together to form brief whorls of opinion, others dissipate as soon as they are suggested. But in the absence of a unifying force to draw them together, they don’t currently coalesce into a consensus that is capable of diverting the river that is our established body of practice.

The fragmentation of our shared process of inventing the future for our sector results inevitably in the entropy of value. Good ideas are lost. Interdisciplinary insights vanish amid the noise. The sector does not articulate and share what it needs. The academic and research sector cannot articulate and share what it knows. Progress is made, but it is through the slow alluvial process of incremental conversation, not a solid path of discovery, experimentation and application.

There is sometimes a temptation to see things in simplistic terms. The sector has needs and academia could supply them. But much like in a marriage, a hierarchy of dependency isn’t the solution. What we need instead is a relationship – an ongoing culture of collaboration, dialogue and exchange. A virtuous cycle of shared invention, critique, application, learning and the sharing of future needs and questions.

Building bridges & connecting cultures

If the goal is to ensure that everyone who has something worth saying about the future of the sector has a chance to say it, irrespective of the ‘community’ they’re from, then there are some important questions we need to answer.

Firstly, by what means can we create a sustainable culture of collaboration, interaction and knowledge exchange between academia, practitioners and sector organisations?

Secondly, by what means can academia, practitioners and sector organisations work together to identify common problems, find inter-disciplinary solutions, apply them to real-world situations and feed the lessons learned back into the cycle of research and discovery?

Finally, by what means can academic, practitioners and sector organisations embed this ongoing culture of collaboration into their daily work so that it becomes automatic and natural?

Where there’s a will…

Although it is sometimes tempting to go straight for the ‘big’ answers (creating organisations, building new platforms…) often just as much can be achieved – at least initially – by a coming-together of interested parties to see whether there is a consensus and a will to do something about it.

With this in mind, this blog is intentionally something of a ‘fishing expedition’. If you feel that there needs to be an ongoing culture of collaboration and dialogue between academic, sector organisations and practitioners, please reply in the comments below or tweet me @NickPoole1 to share your thoughts and ideas.

Are these the right questions? Is this being done already in the UK or elsewhere? Is there an appetite for more sharing or does there need to be a clear separation between research and practice? Has this been tried and failed already?

Comments welcome!

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