Although I once belonged to the editorial board of the journal Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, I am beginning to doubt my allegiance. These days I find that "evidence based librarianship" is a concept that seems beyond reproach in theory, but--on closer inspection--is problematic for both practical and philosophical reasons.
First things first: how should one define evidence based librarianship? Let's go to the definition offered by Jon Eldredge, one of the leaders in this movement and a prince of a man. In his influential 2000 paper "Evidence based librarianship: an overview," Jon proposes a seven part conceptual framework for evidence based librarianship:
- EBL seeks to improve library practice by utilizing the best-available evidence combined with a pragmatic perspective developed from working experiences in librarianship;
- EBL applies the best-available evidence, whether based upon either quantitative or qualitative research methods;
- EBL encourages the pursuit of increasingly rigorous research strategies to support decisions affecting library practice;
- EBL values research in all its diverse forms and encourages its communication, preferably through peer-reviewed or other forms of authoritative dissemination;
- EBL represents a global approach to information seeking and knowledge development, involving research but not restricted to research alone;
- EBL supports the adoption of practice guidelines and standards developed by expert committees based upon the best-available evidence, but not as an endorsement of adhering to rigid protocols; and
- In the absence of compelling reasons to pursue another course, EBL adheres to the hierarchy (or levels)...for using the best-available evidence, lending priority to higher levels of evidence from the research.
The EBL movement derives from earlier movements towards evidence based medicine and evidence based health care. Just as health professionals should use the best available evidence (the more rigorous the better) to make decisions, so too should librarians.
At first blush, it's hard to disagree with these ideas. Codifying the tenets of evidence based librarianship makes it harder to rely on rules of thumb or what we've always done before. There is certainly merit in busting through inertia and encouraging all of us to critically examine why we do what we do.
But yet, I worry and wonder that practicing formal evidence based librarianship is often not feasible, and sometimes not even desirable for the question at hand. Jon wrote his article well before the wide adoption of "Web 2.0" tools like blogs, wikis and social networks; as more librarians experiment with these new technologies, the shortcomings of EBL are coming to the fore.
EBL assumes, generally speaking, that external data exists to support or refute a chosen course of action. But in these heady days of constantly appearing new tools and tricks, we have to make things up as we go along. At this point in time, looking for evidence of effectiveness for the use of these tools in libraries is a recipe for standing still rather than an aid to better decision making.
Andrew Booth, another EBL thought leader, disagrees with me. Last year Booth lamented an "evaluation bypass" as libraries throughout the world fired up their blogs, wikis and podcasts. How do we know this is effective? How can we tell if we are reaching our users? Where is the data?? These are all valid questions, but they're all premature at this point in time. Sometimes we have to learn by doing, rather than learning by examining best practices or lessons learned. As John Seely Brown notes, "tinkering" is the way to proceed in these Web 2.0 days.
EBL is ultimately a philosophy about how to gather knowledge, more than a position about how to be an effective librarian. It is empirical, logical, and rooted in the scientific method. These are all worthy attributes, but they shouldn't be the only arrows in our quiver. Left brain/right brain; yin/yang; masculine/feminine; emotion/logic--all of these have a place as we grapple to understand the world. EBL prizes one manner of knowing, and unfairly minimizes the value of others.
Jon might argue that his emphasis on a "pragmatic perspective" in the very first part of the EBL framework should soothe my concerns. To some extent it does; no theoretical construct can be acted upon with purity, and it's nice to see a recognition of this from the outset.
But how far can we push this? If the practical conditions at any given library regularly trump the imperative to examine processes critically, then EBL becomes meaningless. And the rest of the framework emphasizes reliance on increasingly rigorous evidence. Given that librarianship is still a service oriented more than research based profession, attaining this goal seems very unlikely.
Here's a hypothetical scenario: let's imagine that an academic library decides to cancel its document scanning service for faculty members. Sure, it's convenient--but the evidence shows that the cost of staffing the service (scanner, personnel, server space) significantly outweighs the revenue generated. And since an ever greater percentage of material is online, this is a declining part of library operations in any case. The case is crystal clear.
In some libraries, this evidence would carry the day. In many others, it would not for all sorts of reasons based on the local context--tradition; influential faculty lobbying; staff resistance; etc.
So EBL is a bit like traditional economic theory, which assumes that people will make rational and logical choices. As a growing body of research shows, and as the subprime mortgage crisis vividly reveals, this is often not the case. People are simply not as rational as they probably ought to be; this is the glory and folly of humanity. And for us librarians, it's why evidence based librarianship will only take us so far.