Research Articles?

Fisher, Jeffrey C., and Don A. Wicks. “Bookmobile Services to Homeschoolers in Ohio.” Bookmobiles and Outreach Services 7, no. 1: 7-28.

There are many problems endemic in research and writing by and about librarians and homeschoolers, and this article is a perfect example. (Sadly, it’s not freely available online, so you’ll have to use your mad librarian skills if you want to find a copy to examine yourself.)

First of all, who even knew there was a journal called Bookmobiles and Outreach Services? Who knew it was published by the Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship at Clarion University of Pennsylvania? Who knew there even was a Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship – at Clarion or anywhere else?

That’s right. Next to no one.

And why is that?

That’s because, at least in public libraries, the people out on the front lines are shockingly out of touch with the scholarship that’s going on and the people doing the research are shockingly out of touch with front line workers. Much of the “research” that’s going on is of the “publish or perish” variety that doesn’t do much besides help people cling to their positions and possibly get tenure or promotions. I don’t want to knock it; this is what these people have to do to work, and I fully support people’s desire to stay employed. However, this has created a body of literature that isn’t particularly helpful and, even if it is helpful, isn’t being found and used.

Which brings me back to our article.

I want to take a moment here to say that I fully recognize the difficulty of what Fisher and Wicks are attempting to do. Homeschoolers are hard to get a handle on. If there is anything that unites them as a group, it is their tendency to guard their privacy and distrust anything that sounds too official. Many of them won’t self-identify, and it’s notoriously difficult to get together a statically significant sample of homeschoolers. Even so, studies like this aren’t the answer.

In order to determine how many homeschoolers were using bookmobile services and what services homeschoolers were using, the authors asked the people who run the bookmobiles. Basically, this is equivalent to conducting a survey to find out how many brown-eyed people visit the library by asking the director. Perhaps the director can give you an estimate, but it’s based on perception, not data. In order to get hard data, one needs to do an entrance or exit survey of actual users. The authors of this study mention that this was an option for them, but they decided not to pursue it because, in my words, it was too hard. I appreciate their honesty, and I wish I saw more of it carry though the rest of the article. What the article as a whole neglected to mention repeatedly was that, for instance, bookmobile staff *perceived* that homeschoolers were using the bookmobile more in 2004 than they were in 1999 and that they *perceived* that homeschoolers were using some services more than others. Ultimately, this is a study of staff awareness, opinions, and attitudes – not, as the authors assert, what homeschoolers are actually doing. To find out what the homeschoolers are up to, we need to ask them. Doing that is less simple than it sounds, but that would make for a much more worthwhile and useful study.

This is the sort of thing I’m coming across again and again in my research. These articles can be interesting but are generally unreliable. I suppose I don’t have any room to criticize, since I am not a scientist and am certainly not out there conducting research, but SIGH. Maybe in another life….

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