At the end of LARK’s anniversary year: Three insights for the future

by | Dec 27, 2022 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

By Dr Suzana Sukovic

As we are winding down at the end of the year and wrapping up LARK’s tenth anniversary, it is time for some slow, seasonal reflection. 2022 was a great year for LARK and it is worth looking back at it. More importantly, LARK is part of a bigger picture with practice-based research in its centre, which certainly deserves some thought. In this post, I will cast a brief bird’s-eye view (excuse the pun) on a decade of LARK, and then focus on three major insights for the future.


‘It’s a miracle that baby LARK reached childhood by human measure and, probably, teenage years by measure of longevity of a grassroots group’, I wrote for LARK’s 5th birthday. This not-so-little bird has flown far and high since then, yet I am still a bit surprised that it’s still here, still thriving. Maybe its survival surprises me because, like the lark, the group flies in a bit of a disorderly configuration. Maybe I am surprised because the library and information profession and discipline have had some unexpected, at times disheartening, twists and turns in the last few years. In any case, we confirmed this year that LARK is here to stay, a strong and recognisable Australian voice for research in LIS practice (Note: ‘LIS’ stands for ‘library and information studies’, and is often used as a short-hand for the library and information field).

At the LARK 2022 symposium, I overviewed 10 years of LARK (see slides). Since its inception in late 2012, we have organised meetings and workshops in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth; webinars; and three whole-day symposia in Sydney and online. Nearly all the events were organised and facilitated by a group of volunteers situated in Sydney, although we’ve recently had webinars run from other states. LARK also led the first Antipodean LIS reading group on Twitter in 2015/16 with three facilitators from across Australia. Our presenters and audience, however, have always been national and international.

LARK’s blog has visitors from around the world, the majority from the United States. The last time I counted, the blog had over 240 000 visits, and posts had around 1600 views on average. A closer look at the statistics suggests that a good proportion are genuine views.

In the ten years of its existence, LARK has raised awareness about practice-based research in LIS, and developed a community of practice. Capacity building, advocacy, promotion, and advice provided to professional organisations have all been a regular part of our work. As a grassroots group, we have been in a unique position to foster connections across sectors, profession and academia, as well as with colleagues in other countries.


So, what is ahead for LARK and Australian practice-based research? Reflecting on a decade-long experience of leading LARK, many conversations in this year’s events, and my personal experience of practice-based research in LIS and other fields, I chose three insights to frame my reflection:

  • Research as everyone’s business
  • Head-heart-hands as a paradigm, and
  • From grassroots to landscape.

Research as everyone’s business
Original research has a special attraction for some people. These are our colleagues who travel from afar to be at LARK’s events. Some tell us how LARK gives them a unique sense of a community as no one else shares their interests at places where they live and work. 

Many others, however, are just not interested. They don’t come even when it is most convenient — there is never enough time or energy. For a long time, I thought it might be because we are a small field, and practice-based research isn’t established enough. I admired health professionals and research cultures in their applied disciplines because they have an appreciation of research, and a sense of urgency to use solid evidence unparalleled in other fields. Possibly, uneven enthusiasm in LIS makes sense because of the nature of our work. After all, no one dies because the librarian isn’t interested in research.

However, as it happened, I landed a job in health education research, established a peer-reviewed journal, and worked with health practitioners on publishing their research findings. Repeatedly, I heard research stories and opinions so similar to those I knew from LIS and secondary education until it became apparent that some issues are part and parcel of practice-based research, whatever the field. Research requires a particular mindset — primarily curiosity — and an ability to deal with risk and uncertainty in all disciplines. Some excellent professionals like learning and being up-to-date, but have no desire to be researchers. Research just isn’t for everyone.

Health, however, is a much bigger and better funded field than ours. Evidence-based practice (EBP) and research are placed on a continuum with many degrees. Discussions about the finer points of EBP, evaluation, research, and translational research in health helped in teasing out some meanings and problems in professional practice in general. Caveats aside, an important point of difference between health and LIS emerged from my time in health education research. In health, it is every professional’s job to know about the current evidence. Research matters and it is everyone’s business.

