I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of research–practice partnerships (RPPs) and how they can advance library services for youth. These partnerships—which undertake collaborative, often multidisciplinary research—lead to outcomes informed by actual practice. They can provide opportunities to gain insight into what makes successful library learning and solutions to the challenges facing youth librarianship. And because RPPs are rooted in real experiences, those entering the field of librarianship can learn, as part of their academic training, what the work ahead actually entails.
The Research + Practice Collaboratory, a nonprofit that develops and tests new approaches to research and practice, says that such jointly conducted research “can produce tools and findings that speak directly to the concerns of educators. This approach may also represent a more ethical approach to education research by giving equal voice to the insights, experiences, and complex working conditions of practitioners on the front lines.”
In a 2013 white paper, the William T. Grant Foundation produced a framework and five conditions for successful RPPs. They:
- are long term
- focus on problems of practice
- are committed to mutualism
- use intentional strategies to foster partnership
- produce original analyses
While much of the foundation’s work focuses on school classrooms, its recommendations can easily be applied to a public or school library setting. Within a library context, examples of these five conditions can be found within two Institute of Museum and Library Services–funded projects, VIEWS2 (Valuable Initiatives in Early Learning that Work Successfully) and ConnectedLib.
The VIEWS2 project set about to answer the question, “How can we know whether the early literacy focus of our storytimes makes a difference for children learning to read successfully?” In this multiyear endeavor, library staff members worked with researchers to uncover and then articulate essential practices for high-quality storytimes. The results inspired techniques for replicating these practices and methods for achieving outcomes.
The benefits to long-term library practice and policy make RPPs worth the effort.
The RPP currently under way as a part of the ConnectedLib project brings together researchers and teen library staffers who serve a variety of populations, including rural, immigrant, and low-income youth. The goal is to figure out how to best integrate connected learning practices into teen-focused library activities. Researchers have collected data through site observations, focus groups, and interviews with teen services staff members. They are currently working with practicing librarians to create professional development models that support connected learning integration, and they plan to publish resources to help libraries embed connected learning into their initiatives.
RPPs do not have to start with a researcher approaching a library; staff members can be proactive and reach out to researchers. It’s also possible that other youth-serving agencies can be involved in the work. A library and a Boys and Girls Club, for example, might work with a researcher as part of a partnership.
No matter who starts the partnership or where the idea comes from, certain prerequisites need to be addressed, including adequate funding, a clear development of partner roles, and relationship-building between partners. RPPs aren’t necessarily easy to undertake, but the benefits to long-term library practice and policy make them worth the effort.
For more ideas on starting a partnership, I highly recommend the Educational Researcher article, “Research–Practice Partnerships in Education: Outcomes, Dynamics, and Open Questions,” by Cynthia E. Coburn and William R. Penuel.
Keep in mind that it’s possible, and even beneficial, that RPPs will lead to new inquiries and opportunities for discovery and problem solving that go beyond the original focus. Look at the research–practice partnership as a starting point.