Last week on Tuesday 25th June 2019 I was delighted to be one of approximately 40 invited library and information professionals and library and information science (LIS) researchers brought together to discuss the relationship between theory and practice, and to identify ways in which the theory/practice gap can be bridged.
I was particularly interested in taking part in these discussions because the event themes articulated well with much of the work that I undertook between 2009 and 2012 when leading the implementation of the UK LIS Research Coalition. The themes are also of relevance to the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Research Impact Value and Library and Information Science (RIVAL) project that I am leading in 2019/20: Bruce Ryan and I are currently making the final preparations for the first RIVAL event that takes place in Edinburgh next week on Thursday 11th July.
Last week’s event was hosted by the Department of Library and Information Science at City, University of London on behalf of the team engaged in the AHRC-funded Open Access in Theory and Practice project: Professor Stephen Pinfield (project PI from the iSchool at the University of Sheffield), and Professor David Bawden, Dr Lyn Robinson and Dr Simon Wakeling.
The broad questions considered by the delegates over the course of the day were:
- What is the use of theory, and how can it be better used to inform practice?
- (How) can researchers and practitioners work together more closely in designing and conducting research, and then interpreting its significance for practice?
- What should be the relationship between theory and practice in teaching and learning?
- How might library and information science schools better serve the needs of employers in developing graduates able to make a significant contribution in the contemporary information professions?
These were addressed over the course of the day in four main discussion sessions. In the first we were asked to reflect on our experience of theory and practice:
- What is your experience of theory in your own context?
- How does this relate to practice?
- For practitioners: has theory influenced your practice? For academics: has your research used theory-influenced practice? If not, why not?
- Should all practice be underpinned by theory?
Then we considered theory and practice with direct reference to LIS research:
- Does all good research involve theory?
- Is theory-informed research addressing the right problems?
- How best should theory-informed research be communicated to practitioners?
- What onus on practitioners is there to engage with theory-informed research?
- Is co-production of research involving library and information science practitioners and researchers a realistic possibility?
Next we turned our attention to LIS teaching and learning:
- What should the relationship be between theory and practice in teaching and learning?
- What are good examples of where theory might be useful in teaching an understanding of practice – or where might it get in the way?
- How might LIS schools better serve the needs of employers in developing graduates able to make a significant contribution in the contemporary information professions?
- Should CPD education be different, e.g. involve less theory?
The last of the four main discussions encouraged us to focus on bridging the gap:
- How can we bridge the gap between theory and practice – in practical ways?
- How can we foster closer links between LIS schools and practice – in terms of research, teaching, learning and other activities?
- How can we encourage and empower ‘boundary spanners’?
- Who should take on the development of solutions?
The format for most of the day, which switched between discussions in small groups and in plenary, allowed for high levels of participation across the course of the day. The well-balanced selection of delegates from across sectors and roles also ensured that a range of views was represented.
Some of the territory covered was rather familiar. For example, delegates identified that the main barrier to practitioner engagement with theory is time pressure at work, they noted that there are few opportunities to bring researchers and practitioners together, and that practitioners are too impatient for ‘answers’ from research while timescales for academic research are far too slow. We also wandered into debates around whether or not LIS is a field or a discipline or offers its own distinct research philosophers/philosophies, and the extent to which specific LIS theories are used in LIS research. It was generally acknowledged that although the importance of theory is recognised, it is often not theory generated from LIS research that is used in practice. This point was illustrated when the project team presented a slide that listed the top theories discussed in the open access literature reviewed for the OATAP project.
I enjoyed consideration of the project team’s definition of theory. When I am working with PhD students who are struggling with this term I often encourage them simply to consider ‘theory’ as ‘explanation’. Now I have a extensive and comprehensive definition to which I can point them. I liked the point made during the discussion of the term that while academics may talk of theory in terms of ‘frameworks’ and ‘models’, practitioners are often more likely to say ‘toolkits’ and ‘guidelines’.
Two other interesting thoughts struck me at this event, neither of which were directly related to its main theme. First, I mistyped the word ‘practitioner’ at one point while I was tweeting so that it read ‘practitionerd’. I think that this is a great term, not least because I know quite a few practising library and information professionals for which this label might be appropriate. Secondly, I experienced an new flavour of imposter syndrome – or one that is new to me, at least. While one of the younger delegates was tweeting a sense of imposter syndrome spending the day amongst a group of ‘fairly illustrious folks’, I was admiring the great points that those much younger were contributing to the discussion and wondering how long it would be until I’d be considered a has-been!
If you would like to find out more about the day, Andrew Preater has published a thoughtful blog post about its content as contextualised to his experience as a library director working in UK higher education. You can review the event tweets hash-tagged #oatap. You may also be interested in reading my latest publication ‘Closing the researcher-practitioner gap: an exploration of the impact of an AHRC networking grant’, which has just become available on Emerald EarlyCite and is also available as a full text pdf from the Edinburgh Napier University repository.