The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.
Research on Public Libraries: By who? For whom? So what?
Recent conversations in online-library-land have reintroduced the friction between the ideas of LIS academic researchers and the lived experiences of those who work in the public library. After a tweet suggesting that public libraries could stay open 24 hours to encourage companionship for those most likely to feel isolation, dozens of librarians weighed in to share their differing, sometimes emotional, opinions on how much further the public library can serve its community. At the height of the opposition was the idea that much of the scholarly conversation regarding public libraries is written by those who do not work in them day-to-day and at worst, is completely irrelevant to the daily work of the public librarian.
These exchanges, where the workers do not reflect the writers, begs many questions of us as LIS researchers: Who is writing about public libraries? Are they the right people to be doing the writing? Who is reading the work? Who is feeling the impact of the work?
Denise Adkins, LIS faculty at the University of Missouri begins to answer these questions with her recent article titled Journals, Subjects, and Authors of Research Literature on Public Libraries: An Analysis. Through this study of 30 years of LIS literature on public libraries, Adkins works to identify the writers, publishers, and topics of that scholarship. In many ways, her work confirms what we already know: few public library practitioners are publishing the research. What she leaves us to decide is: does this matter?
“With the proliferation of the Internet and many ways to be a “writer,” public librarians do not need to be published in a top LIS journal to be read. Blogs, trade publications, and social media allow writers of all types to share their experiences with a vast array of readers. “
Between 1990 and 2001, several LIS researchers examined the scholarship of public libraries, who was was writing it, and who was reading it. According to Adkins’ literature review, not much has been published analyzing the writers, publications, and topics of this literature within the last 20 years. This is not to say that literature about public libraries has dwindled. In fact, Adkins found that since 2004, these articles have been published at a robust and steady pace. The reason for the lack of review of these works in order to examine for authorship could be due to a number of reasons. With the proliferation of the Internet and many ways to be a “writer,” public librarians do not need to be published in a top LIS journal to be read. Blogs, trade publications, and social media allow writers of all types to share their experiences with a vast array of readers. This study does not attempt to examine this variety of publication type. Additionally, it is well known and accepted that scholarly output, in the traditional sense, is not a requirement or even supported by public library work duties, which tend to be more patron focused.
Adkins used bibliometric methods for this study, which the OECD glossary of Statistical Terms defines as “statistical analysis of books, articles, or other publications”. While many bibliometric studies in the past have used Web of Science, Scopus, or PubMed to aggregate their data, they could not be used in this study due to the minimal coverage of Library and Information Science articles in each of these databases. Instead, the authors used the database Library Literature and Information Full-text to gather articles. They retrieved articles that used the descriptor “Public libraries”, which included regional descriptors such as “Public libraries – United States”. The citations were imported in Zotero for cleaning: only scholarly articles which included authors’ names and from paper journals were retained, leaving 3,326 results. Authors’ names were standardized, and the citation data was imported in a bibliographic analysis program BibExcel to create tables in order to make sense of the data. The resulting tables included: a list of journals by article, a list of subjects by article, publication years by author, and tables that included multiple values. The tables were then manipulated in Excel with Pivot Tables.
Text analysis of the article titles was done through a program called Lexos. The article titles were converted to small case, punctuation was removed, and the text was stemmed before analysis.
The author was explicit about limitations – while Library and Information Science Full-text indexes over 410 journals, it is not exhaustive of every journal that might publish research on public libraries. Adkins also clarified that due to the lack of methodological precedence for this study, this research project was mainly exploratory in order to determine the viability of the research methods.
Due to the exploratory nature of this study, it was difficult to synthesize the results to a few paragraphs. The article contains about 10 pages of results, including many tables, charts, and lists. For the purposes of this review, we have highlighted some of the most striking results, but we do encourage our readers to take a look at the many graphics that the author provided.
