Whether/How/Why to Conduct Research On Your Special Library

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

March 02, 2021

Research is necessary to understand cause and effect relationships, the best strategies for working with stakeholders, how to teach, and so much of life. Research makes sense of things that are opaque. In other words, research helps us make sense of the world. 

It provides insight into human behavior and resource use, as well as into what is happening that we cannot easily see. 

According to the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship (2017), research is

“the process of arriving at dependable solutions to problems/questions/hypotheses through the planned and systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data: it may be applied or theoretical in nature and use quantitative or qualitative methods. (This definition does not include library research that is limited to activities such as compiling bibliographies and searching catalogs)” (para. 4). 

Conducting a formal research study in your library may look like analyzing user counts, conducting a usability test, sending a survey, or conducting a focus group or interviews.  These research methods can help you determine where to place resources, what you should change for stakeholders, whether/how to update staffing policies, or numerous other things that occur in your library. 

How to Start a Research Project

All research projects start with curiosity and a clear question. 

First, determine what topic you wish to know more about. For example, do you want to know more about:

  • Resource use
  • Stakeholder satisfaction
  • User access 
  • Outreach opportunities
  • Etc.

Once you have a broad topic, figure out what you really want to know. In order to determine what you want to know, you need to figure out your research question. If you do not have a clear understanding of what you are researching the data will not be as helpful as it could be.

Developing Research Questions

To write a research question start with a question word. For example, 

  • How 
  • What 
  • Why 
  • Do

How and what are typically qualitative research questions while why and do are typically quantitative questions. Once you have written your research question(s), you will need to decide what research methods best aligns with your question(s). 

Research Methods

There is a lot that I could say about research methods, but for the sake of space, I will just briefly mention the three types of research methods.

Quantitative research methods are: 

  • Objective
  • Focused on numbers
  • Statistics

Qualitative research methods are:

  • Typically exploratory
  • Not focused on numbers
  • Focused on understanding people and behaviors

Types of qualitative research include interviews, comment cards, observations, and focus groups. 

Mixed methods research is a combination of quantitative and qualitative. 

There are many excellent resources that explain research methods in detail. Below I have included a few recommendations. 


While this post stays at the surface level of research, I hope it encourages you to start thinking about how you can add research in your library to best support your users with the resources and services they need. Starting research can be hard, but once it is started, I have found that one project leads to another and momentum builds. Taking time to step back, ask questions, and analyze data has been an invaluable tool in my own career. 


Recommended Resources

American Library Association. (2021). Research methods. LARK. http://www.ala.org/tools/research/larks/researchmethods

Connaway, L. S., & Radford, M. L (2016). Research methods in library and information science (6th ed.). Libraries Unlimited. 

The journal Knowledge Management Research and Practice. https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tkmr20/current

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri. Please read her other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterpriseand GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all sizes and budgets.

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