Monday, August 24, 2015

Why I recommend librarians do doctoral research by Dr Mary Delaney

This is the second article in what I hope will be a series on librarians doing doctoral degrees. The first article gave us insights into Dr Eva Hornung's experiences.
Dr Mary Delaney is Head of Library and Information Services at IT Carlow. 

I have been extremely fortunate in my career.  I recently joined the Institute of Technology in Carlow (IT Carlow) as Head of Library and Information Services. Before that I worked for 15 years in Maynooth University (MU) Library in a variety of roles. Both of these institutions value their libraries and library staff. They appreciate the important work that libraries do in the teaching, learning and research process. Both encourage library staff to attend CPD events, to write, to present at conferences and to be actively involved in the wider library and academic profession. This is greatly to the credit of MU and IT Carlow and it was within this positive and supportive culture that I undertook and completed Doctoral research.

At MU I had a variety of roles. While I worked as a Subject librarian I spent a significant amount of my time helping others to do research. In more recent years I spent and continue to spend a significant amount of time building a library service to enhance research practices. Helping someone to find the evidence to build their best argument is a critical skill that libraries and library staff bring to the table, in the complex world of digital and print information. Helping people to find information and providing a service that best facilitates this is something I enjoy doing and like most librarians I take great pride in delivering this service.

As my career progressed I often found that my work took me outside of the library partnering with academic colleagues who all had undertaken doctoral research.  This meant that regularly I was the only person at the table who was not a Doctor. I often felt that librarians have more to offer and considering doctoral research is the currency increasingly used in academia I feel that the time has come when librarians need this currency to continue to trade effectively.
Furthermore, I wondered if I undertook doctoral research and felt the “research pain” so to speak would that help me to do my job better when helping other research students.This curiosity eventually got the better of me and I decided to find out for myself. 

Choice of Doctoral Programme
I undertook a thesis as part of the Masters in Library and Information Studies in the mid-1990s but I expected at the outset that there would be a significant difference between researching at Masters and Doctoral level. I was right. My Masters was completed while studying fulltime and working part time and pre-children. 10 years later in the mid-2000s when I began the search for a doctoral programme I was looking for something that could fit into a busy work schedule in a reasonably flexible and part time way. Many doctoral programmes were fulltime. By excluding them I immediately narrowed the field.
I was drawn to Sheffield initially because of their renowned School of Library and Information Studies.  When reviewing the University website I found their School of Education (which it turns out is also renowned!): they were offering part time Doctorates in Education.  I had not come across this concept before but was immediately interested. The more structured approach involves spending the first two years exploring key research concepts associated with Education, in a classroom environment.
Those of us who registered on the course in summer 2005  attended a series of Modules for the first two years of the course. These modules were delivered in Dublin for 6 weekends over the two year period.  The structure for the first two years was very useful in giving us all an opportunity to meet colleagues from across the Higher Education Sector in Ireland who were interested in becoming researching professionals in our various fields. The group consisted of a mix of academic and administrative colleagues. I was the only librarian.  Having this network was really useful and supportive and made the journey a less lonely one.   For these modules we were expected to write 6 assignments  of 6000 words each. At the end of these 2 years you could if successful progress to writing a Doctoral thesis or you could conclude with a Masters. Once this progression was made each students carried out their individual research with their assigned supervisor. From the outset this structured flexible approach was something that I felt would work for me and it did.

Research topic

My supervisor was not from a library background. One of his many areas of expertise is academic literacy. This worked well for me as he was very well placed to help me situate information literacy (IL) into the wider context of literacy, pedagogy and Education. My research focuses on the literacy part of information literacy and explores IL as a critical literacy for success in the complex Higher Education information landscape. My thesis is titled “Concept, Ownership and Impact of Information Literacy in a Higher Education setting in Ireland”.

I had a massive learning curve to climb to familiarise myself with pedagogy, theorists and research methods in Education. I began this process with a literature review. This review focused as did most of my research on the concept, ownership and impact of Information literacy in Higher Education. It looked at the history of IL which was first mentioned by Paul Zurkowski in 1974 up to 2014. A last minute review of the literature was carried out to ensure that as best as possible all relevant material was acknowledged. While a literature review is critical in underpinning research it is often the place where researchers can dwell for a very long time! Reading the literature is critical in determining a context. But at some point we all must move on from there to actually gathering data and analysing it.

