by Anne Turner, MLIS Evening
Some students enter the MLIS program with a fairly clear idea of where they would like to work once they complete the degree. Others, like me, begin the program with a fuzzy sense that this program is a good fit and that something interesting is bound to happen along the way to help answer that perennial question "what am I going to do when I grow up?" For me, a potential professional path has emerged during the course of an internship I've been pursuing within the iSchool that has given me an opportunity to delve into information behavior research.
Like any other member of the iSchool student body, I recognize that I have a limited amount of time and energy to devote to the learning experience. I'm a member of the evening cohort, and I have a young child who I care for during the day. As a result, I can rarely take advantage of the many career and networking opportunities that often occur during the day at the I-School. My situation is hardly unique, however; distance students in the MLIS program face these logistical limitations as well. Being removed from the daily activities on campus should not be a barrier to involvement . . . however, it does require some flexibility of thinking and creativity on all sides.
My journey with research began last fall when I noticed an email that Professor Karen Fisher had sent to the iSchool community indicating she had some opportunities for students to work with her Information Behavior in Everyday Contexts, or IBEC, project. I had just finished LIS 510 and had utilized several of Karen's research articles in my class work. I had already made a mental note to try and meet this researcher whose work made so much sense to me and helped me to form some initial understanding of the frameworks surrounding library and information science. To be perfectly honest, however, I worried that I, a fairly new member of this program, would have precious little to offer any research effort and might only embarrass myself in the process. So, I turned to another faculty member for advice and voiced my fears plainly: something like "am I completely crazy to think I would qualify for this?" or words to that effect. Thankfully the iSchool is a collegial and supportive environment, and my voice of wisdom on the faculty reassured me that I wouldn't regret indicating my interest. (Thanks Trent!)
Any concerns that I had quickly disappeared once I met with Professor Fisher. Energetic and very supportive, she found a use for my skills right away. We were able to construct a project schedule that allowed me to work largely from home and during the confines of my schedule. Every month or so I would need to attend a meeting with other team members, but everyone was always open to considering my limited availability, and a little creative babysitting solved every dilemma. The team creates a very open environment and provides multiple resources and talents to draw upon.
My initial project with IBEC involved constructing a database of everyday life information seeking references that would eventually be launched in the IBEC website. Soon, I was able to contribute my efforts to other studies and I have been able to explore, in practice, many aspects of the research process. One IBEC project that I've been closely involved in has been a study of consumer health information behavior and Internet health resources, conducted in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and their resource NC Health Info . I've conducted qualitative interviews with research participants, coded qualitative interviews, worked with quantitative data, and presented a poster at the 2004 ASIST conference. I'm now contributing to publishing efforts. I will also be able to work on several other upcoming studies, such as the NIH-funded exploratory study of the interpersonal information seeking behavior of two groups, tweens and stay-at-home mothers.
There have also been other benefits of this collaboration with a faculty member. In addition to valuable mentoring from Professor Fisher, I have been able to make fruitful personal contacts with faculty, undergraduates, MLIS and MSIM graduate students, and Ph. D. students here at the iSchool and at other institutions. It has been a tremendous educational opportunity and chance for research experience.
The University of Washington's Information School is a premier research institution, and the I-School's research efforts make it one of the most highly-regarded LIS programs in the country. As I work towards the completion of my MLIS and, even more importantly, future professional opportunities and experiences, I view my IBEC association as a critical element of my education. I would encourage other interested students to seek out collaborations with members of the information community. Don't let logistical hurdles such as time or distance prevent you from exploring avenues of scholarship or collaboration that truly capture your interest and excitement. Without the mentoring, networking opportunities, conference and publication experience that I've received through this internship, I might still be asking "what will I be when I grow up". Happily, I have a better idea now.