Qualitative approaches in library research: The art of listening to the untold stories

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Every library user has a story to tell about their experience of visiting a library. Even people who don’t visit libraries have their stories about libraries and why they don’t use them. These stories are a rich source of data for Library and Information Science (LIS) researchers to gain an in-depth understanding of people’s lived experiences and perceptions of libraries. Nonetheless, there are few opportunities for people to narrate and share their stories of libraries, and as a result, most of them remain untold and unheard.

From a methodological point of view, qualitative methodologies (e.g. phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, etc.) are effective means of listening to these stories and discovering the hidden concepts that impact users’ interaction with libraries. Researchers who adopt qualitative methodologies do not have any hypothesis to test or even any theoretical proposition to verify. They are keen to listen and understand what is happening in a real setting and how people make meaning from various phenomena and events.

In particular, the qualitative approach enables us to listen to the marginalised groups because we do not generalise the findings. We try to discover hidden realities, untold stories and forgotten minorities. For instance, Dowdell and Liew (2019) explored the information-seeking behaviour of public libraries homeless clients and how libraries meet their needs. They report:

“The main finding of this research has been that despite the significant and rising homeless population in NZ, none of the four public libraries who participated had any policies, practices, or services that specifically addressed the information needs of homeless people. This was despite their library services being used regularly by homeless patrons who were seeking information on an almost daily basis. It was also surprising that none of the librarians interviewed were aware of the IFLA Guidelines for Library Services to People Experiencing Homelessness that have been under development since 2012.”

As these findings show, while there is no reflection of their stories in the library policies, they have been among the library’s most loyal users. As a result, the first benefit of studies like this is raising awareness of problems in real contexts.


Dowdell, L., & Liew, C. L. (2019). More than a shelter: Public libraries and the information needs of people experiencing homelessness. Library & Information Science Research41(4), 100984. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2019.100984

Published by Yazdan Mansourian

More about Yazdan.

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