Office Hours: Narrative Inquiry

What’s your story? That question could lead to better understanding professional learning experiences (PLEs) for librarians and the experiences of the community we serve.

Each of us can tell a unique story. For librarians, we all have different learning needs, varying personal relationships to learning and a unique set of experiences, workplace environments and career objectives that inform our perspective and approach. One of the best ways to gain first-hand knowledge of both librarian experience and the specific stories of our community is through narrative inquiry (NI). This method is at the core of a research project I want to highlight here.

Back Story

NI is an emerging research methodology that utilizes a flexible interview format to collect information about unique, personal experiences. The current body of literature using NI demonstrates that this approach enables researchers to gather responses that were not anticipated, and ideas that cannot be summarized by checking a, b or c. Moreover, NI specifically thinks outside the box of surveys. While surveys remain a vital tool for painting an overall picture, NI is a nuanced methodology enabling researchers to capture dynamic discourse on complex topics. NI encourages a full spectrum of unique responses and brings to life the story of individuals. This is an innovative way to capture major themes and trends, share personal journeys, and reveal unexpected details and insights.

Story Time!

NI is particularly apropos for the research needs of information professionals. Current studies utilizing NI emphasize what a powerful tool it is for studying populations whose voices might not be regularly heard in mainstream media. Part of the power of NI is that unlike a survey, the interview feels like a seriously compassionate way of reaching out, listening, and learning. Consider how you might use this methodology in your own setting for both internal and external research. What stories might rise to the surface from interviewing your users about their lives and interests?

The survey instrument can be a short series of questions that ask your interviewee to tell a story about some aspect of their lives. Forgo the “what do you like about the library?” type question for a query such as “What would make your life easier?” or “What would you like to learn about?”

How do you learn?

I am excited to share an opportunity I had recently to put NI into action. With Dr. Helen Partridge and Dr. Kate Davis, in a collaborative project between San Jose State University, University of Southern Queensland and the Australian Library and Information Association, I have been working on research into PLEs of Australian Public Librarians. The outcomes of this project will, for the first time, establish national level data to provide an evidence base about PLE in the public library sector and tell the story of librarians in the field. Our study employs both a nationwide survey and an open interview format to hear first-hand and gain unique narratives from these librarians. I conducted the interviews using the NI approach and look forward to publishing the results. San Jose State University School of Information student Margaret Snyder is working with me on the analysis of NI interviews to create personas of learners in our field. She also contributed to this column and her expertise in using NI will serve her well as a soon to be information professional.

To give you a taste of the findings, I will share that these interviews tell compelling stories of real experiences of PLE for public librarians and provide invaluable insights for both individual librarians and LIS educators, staff trainers, managers, administrators, and larger governing bodies. Several major themes emerge: there is not enough learning culture in their library, PLE must be personally sought out on their own time and PLE is mostly found online.

These narratives also demonstrate that every librarian desires the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills. Quoting one participant: “you become a librarian because you fundamentally want to learn and try new things.” It was thrilling to see how NI turned over stones that surveys would never find to uncover valuable advice, heartfelt feelings, and excellent ideas for better PLEs and how each of us can refresh and re-invigorate our practice: stay curious.

NI is a powerful tool that can be leveraged to gain rich and detailed information regarding a person’s views of the world, be it how they learn or what they might need from the library. This invaluable data can be leveraged to provide insights and recommendations for changes and improvements to services, locally and globally.