Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


January 2004

Vol VIII Issue I

ischool logo
Information School
University of Washington
About the Silverfish
Editorial Board
Submission Guidelines
Current Issue


Next article >>  

Interview with Ph.D. student Phil Edwards

By Katy Shaw
Just before Christmas I had a chance to sit down first-year Ph.D. student Phil Edwards and chat with him about his research interests and professional goals. Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.

Silverfish: Please tell us a little about your background.

Phil: I grew up in Buffalo, New York …and went to the University of Buffalo for my undergraduate degree. I majored in Chemistry and minored in Math. …In the middle of my undergraduate degree there was a course on chemical information and chemical information resources…that we were required to take. And that really struck my fancy. That was better to me, and more fulfilling to me, than doing lab work…—actually knowing publication patterns and [the] history of [how] the discipline developed in terms of the literature and the way that information was structured. So that sort of pushed me to go to into Library and Information Science.

I went to the University of Michigan School of Information for my Master’s, which I just finished up this past spring, and while I was at Michigan—wanting to be a science reference librarian coming in—[I] was introduced to the Internet Public Library and the ways in which collections and service were offered online in some sort of an electronic environment. That was really interesting to me. That was…one of the things that I started to feel passionate about and had questions that I wanted to have answered that hadn’t been addressed yet. [This interest] pushed me to go into a Ph.D. program, which is why I ended up here, essentially.

Silverfish: So you’re primarily interested in digital reference?

Phil: Yeah. I’m really interested in digital reference services—reference service offered via e-mail, real-time chat, through call-center software, voice-over IP—sorts of interactions that are enabled by technology and networking and things like that.

Silverfish: Have you started your research into that yet?

Phil: No, not yet. [As a first-year student I am] still in the coursework phase of things.... Eventually we’ll move on to doing something more in line with the document that will actually let me go into the job as a faculty member somewhere. But...I still try to keep up with the field and where things are going.

Silverfish: What classes did you take last quarter?

Phil: I had Information Retrieval…with Wanda Pratt, a real relatively basic introduction to user-centered design and interface design and information retrieval all sort of rolled into one … package. I had information retrieval and interface design as part of the curriculum in Michigan [so] a lot of it was review, but there were things and discussions that developed …[that] really helped to sort of challenge me at least, even having seen this material before. The level of discourse was a little higher.

[I also took a] Research Design course—the introductory one that Batya Friedman taught—where we basically were introduced to different types of quantitative and qualitative research design. One of the main products of that course was to basically write a grant proposal. …We went through budgeting, we went through choice of method, how to construct a literature review and create a compelling case for doing a particular piece of research that someone would be willing to pay for, or to pay to have done. That was an interesting course as well. It really…seemed to give us all a foundation from which to work and discuss the various topics that we’re interested in at this point.

[I also took] faculty seminar. …We usually had one or two faculty members come in each week to discuss their… research agenda and some of the advice that they would have to offer us as incoming Ph.D. students, which …gave us a good chance to see…the diversity of the research interests among the faculty at this point.

Silverfish: You were saying that you recently went to a conference and did a presentation. What was the conference and what did you present on?

Phil: The conference was the Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) Conference that the Information Institute at Syracuse, OCLC, Reference and User Services Association—I think Department of Education—and various agencies basically fund[ed] [as a] get-together for the digital reference community. It’s an interesting conference because one of the things that’s emphasized is that it’s practitioners and academics coming together to present research, present case studies, to basically engage in some sort of dialogue surrounding the same topic—digital reference, or how reference service is offered in modern libraries.

I presented…about the economics of services like this—how we make choices about what modes in which we’re going to offer reference service. The things that I looked at in particular were the costing models that were used in libraries traditionally…how we assess how much things cost and make decisions based on the most cost-effective method for doing things, for providing service. A second component of that is really understanding the impact and benefit that these services give to the communities that we’re serving—which has been neglected largely in these cost studies. … I [tried to push] people toward thinking about these things not as two distinct fields of research, but to look for some way to integrate the things that all of those methods tell us to really make a compelling case for making service decisions and deciding what type of services to offer—deciding between alternatives. That’s something that we don’t necessarily think about in professional practice.

Silverfish: Research in that area would especially benefit special librarians, who typically have to quantify their work to their employers to justify their existence. They could use it as evidence to explain why library positions are important.

Phil: A lot of the special library literature on…cost efficiency and cost-benefit analysis tend[s] to focus on this idea that you’re going to get a… number. ... I’d like to think that it’s not that simple because, when we think of public libraries and the sorts of things that they offer—what’s the value of having a literate, educated population or community? Those are the things that—it’s really hard to use one of these magic number type [of] methods to come up with a really rich picture of what you’re actually doing.

It was funny to actually look out over the audience when I was doing my presentation because as soon as we hit the special library topics you saw some people who would nod. …I would infer that those were the special librarians in the crowd because their eyes lit up and they started to nod and I knew that I had someone who I had at least connected with on some level. But I think this compelling and this is sort of the thing that can get people really excited about finding new methods for making decisions like this, between alternatives.

Silverfish: So, you also mentioned that you are writing an article. Do you write articles regularly?

Phil: I try to. It’s a little difficult given the course load and teaching load and conference schedule in the fall—for me at least. But Joe [Janes] and Lorri [Mon] and I have sort of hacked together this…article for an upcoming issue of The Reference Librarian. It’s trying to take a look at the way the digital reference services have been assessed in the literature. [It is] a…meta-analysis of case studies and evaluative frameworks that have been published…to try to make some sense of them, to try and give people who are managing these services some framework where they can pick and choose various methods to answer various questions. The field somewhat lacks some direction in this sense because there are so many different methods that you can choose from and so many questions that you could potentially want to answer. It’s a matter of …trying to match up the questions that they are trying to ask with the answers that you are going to get and using methods that are appropriate for that—for collecting that sort of data.

Silverfish: You were saying earlier that you also have done some book reviews. What books have you reviewed recently?

Phil: Most recently, I finished up a review of Joe’s new Introduction to Reference Work in a Digital Age. I’ve also taken a look at—a [volume of] conference proceedings… where the contributors all look[ed] at the way in which library service works its way into a distance education and distributed learning environment and what role the library has there. The conference itself was called Libraries Without Walls—this is Libraries Without Walls IV that I recently reviewed. There’s some really interesting international ways of looking at where libraries fit into some broader picture, and that was a really interesting piece of work to look at.

Silverfish: What are your personal interests? What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Phil: Oh my God! Free time!?!

Silverfish: Do you have free time?

Phil: Yes, I have free time (laughs). I play guitar…acoustic primarily because it’s easier to move and it disturbs the neighbors less.

Silverfish: How do you like Seattle so far?

Phil: It’s really a nice place to live. I think primarily just because it is so diverse—you can go to a different district and get a completely different feel—which is much different than Ann Arbor when I was in Michigan and Buffalo, which is a radically different type of city. So Seattle has been good to me so far. I’ve got that nice moisturized glow from being wet all the time.


Phil Edwards