Picture of four people standing outside holding colored pieces of paper in the form of speech bubbles
LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Community-Based Participatory Research in Libraries: Reevaluating the researcher’s role in research

LibParlor Contributor Kelsey George discusses how she discovered community based participatory research.

Kelsey is the Cataloging & Metadata Strategies Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas University Libraries. She supports UNLV’s library services platform, Ex Libris’ Alma, and our institutional repository, Digital Scholarship@UNLV. Research interests include metadata automation, metadata management tools, accessibility, and critical cataloging (#critcat)/inclusive metadata.


During October of last year, I attended the 2018 Nevada State Higher Education Diversity Summit, where I attended a panel titled Intimate Insider: Deconstructing Power Differentials in Feminist Research using CBPR presented by Anna Smedley-Lopez, Ph.D.; Vanessa Nüñez, M.A.; and Esmeralda Cruz Lopez. I had never heard of CBPR (Community Based Participatory Research) but my ears perked up at “feminist research” and “community” in their presentation title. I was in the beginning stages of my own research project and wanted to figure out if I could incorporate CBPR in my own process.

As I learned more about CBPR, I realized that my research question caused obstacles  that prevented me from fully implementing CBPR while still completing the research on schedule. Time was of the essence  so I took more of an “ethnographish” approach. In this article I will give an overview of CBPR, reasons why my project was not a good fit for CBPR, and suggestions of where to start with your own CBPR research.

What is Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR)?

CBPR was originally developed in public health research. It was developed to address the complex social, economic, and physical environmental factors–such as poverty, air pollution, racism, inadequate housing, and income inequalities that play a role in determining health status by emphasizing “the participation, influence and control by non-academic researchers in the process of creating knowledge and change.” (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 2001

Library workers are often directly embedded in the community in which they serve. Academic libraries serve their campus community, sometimes public institutions serve their local community as well. Public libraries serve their neighborhoods and are very much embedded in the community. Library workers may also be users of their local library or part of the community that their library is hoping to reach. Due to this, libraries seem like optimal implementers of community-based participatory research. When doing library research, especially when it comes to using research to develop new programming for users, it is important to ask why you want to use CBPR in the first place.

If you already had a research question/theory in mind and feel like claiming CBPR as your research strategy could add credibility to your research–stop and take a step back.

While the level of community engagement of your research project can exist on a spectrum, for a project to be totally community-based participatory research, it requires the full involvement of members of the community in all aspects of the study’s development and conduct.

Image of a slideshow slide, titled “Continuum of Community Engagement”. There is a blue line with arrows on either side indicating a range, the range is referred to as the “Continuum of Community Involvement & CBPR.” On the far left is “Total CBPR”, defined as “full involvement in all parts of the study development & conduct.” One to the right is ‘CBPR “Light”’ defined as “partial involvement in some or all parts of the study development & conduct.” The next to the right is “Community-based Research” defined as “research conducted in collaboration with members of the community.” The last to the far right is “Community engagement” defined as “working with community members and agencies to reach community members (may be education or service-oriented with little to no research design/methods).”
Source: Slide 4 of presentation “VOICE OF THE STAKEHOLDERS: PRINCIPLES OF COMMUNITY-BASED PARTICIPATORY RESEARCH” by Drusilla Taylor.

Ethics in CBPR

Nothing about us, without us,” is a fairly common phrase in the Disability community, popularized in America during the 1990s by James I. Charlton. It refers to the idea that no legislative policies affecting a group of people should be created without the input of that group. “Nothing about us, without us,” was one of the first things I thought about as I learned more about CBPR. If we are creating programming, institutional policies, and reorganizing resources in our libraries that will affect a group of users (whether positively or negatively), we should do so with the input of our users.

There are a myriad of ethical issues to consider when pursuing CBPR:

  • How do we successfully implement a true “community-driven” agenda when the outside professional (i.e. library or library worker) is the project catalyst or initiator?
  • How do we address insider-outsider tensions that arise in relation to differential race, power, time constraints (e.g. project deadlines), and reward structures (i.e. compensation for participation) for such undertakings?
  • Are our organizations and researchers culturally competent? How will we hold ourselves accountable and address racial/ethnic and cultural issues that may arise during the project?
  • What are the challenges concerning the limitations of “participation” by the community? Who of the community is being encouraged to participate? Who is being left out of what conversations during the process and why?
  • How will the researchers (community and “professional”) address issues of sharing, ownership, and use of research outcomes for action?

