A Library Research Journey (Pandemic Edition)

Screenshot of team members
Association of College and Research Libraries conference poster–screenshot of recorded talk

Even beyond those who believe that librarians sit around and read books all day (which would be delightful but is most definitely not our reality), many are surprised to learn that librarians double as active researchers. This is especially true in settings where librarians are members of the faculty, but even where that isn’t the case, such as at Berkeley, librarians are born investigators and it carries over into wanting to find out about and add to knowledge of our settings.

What does it look like to conduct library research?  Glad you asked! In our case, it started with a conversation and an idea.  Natalia Estrada (now Berkeley’s Political Science and Public Policy Librarian, then the Social Sciences Collection and Reference Assistant and in library school) and I were talking about how much we admired the work of Kaetrena Davis Kendrick.  Kendrick wrote a foundational work in the study of librarian workplace morale, The Low Morale Experience of Academic Librarians: A Phenomenological Study, and it sparked many more studies on this topic.  But, where were the studies of library staff experiences?  We wanted to find out!

We were lucky to recruit two colleagues who added so much to the team: Bonita Dyess, Circulation/Reserves Supervisor at the Earth Sciences/Map Library, and Celia Emmelhainz, Berkeley’s Anthropology & Qualitative Research Librarian.  First we applied for (and eventually got) funding for the research from LAUC (the Librarians Association of the University of California).  This meant we could pay for transcribing our interviews, give the participants gift cards, and buy qualitative data analysis software.  Then we applied for (and got) approval from the IRB (Institutional Review Board), making sure we were complying with processes for research with human subjects.

Here’s where the “pandemic edition” part comes in. All this planning and applying, starting in November 2019, took time; so, at the point we were actually ready to recruit participants, it was April 2020. We were sheltering in place, and not sure how this all would work (although it was probably better than having to go virtual in mid-stream)! Nevertheless, we hurled out information about and invitations to be part of the study to every list-serv, association, and friendly librarian we could think of, nationwide.  We ended up doing 34 interviews with academic library staff from a range of locations and institution types (purposefully excluding the UC system), during a three-week period in May-June 2020.   Due to COVID these were all online, either by phone or Google Meet (sort of like Zoom), and we asked a structured list of questions, with room for branching into other topics, or diving deeply.  Celia trained a wonderful student to transcribe the interviews, and once we had those transcripts and stripped identifying information from them, we were off– coding away (using MAXQDA software), and drawing themes, quotes, recommendations, and other findings from the surprisingly rich information we’d collected.

Next—we had to start getting the information out into the world!  Our eventual goal is to write a paper, or several, for publication.  There are a number of library and information science journals out there that we are considering… but that takes time as well, and we wanted to start presenting our findings sooner.  So, we did an “initial findings” presentation to the UC Berkeley Library Research Working Group, and then stepped into the big time with acceptance to present a poster at the 2021 Association of College and Research Libraries online conference (our poster got almost 600 views), and with a webinar we did for the Pennsylvania Library Association (both the poster and the webinar slides are available through the UC’s eScholarship portal).  All our work to get to this point is hopefully now helping others.

Screenshot of title slide of PA Library Association webinar

And, a word about connecting with our participants.  We were bowled over by their generosity with us and by all they had to say: much that we didn’t expect, and much that they were grateful someone was even asking about.  It ended up that we had captured one of the last opportunities to get a snapshot of pre-COVID library staff life; people were still in limbo, and talked about their regular jobs before any lockdowns, for the most part. At that point most expected to be back in their libraries and all to be normal by the end of the summer 2020.  We know now that that didn’t happen, and we know that library re-openings and staff roles in them have been challenging and sometimes contentious; we wish we’d known to ask for permission to re-interview our participants—even if only to check in with them.  But how could we have known?  We wonder how they are.

So now, we have papers to write, and thinking to do about how to take our questions into new avenues of research—because it’s a never-ending, and completely exciting process, and, we suspect, will be very different (easier? or not?) in the post-COVID landscape.  Do you have ideas for us?  We’d love to hear them!  Or want to hear more about our morale study? Please get in touch with us at librarystaffmorale@berkeley.edu!