What if we talked about capacity for research, not research competencies?

by Selinda Berg
Schulich School of Medicine – Windsor Program
Leddy Library, University of Windsor
University Library Researcher in Residence, University of Saskatchewan

[For the first time, I am making a blog post that puts out ‘there’ some ideas that I have been working on, which will hopefully evolve into a published paper. In the past, I have been someone that has been hesitant to blog in this way, but I am pushing myself in a new direction.]

Lately, I have been studying and contemplating multiple theoretical frameworks that span the humanities, social sciences, and health sciences. Reading these works and their framing of complex and changing environments have led me to question the current emphasis on competencies in librarianship. In this project, I am considering the ways that librarianship may benefit from making a shift away from its focus on competencies and move towards adopting the concept of capacity. Whereas competency focuses on the abilities, knowledge, and skills to successfully complete a task, capacity is the faculty or potential for experiencing, appreciating, and adapting. Capacity is about growth: growth of the individual in knowledge and experience.

We have recently seen an influx of documents addressing the competencies of librarians, including the research competencies of librarians (for example: see CARL, 2007). While these documents have value, they are one piece of a much larger puzzle. In this post, I want to consider the ways in which a shift towards a focus on capacity for research may initiate positive changes in our understanding and approach to research:

Embrace research as a learning process: There is no one static set of skills or abilities that will prepare someone to “do” research. The abilities, skills, and knowledge that I have gained by completing my PhD will not “set me up” for my next research study or for the research project that I undertake after that. I will have to learn new methods, try out new technologies, consider new theoretical frameworks, and certainly evolve my ideas. Research does not require a static set of skills and abilities (competencies), but rather the ability to continually evolve in our knowledge and abilities (capacity). As librarians, most of us have taken one, two, or three research methods courses. However published research, formal and informal conversations, and personal experience suggests that this framework of skills has not fully prepared us to successfully undertake research. We need to reframe our thinking and acknowledge that our greatest strength is our curiosity and our ability to evolve.

Encourage a research program: As noted above, research is not Rinse and Repeat. Our goal should not be to repeat the research that we have done before, but rather to develop a research program that evolves our ideas, builds off of our results, delves deeper into issues, and looks at questions at different angles and through different lenses. The realization that our success relies not on our current set of skills but our ability to evolve and grow our understandings will encourage us to push further and delve deeper into a topic and in turn, develop a strong program of research.

Empower librarians to know that we can: Embracing the idea that we have the ability to learn, to grow, and to adapt will move us away from conversations (within and outside of the profession) that focus on “Librarians were not trained to be researchers,” “Librarians do not have PhDs,” and “Librarians don’t have the skills to do research.” We need to embrace the notion that we can evolve and transform to meet the challenges presented by new research opportunities and we must take the time for these processes to take place. All researchers have to dedicate significant time to exploring and learning the context of a topic, to explore the wide of array of possible techniques for study, and to consider the way in which they can contribute a new understanding of a topic. It is quite possible that our first projects will not have the perfect research question, method, instrument or theoretical frameworks but from that, we should be motivated and inspired to learn and grow—to tap into our capacity.

Research success relies on more than a set of skills: While the skills and abilities to do research are important, capacity recognizes that there are factors at play beyond skills. Personal commitment, institutional commitment, resources to support research, and the allocation and dedication of time to transform and evolve are potentially as important or more important factors in fulfilling both personal capacity and institutional capacity for research. Capacity is the potential to grow and experience but it is critical to realize that potential requires more than a set of skills to complete a task.

Competencies are the skills we need to complete a task. But research is not a task, it is a process. Librarians, in all areas of their professional responsibilities, transform and evolve to meet the needs of the new challenges and opportunities. As librarians, we need to recognize that our biggest asset is our ability to learn and to grow–our capacity for research.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.