Our profession is yet to develop the same foundational understanding. It isn’t that we don’t know that the original research has value, but the way we question it shows that it isn’t an integral part of our professional thinking. LIS professionals and academics, LARK included, need to continue conversations with professional associations and organisations to raise the research bar for our profession. Research will be done only by some, but it needs to be everyone’s business.

Head-heart-hands paradigm
Learning is powerful when students engage their heads, hearts, and hands. A student needs to understand something with their head, connect it with their heart and do something with their hands. This is an Ignatian pedagogical paradigm, followed by many independent schools in Australia. (See this article as an example of its application. The paradigm is used here as a pedagogical approach regardless of its origins in religion.)

The head-heart-hands approach sounds true for research in practice, which really is another form of learning. We use theoretical knowledge and research skills in our head to apply in our practice — our doing hands. Hands, in turn, inform and guide the head. In between, the heart mediates: an expert’s intuition connects the thinking head and doing hands. This is where our passion to serve our clients resides as well. Practitioners often see research problems differently from academics because they work with head-heart-hands synergy. It is important to understand this point of difference between academic and practice-based research without turning it into a value statement, so that LIS research can benefit from practitioners’ unique research position.

This paradigm could be also applied to some broader changes for LIS in Australia, with parallels in other parts of the world. Many library roles are now performed by professionals from other fields. In recent years, most university LIS departments have ceased to exist, and former academics are becoming practitioners. These trends are positive when they expand the range of skills and experiences; other trends, such as the closures of university departments, are devastating for our field. Whatever their meaning, these trends have a potential to  strengthen the head-heart-hands paradigm. Former academics are becoming important research resources in organisations, and a new range of skills may become an important asset in our professional hands. What are possible alliances between people with different backgrounds and skills? Are we opening new conversations to connect the head, heart, and hands that will lead to new lines of research in practice? It is possible and advisable to harness these trends as an opportunity to improve our research and practice.

LARK already gathers academics and practitioners from different sectors, and we would welcome new people in the library and information practice. We speak languages of different professional groups and could help with the transition, possibly turning some negative trends to our advantage as a field.

From grassroots to landscape
As a grassroots group, LARK has done an important job developing a community of practice, and raising awareness about the importance of LIS research in practice. ALIA’s administrative help was valuable, and we appreciated the support of our employers and other libraries giving us digital and physical spaces for our events. All the work, however, was done by a small group of volunteers who devoted their time and energy to LARK on top of their full-time jobs and busy lives, with no special funding. At the end of our symposium in September, we discussed LARK’s future and agreed it was time for LARK and Australian LIS research in practice to obtain some reliable funding and develop stronger structural support. 

In 2015, when professors Helen Partridge and Lisa Given announced their LISRA project grant at the EBLIP8 conference, I wrote a post about inspiring insights from the conference. It was time to establish purposeful connections between grassroots groups and supporting structures — it was time to develop landscapes, I wrote. This year, Professor Given was the keynote speaker at LARK’s symposium (Prof Given’s slides and blog post can be accessed here). She spoke about LIS research in practice and insights from the LISRA project. At the end of the symposium when we talked about the future, the ambition we shared as LIS professionals and academics back in 2015 felt stronger than ever. We need grassroots groups, but we also need arboreal structures. We need full landscapes.

Finally, birds, body parts, and plants — there are lots of metaphors derived from the organic world in this post. I’d like to suggest that it isn’t accidental. We understand research in practice best when we see it as holistic, connected, and relational: when it is an organic part of our work and everyone’s business.

Very soon LARK will enter a new decade. We hope you will be part of it. In the meantime, stay safe, rest, and enjoy a well-deserved break.

Dr Suzana Sukovic is the Director of Research and Library Services, PLC Sydney. She is LARK’s founder and convenor.

Twitter: @suzanasukovic


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