It’s been said that intelligence is the ability to make connections: to see why one event leads to another; to see how ideas link to others; to understand the impact one’s actions have on the world and other people. Academic research is all about making connections whether in the form of combining ideas in Hegelian dialectic or discovering the correlations between discrete bits of data. On Tuesday, I attended the LIS DREaM Project (Developing Research Excellence and Methods) Launch Conference in London and discovered one of its key themes to be the idea of connections: connections between people in the form of academic collaboration and connections between subjects in the form of cross-disciplinary research and consilience.
Connections between people
|Bringing people together|
These intra-discipline connections are important but the real emphasis of the conference was on making connections outside of one’s comfort zone. In his brilliant keynote speech, Blaise Cronin defined the comfort zone of LIS research by presenting an overview of the current state of the field. One concern is the danger of ‘cookie-cutter research’: doing research for the sake of doing research. This results in unoriginal and redundant studies particularly in the United States where a condition of an academic librarian’s tenure is churning out a certain amount of research. Academic research can also be further hampered by the tendency to work exclusively with people that one is familiar with. This may seem oxymoronic (‘how could you work with someone who you aren’t familiar with?’) but Blaise framed it in terms of the Allen curve: the phenomenon whereby one is more likely to work with people to whom one is in close proximity which shows that ideological similarities, shared research interests, or intellectual compatibility are less important to likelihood of collaboration than sitting in the same office.
Collaborating with people across disciplinary boundaries is one way to escape the comfort zone as well as the ‘echo chamber’ of LIS research. A theme of the breakout sessions was building connections through cross-disciplinary collaboration. One session gave the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration – new ideas, wider dissemination, new outputs, the building of trust – while Gunilla Widén’s discussed the importance of bridging the gap between theoreticians and practitioners, in LIS and in other disciplines. Cross-disciplinary collaboration can lead to exciting, original projects like Gina Czarnecki and Sara Rankin’s Palaces project: they are an artist and scientist respectively who are building a palace out of milk-teeth to highlight the potential use of medical waste in stem cell research. Gina and Sara talked about how collaboration often starts from shared beliefs such as the two’s shared belief in stem cell research. When people discover beliefs and ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries, working together across boundaries makes sense.
Connections between subjects
|Barriers to research?|
I went to the LIS DREaM conference for several reasons: because I can’t resist a clever acronym; because I’m considering PhD research; and, most importantly, because of my interest in consilience. Both of my dissertations were meta-research investigating how research is done and both were framed around the idea of consilience. I’ve written about consilience before – here, here, and lately in this essay I wrote for the British Wittgenstein Society. Consilience is the thesis that everything is connected and that making connections across all disciplines is the best way of describing the universe. The map of all links between all subjects creates a rhizomatic web at the centre of which “the world will somehow come clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense.” (E. O. Wilson, Consilience: the unity of knowledge) Consilience is thus the ultimate form of cross-disciplinary collaboration.
At one point during the breakout sessions, Biddy Fisher said that making lateral connections is the specialist skill of librarians. We make connections, we house materials spanning subjects, we classify, we create thesauri, and we use metadata to link items. Professor Cronin provides a good example. He may be the finest example I’ve ever met of the ‘librarian as polymath’: his talk drew on an astonishing breadth of knowledge and brought out dozens of fascinating interconnections between ideas. In order to provide a support service, librarians learn a little about a lot. I believe that support services like academic libraries and digital libraries have a great role to play in making these connections and fostering consilience (for more on this Consilience-Library Theory, please see Chapter 2 of my MA dissertation). Connections – between people and subjects – are important in academic research and therefore librarians with the ability to make connections are important to academic research. Hopefully as the DREaM Project continues, these connections will continue to reveal their importance.
|Everything is connected|