I can’t make bricks without clay: A Sherlock Holmesian approach to Research and EBLIP

by Marjorie Mitchell
Librarian, Learning and Research Services
UBC Okanagan Library

Sherlock Holmes was invoked in the inaugural post of Brain-Work, the C-EBLIP blog, and I would like to revisit Conan-Doyle for the inspiration of this post. So, being a curious librarian, I searched “Sherlock Holmes and research” and came across the heading “What user researchers can learn from Sherlock Holmes.” The author, Dr. Philip Hodgson, took quotes from a variety of the Sherlock Holmes novels and laid out a five-step research process for investigators working in the user-experience field. As I read Dr. Hodgson’s article, it struck me there was a strong kinship between the user-experience community and the library community that extends beyond the electronic world. I also believe Hodgson’s steps provide a reasonable starting point for novice evidence-based library and information practice (EBLIP) researchers to follow.

Step 1 – According to Hodgson, the first step is understanding the problem, or formulating the question. I would adapt it even further and suggest being curious is the very first step. If we’re not curious, we can’t identify what we want to know, or the question we hope to answer. Perhaps a mindset of being open to the discomfort of not knowing motivates researchers to embark on the adventure of inquiry. Once my curiosity has been aroused, I move to formulating a question. Personally, my question remains somewhat fluid as I begin my research because there are times I really don’t have enough information to formulate an answerable question at the beginning of my research.

Step 2 – Collecting the facts, or as I prefer to call it, gathering the evidence, follows. This is one of the juicy, tingly, exciting parts of research. Once I have a question, I think about what information will answer the question. Sometimes simply reading the literature will give me enough of an answer. At other times, I have to go further. Even just thinking about methods can send a shiver of excitement through me. Administering surveys, or conducting interviews, or running the reports from the ILS in hopes it will illuminate some arcane or novel library user behavior are all ways of collecting juicy evidence; it is exciting to see initial results come in and begin to decipher what the results are actually saying. Sometimes the results are too skimpy, or inconclusive, and the evidence gathering net needs to be cast again in a different spot for better results.

Step 3 – Hodgson suggests the next step should be developing a hypothesis to explain the facts you have gathered. This is one step, as much or more than the others, that requires our brain-work. Here we bring our former knowledge to bear on the results and how they relate to the question. It is a time for acute critical thinking as we take the results of our evidence gathering and determine their meaning(s). Several possible meaning may arise at this stage. Hodgson implies it is important to remain open to the multiple meanings and work to understand the evidence gathered in preparation for the next step.

Step 4 – In this step, Hodgson is especially Holmsian. He suggests it is now time to eliminate the weaker hypotheses in order to come closer to a solution. The focus on user experience research is especially strong here. Specific, actionable solutions are being sought to the question identified in the first step. Here he recommends evaluating your evidence to eliminate the weaker evidence in favor of the stronger. He is also cognizant of the need to have solutions that will be affordable and able to be implemented in a given situation. While the whole of this step may not apply to all research, much of it will.

Step 5 – Implementation or action now have their turn. Again, Hodgson is speaking directly to the user experience audience here. However, implementation or action based on research may lead to a decision to not implement or act upon a suggestion. The strength lies in the process around reaching this decision. Questions were asked; evidence was gathered; analysis took place; judgment was applied. As Hodgson pointed out, this is a much better process than proceeding by intuition.

Finally, I would like to add a Step 6 to Hodgson’s list. In order to really know whether the action implemented had the desired effect, or an unintended effect, it is important to evaluate the results of the action or change. In the effort to publish results of research, timeliness is an issue. It is not often possible to have the luxury of the amount of time it would take to be able to measure an effect. However, even in those cases, I am interested in what type of evaluation might take place at a later date. Sometimes researchers will address their future evaluation plans, sometimes they don’t. Even if they aren’t being shared, I hope they are being considered.

This is a simple and elegant plan for research. In its simplicity, it glosses over many of the messy complications that arise when conducting research. That said, I hope this post encourages librarians to follow their curiosity down the path of 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.