Adkins found an increase in articles related to public librarianship over time noting 162 articles published in 2012 and 2015, a steep increase from 20 articles in 1984 (Adkins, 2019, p. 9). The vast majority of articles were single authored. Authors who wrote together tended to be from the same geographic region, with clear networks of authors who wrote with each other (see fig. 1). Adkins found that the most prolific writers, having published 6 or more peer-reviewed articles, were mostly LIS faculty with 33 out of 57 authors (Adkins, 2019, p.8).
The results showed a few areas of scholarship that were most prominent in the literature. First, Adkins found a “strong regional focus” (Adkins, 2019, p.11), which might be due to the nature of legislation surrounding public librarianship. A focus on User Services was also present in the journals chosen for publication. Management Practices, and Public Library History were the other two main areas of research.
One of the interesting findings was the lack of consistency of subject headings between publications. While of course different journals tend to cover different topics, it seemed that some journals were more likely to use certain subject headings over others – a consolidation of subject headings across the field could potentially lead to easier retrieval from an information seeker’s point of view.
Finally, this method was rather successful to determine trends of topics over time: management seemed to come up in article titles mostly before 2010, while articles containing the stem digit* were most present in the last decade.
Overall, this article provided a great survey of the scholarship on public libraries since the 1980s. The study shows an uptake in publication in the last 15 years, which might suggest that public library research is gaining validation as a topic of study. LIS faculty are the most prolific writers for public library research, although public library professionals also contribute to the scholarship. It highlighted the main areas of scholarship: regional focus, user services, management, and history; which seemed to confirm the author’s instincts. But most importantly, it outlines methodologies to allow for further research on this topic.
When looking at the results of the study and the names of authors who have published the most articles on public librarianship, we were curious to learn about the public librarian with the highest output and what we could learn about public librarians as researchers from him. Further investigation shows that Glen E. Holt, public librarian who wrote 26 pieces between 1983–2018 was the director of the St. Louis Public Library for several years. But before this, he was an academic in the urban studies department at Washington University in St. Louis. He is now the editor of Public Library Quarterly, where this piece was published. His trajectory from academia to public librarianship makes him more like a traditional scholar than many of the library workers who probably worked with him. Examples like Holt suggest that the literature may not allow for life-long public library practitioners to be represented as authors in the literature.
“The article, however, pushes to ask even more questions: who are the practitioners who write scholarship about public libraries, and why?”
As the first bibliometric study of its kind, this article was more of an exploration than an argumentative take on public library scholarship. In fact, the article didn’t fully answer the question we posited at the beginning – though we do learn that LIS faculty and public library practitioners are the main contributors of research, we do not know about the relevance of the literature to the field, nor do we hear about public librarians’ sentiment towards the published research. The article, however, pushes to ask even more questions: who are the practitioners who write scholarship about public libraries, and why? Are practitioners in different regions able to contribute to public library scholarship differently? Overall, this article felt like a great starting point for more research.
Keep the conversation going
- How can we support the work of public librarians who wish to contribute to LIS literature?
- Adkins makes a point to share the software she used with the readers. What tools have you used to do bibliometric studies? What do you recommend?
Adkins, D. (2019). Journals, subjects, and authors of research literature on public libraries: An analysis. Public Library Quarterly. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2018.1564533.
Tools referenced in the article
Zotero, for cleaning data
BibExcel, for bibliometric analysis
Lexos, for text analysis
Snowball Demo Tool, for stemming text
About the Authors
Charlotte Brun is a Public Services Assistant at the King County Library System in Washington State. She is passionate about information access, critical information literacy in academic and public settings, feminism in the library, and social justice. Currently transitioning into the public sector from academia, Charlotte is interested in exploring the dynamics that surround research in these different environments. She loves cozy knitted sweaters, singing loudly in the car, and petting all animals. Find her on twitter: @cha_cjb
Symphony Bruce is a Resident Librarian at American University in Washington, D.C. After six years as a high school English teacher, she switched to librarianship to be a champion for information literacy and access, with a specific interest in critical pedagogy and a developing interest in privacy and digital safety. She enjoys cooking with vegetables, hanging out with her cats, and drinking her coffee black. Find her on twitter: @curlsinthelib
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