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Qualitative Research: Our Worth in Words

Posted by on October 1st, 2012 Posted in: All Posts

By David Midyette, Outreach and Communications Coordinator, NN/LM, SE/A Region

Why are the stories people tell so powerful?  How is it that we can remember details of the life of Harry Potter or the lessons of Aesop’s Fables or the antics of the kids on Jersey Shore?  The reason is that we have a deeply ingrained ability to hear and remember the details of a good or moving story.  Long before we wrote things down, we relied on oral histories, homilies, metaphors, fables, and many other story forms to teach us about the value of life and provide reasons for what happened all around us.

The challenges facing libraries today are in many ways as difficult as those faced by our ancestors in the fight for food, shelter, and survival.   It has long been the tradition in our industry to quantify what we do in an effort to measure the value of our libraries. We do this to address the economic realities that constantly bombard our institutions and to provide a sense of scientific objectivity.  Yet how many of our institutions put forth personal stories and testimonials to “sell” the services of the institution?  The truth is that while the numbers quantify output, they lack the personal touch of the narrative.  It is the color of the human story that we remember (unless you are a savant at baseball statistics), and it is THAT color which shows the value in what we do as librarians.  In short HOW we touch peoples lives is as important as HOW MANY times we touch peoples lives.

The challenge, then, is to make the qualitative information quantifiable without losing the flavor of the data.  Doing this requires creating general categories and then squeezing all of those “you really helped me find that article quickly” and “you made it happen like magic” statements into numbers.  What we need to do as librarians is accept these new categories and populate them with precious numbers to show that people really do see what we do as valuable.  At the same time, maintaining and presenting narratives on our value balances the quantification of words of praise, and we then have the Technicolor Truth of our profession.

Ethnography, long a mainstay of cultural anthropology, is becoming a key method in many avenues of social research, and social research is one of the main things we do as librarians.  We strive to know and understand those we serve, and simple ethnographic techniques can produce highly valuable data.  As an analogy, consider watching a group of indigenous people perform a dance.  You can stand at the periphery and watch, which allows you to develop a certain perspective of the dance.  But, if you actually participate in the dance and talk with other dancers about what they do, why they do it, and the history of the dance, then you have a completely different and greatly improved picture of the dance AND the experience.

To that end, it is important to do more than just solicit comments from our patrons.  We need to get out there and talk to them about their experiences. We need their stories about how we help them, how we made their jobs easier, how we helped them help patients, and how they feel about us. We need to ask why they chose to seek our help and how they felt about our assistance.  Their stories will help us paint a fuller picture of not only the cultures of our institutions, but also of our roles, importance, and history within those institutions.   We need to keep our numbers, but we also need to expand those numbers to include data which are subjective.  Science strives to be objective, but in doing so it is easy to miss the forest for the trees.  Perspective is everything and if we can give a highly personal side to our institutional value then we will be far more successful in sustaining our futures.

If you want to learn more about qualitative research in libraries, we have some excellent titles (a sample is below) in our SE/A Professional Development Collection. You can request these titles through DOCLINE and get started on your journey to collect even more valuable data to show your value!

Angrosino, M. (2007). The sage qualitative research kit 3 doing ethnographic and observational research. London: SAGE.

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design : Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Los Angeles: Sage.

Flick, U. (2007). The sage qualitative research kit 1 designing qualitative research. London: SAGE.

Gibbs, G. (2007). The sage qualitative research kit 6 analyzing qualitative data. London: SAGE.

Kvale, S., & Brinkmann, S. (2009). Interviews : Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Rossman, G. B., & Rallis, S. F. (2012). Learning in the field : An introduction to qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

Wildemuth, B. M. (2009). Applications of social research methods to questions in information and library science. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.

If you have any quesitons about this article, please contact David Midyette @

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