In that spirit I moved away from the literature review and onto carrying out qualitative methodology which included carrying out interviews and focus group with Students, Library Staff, Academic Staff, Student Services and Key Informants ( Key Informants are people who write about IL extensively in the literature). As my key informants were internationally based (Australia and the UK) I interviewed them using Skype which enabled me to record the interviews. While unimaginable 15 years ago this method is a well-established way to gather data particularly when participants are not possible to meet in person. All participants were supportive of my research, interested in the topic and gave generously of their time. I did not recruit them on that basis but I was very grateful to them for this. All interviews were carried out using the semi structured method as a guide and recordings were later transcribed. All participants spoke about their understanding of the concept of IL, ownership in the sense of who is responsible for it and finally the impact it is having in Higher Education. By asking all participants the same question I gained a valuable insight into what we all understand IL to be.

Situating research from one field to another is like moving to a different country where you need to learn a new language, navigate new directions and routes, meet new people and begin all over again to understand why things are as they are. While this is challenging it also provides a new and fresh way to understand a topic such as IL in theory and practice. It has given me a greater appreciation for the nuanced and complex concept of IL and it has also given me a wider appreciate of its role and potential in the wider teaching, learning and research context.

The thesis came together one word at a time. A number of drafts were prepared and submitted. The final version was submitted in August 2014 and the viva happened the following November. Throughout the writing process the viva was something I anticipated with excitement and fear. It is a momentous occasion. While it provides an opportunity to talk about the thesis with people who are genuinely interested in your research it also means that you are discussing your work with experts in your research area.  It is THE opportunity to showcase you work, justify how and why research methodologies were made, discuss further research opportunities and outline the strengths and limits of the research.  I was very nervous but despite that the viva went quickly. It lasted under 2 hours.  I left the room with my Supervisor while the two examiners made their decision. They called us back in within minutes and recommended that the thesis be accepted with minor corrections with a 3 month timeframe to complete them. The corrections were very minor.  There was no need for additional writing. The writing journey was now over.

Research Objective, Timeframe & Network
I was interested in the idea of bringing library research outside of the library world and into a wider field of Education.  While libraries and library staff play a key role in Education in so many ways we often situate our practice in our libraries and in library research rather than in the wider pedagogical field. My primary research interest was Information Literacy (IL). By positioning IL research into the wider Educational and pedagogical sphere I hoped to take what is traditionally seen as a library skill and position it more as a literacy critical to our digital age. Furthermore, I wanted my research to contribute to a trans-disciplinary dialogue between Library and Information Science and Education. 

In 2005 I registered and began my research. In 2007 I completed the first 2 years and progressed to begin the thesis in earnest. Seven years later, in 2014 I submitted the thesis and completed the viva. The entire journey took me 9 years. The part time route can be long (not always as long as 9 years!). The research process when you are part time and distance can be isolating. Having a network formed in the first couple of years did help but the fact that we were all working in different organisations across the country and indeed the world meant that we didn’t meet frequently. Phone calls and meetings did help throughout the research process and we did meet in a structured way a small number of times each year. Our supervisors continued to travel to Dublin to support us and we did not need to travel to Sheffield. We had access to the University of Sheffield Library resources and a range of other online facilities such as the Virtual Learning Environment and University email including useful Postgraduate discussion lists. In addition to building on this network I created a small group of critical friends. This was key to my success. These were friends with whom I worked and knew, who had undertaken similar writing projects and could critically read my work and advice on its progress. Their feedback helped me enormously and I will always be grateful to them for their willingness to help me. Studying part time while working fulltime and raising young children enormously focuses the mind.  Having a limited amount of time in which to get things done I have decided is positive when harnessed correctly.

In Conclusion
The process of undertaking Doctoral research, the sizable word count (70,000-80,000 words), the viva and the anticipation/expectation of post submission conference papers and articles can all be overwhelming when looked at in totality. The keys seems to be like so many things in life, take them one at a time and progress steadily. The biggest lesson of all for me is that succeeding at Doctoral level is not just about ability but hugely about stick-ability. It is a slow and steady process, where you doubt your work, your ability and your contribution to research. There is no magic way or short cut to complete the research. You just have to keep going one day at a time.

I will be forever grateful to Maynooth University (MU) Library for the abundant support I received in terms of time, fees, critical friends and overall encouragement. In more recent times I am sincerely grateful to IT Carlow for their support and encouragement in my research activity. Working in an environment that fosters learning and scholarship in a joy. I will always be glad I undertook Doctoral research. I would like to think it has made me better at my job. I certainly have felt the researcher’s pain.  It turns out that the end result is worth all the pain in the end. To all librarians in the early stages of, in the middle of, or wrapping up your Doctoral research I say well done. To those thinking about it I say go for it! You have a growing body of critical friends in the library community who will help you along the way. 

Please contact me if you would like further information or have any queries at

1 comment:

eliz said...

Brilliant post, Mary. Congrats and continued success! Eliz.