In our latest blog post, Jenaya Webb and Shailoo Bedi consider the current Covid landscape and how researchers are turning to visual research methods (VRM) as a valuable tool for exploring social phenomena – at a distance.
Like many researchers, we are currently thinking about what our research practice looks like in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers in LIS and the social sciences who may have previously focused on research methods such as interviews or observations, have had to re-think their methodological approaches. During this time of social distancing, faculty, and graduate students alike are looking to new research methods and data collection strategies to move forward with their research. At our own institutions, we’ve seen an increased interest in research methods that allow data to be collected remotely such as systematic and scoping reviews, online interviewing and ethnographic approaches, and social media data analysis.
As we watch the nature of work and research shifting in our own institutions, we feel that visual methods such as photo-elicitation, photo essay, and draw-and-write techniques, are uniquely positioned to provide insights into the unexpected situations in which we are living, working, studying, and researching.
Documenting distance through visuals
Recently, Amy Matcalfe from the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, Canada, aligned visual methods with the pandemic environment by sharing her experiences during the pandemic through a photo essay. For Metcalfe, the photo essay method offered a compelling way to capture, reflect on, and document her work-life experience. Acknowledging that all photography is socially constructed, she explains “I entered the ‘field’ of the university with my camera and a desire to see for both myself and others just what was happening” (Metcalfe, 2021, p. 7). In this way, Metcalfe’s photo essay presents an example of how visual methods can help capture, document, and understand academic life during a global pandemic.
In our socially distanced context, we feel that visual methods, and participant-drive methods in particular, have much to offer in terms of both understanding and documenting our experiences. LIS scholars and others certainly recognize the value of visual methods as a way to understand research participants’ life experiences from a distance. For example, in her work exploring the study habits of students enrolled in online courses offered through Oregon State University, Stephanie Buck used photographic methods to get a glimpse into the experiences of students who were studying away from their home institutions. She asked her research participants to take photos of their study spaces and record their academic activities over the course of seven weeks (Buck, 2016). She also conducted three interviews with each participant to discuss their photos and understand their experiences studying remotely. We believe that Buck’s work provides a valuable illustration of how visual methods (and photographic methods in particular) are well positioned to engage remote research participants whose day-to-day research practices may not be easy to investigate.
Similarly, in their ground-breaking work, Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (2007), Foster and Gibbons sought, in part, to understand the student experience outside of the library itself. In her contribution to this project, Photo Surveys: Eliciting More Than You Knew to Ask For, Judi Briden describes using a photo elicitation method to better understand students’ work and study practices once they had left the library space (Briden, 2007). For Briden, using photographs provided an insight into the lives of her research participants that researchers don’t normally get to see. As Briden put it, “We now understand much more about our students’ lives beyond the doors of the library” (Briden, 2007 p. 47).
An invitation to visual research methods
In our recently published book, Visual Research Methods: An introduction for Library and Information Studies, we provide an introduction to visual research methods and review their application in research and assessment in LIS. Additionally, the six contributed chapters in the book showcase examples of visual methods in action and offer the insights, inspirations, and experiences of researchers and practitioners working with visual methods. With this book we aimed to demonstrate that visual research methods can offer new perspectives on complex questions and can bring novel insights to both emerging and long-standing questions in LIS. We use visual methods in our own research and advocate for their use in LIS because we believe they allow researchers and professionals to engage deeply with participants in a way which can lead to the co-creation of new knowledge that more commonly used methods such as surveys and focus groups cannot (Bedi and Webb, 2020).
The research and examples in the first several chapters of the book draw on our own experiences using visual methods to study student experiences in our in physical spaces at two academic libraries in Canada, the University of Toronto and the University of Victoria. We sought to understand how students were using the library spaces by asking questions such as:
- How do users navigate the library once they leave the service desk?
- How do users locate places and items in the library and where, specifically, do they encounter barriers?
- How do students shape or reshape their study spaces?
- What type of learning goes on in library spaces?
- What is missing from the space and design that might impact their learning or general experience of the space?
When we completed the book in early 2020, we weren’t anticipating the global pandemic that would begin to impact our lives in March of that same year. Now, with most of the physical libraries at institutions closed due to the pandemic, we find ourselves thinking about whether and how to continue our research. At the same time, as we, our colleagues, and the students and faculty we support, have moved outside the walls of the library and the university into new remote working and living spaces, we find ourselves with new research questions. How have we shaped our work and study spaces at home? How are students, faculty, and librarians coping with this new reality? What does this tell us about work-life going forward? How is work being defined in this context? How are professional identities being shaped because of remote working? How does one’s environment shape or inform the work that is happening?
Building on work such as Briden’s and Buck’s as well as the contributing authors in our book, we see new possibilities for using visual methods (and participatory visual methods in particular) to contribute to the scholarly discussion about work, research, and study during the pandemic. For LIS researchers and practitioners who are seeking to continue to explore social phenomena during a time of social distancing, we encourage you to think about using a visual research approach, not just as an add on for illustrative or documentary purposes but rather as a way to engage in constructing knowledge differently. In the context of social distancing during COVID-19, visual research methods such as photo-elicitation and draw-and-write techniques provide a unique opportunity to reach out to our communities and to capture things happening during this time in the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.
- Bedi, S. & Webb, J. (Eds.). (2020). Visual Research Methods: An introduction for Library and Information Studies. Facet Publishing.
- Briden, J. (2007). Photo surveys: Eliciting more than you knew to ask for. In S. Gibbons, & N. F. Foster, (Eds.). Studying students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (pp. 40-47). Association of College and Research Libraries.
- Buck, S. (2016). In Their Own Voices: Study Habits of Distance Education Students. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 10 (3–4), 137–173. https://doi.org/10.1080/1533290X.2016.1206781
- Foster, N. F. and Gibbons, S. (Eds.) (2007). Studying students: The undergraduate research project at the University of Rochester. Association of College and Research Libraries.
- Metcalfe, A. S. (2021) Visualizing the COVID-19 pandemic response in Canadian higher education: an extended photo essay, Studies in Higher Education, 46:1, 5-18. https://www-tandfonline-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/full/10.1080/03075079.2020.1843151
Dr. Shailoo Bedi is Director, Student Academic Success and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Educational Psychology & Leadership Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada.
Jenaya Webb is Public Services and Research Librarian at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Library at the University of Toronto, Canada.
They are the editors of Visual Research Methods: An introduction for Library and Information Studies, published by Facet Publishing in October 2020. Paperback ISBN: 9781783304561. eBook ISBN: 9781783304585