My (not-CBPR) Project

I was very excited at the idea of implementing CBPR in my research project: I am a disabled library worker, wanting to do research on issues that disabled library workers across the field faced. I planned to design a survey, send out the survey, and write up the results intertwined with my own experience as a book chapter.

This is an example of ethnographic research, not CBPR. I was not able to fully consult the community of disabled library workers in the development or implementation of any of my research. The disabled library workers community does not have any input on how the results of the research will be used or acted upon. This is the primary difference between ethnographic research and CBPR. Ethnographic research is the study “of” a group and CBPR is a partnership, where you study an issue with the community.

The survey design process was where the realization that CBPR was not right for this project really hit home. Looking at the Continuum of Community Engagement above, it was obvious that I was in no way engaging the community I was surveying. I think I held on to the idea of forcing CBPR into an already designed research project (even though the survey had not been developed yet, I had already set goals, outcomes, and ideas about what information I wanted to gather) because I am a member of the group I was interviewing. The book chapter that I wrote  is half-based in my own experience, half a compilation of the ethnographic survey results of other disabled library workers’ experiences.

I am a disabled library worker, don’t I count as community participation in the survey design?

The answer is no. It took awhile for it to sink in that even though I belong to the group “disabled library workers,” I am not a representative of nor is there really an established community of disabled library workers. My identities overlap, but belonging to a group does not mean that you belong to that community. It certainly doesn’t mean that you are the sole representative of that community, and ultimately in CBPR the community has to have a say.

Image of a Venn diagram. The left circle reads “People with disabilities/Disabled people”. The right circle reads “Library workers”. Where the two circles overlap reads “Library workers with disabilities/disabled library workers”
Graphic made by author

We exist, and many of us have friendships and relationships online, but these connections often occur by happy accident and are not a result of any organized or community effort. I do wonder why there is not an established community in ALA or its own organization for library workers who identify as disabled, having a disability, or having chronic or mental illnesses. There is probably a history there, though I am unaware of it.

“The reason I was drawn to CBPR, and will probably use it in future research projects, was that it dismantles the idea that the Researcher is the Expert and centers the knowledge of the community members.”

The reason I was drawn to CBPR, and will probably use it in future research projects, was that it dismantles the idea that the Researcher is the Expert and centers the knowledge of the community members. While the ethnographic survey I designed will collect the knowledge from people, it is inherently steeped in my own bias and assumptions (though I’ve tried to address them as much as possible). My current project was inherently problematic for CBPR, because the survey was designed for a book chapter. That meant the timeframe was hyper-condensed (6-9 months was not enough time for me to form community partnerships, create a survey, pass IRB, send out the survey, analyze results, write a chapter in time for multiple draft deadlines, etc.).

“It is not realistic to expect a community to behave with the same intensity or urgency that you will about project deadlines.”

If I were to write a book chapter on a CBPR project, I would not propose a book chapter until the project was already significantly underway. It is not realistic to expect a community to behave with the same intensity or urgency that you will about project deadlines. They are partners in the project, with their own lives and deadlines, and they should have agency as partners to decide on deadlines.

Next steps + additional resources

If you’re interested in learning more about CBPR or start with a CBPR project, here are some resources to dive in!

Things to be aware of before reaching out to form community partnerships:

  • Are you in a position to form a community partnership, and are you ready to make that commitment?
    • One way to assess readiness is to fill out the Partnership Readiness Questionnaire on page 13 of the Making Partnerships Work Toolkit pdf by Aida Giachello et alt.
  • What policies or procedures does your institution have around research and community partnerships?
  • Will you be required to go through an IRB review? Be aware that this can take at least a few months from submission to approval, and communicate this timeline with your community partners.

Best Practices for Identifying Community Partners

Adapted from Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) Start Toolkit Prepared by Vanessa Nunez, MA, for her presentation “Intimate Insider: Deconstructing Power Differentials in Feminist Research using CBPR

  • Collaboration! All parties must be involved in discussions and decisions at EVERY stage of the process. Practice deconstructing power differentials.
  • Democratization of knowledge: Honor the lived experiences of your community members, and their expertise on their own experiences.
  • Dissemination of knowledge: Produce results that can be used by the community and making it easily accessible for that community.
  • CBPR as a means for social change: Not just about creating knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but with intentionality, the main purpose to serve the community and its needs.
  • Communication: Maintain regular, transparent communication between yourself and the community.
  • Be flexible: Listen for concerns and be open to changes. Flexibility is helpful when working through logistical and other types of challenges.

Featured image by rawpixel.com from Pexels


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

0 comments on “Community-Based Participatory Research in Libraries: Reevaluating the researcher’s role in research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: