Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I got ethics!!!!!!!

Well, it has taken since April, so what is that, 5 months (!) of my life working towards getting ethics approval. Finally I have success! I have approval from my institution and from one of the States whose prisons I will be visiting. Still waiting on two more States to say I can come and play.  What an effort. I have been most surprised along the way by the attitudes of so many people with whom I have shared my tales of ethics submissions and amendments and resubmissions. So many people don't just hate the ethics process, they hate the poor people on the ethics committees whom they see as deliberately obstructive, difficult and stupid.  There is genuine anger and hate out there! At first I tried to defend the process and the people, but now I just shut up and listen to the particular stories of woe and delay that these people have experienced at the hands of the ethics committees in question. There is no converting the angry, I have decided, so I just try to be sympathetic.

Anyway, a big and happy step for me. Now I have to actually do some work!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Research framework update

In an earlier post I was congratulating myself on having settled on a research methodology/framework - case studies.  I thought that this was a good fit with what I wanted to do.  I put this suggestion to my lovely supervisors and I thought they were happy and it was all systems go for case studies.  I was about to immerse myself in Yin's works to get myself thoroughly familiar with case studies.  Then came a meeting with my supervisors where it became clear that I had misinterpreted their support.  Bummer. They were of the opinion that case studies is not a research framework, but is nothing more than a data creation technique.  Big sigh.  In talking with another academic, she said that this view was old-fashioned and that plenty of PhDs were based on a case study method.

Anyway, mine can't be. Which (as usual!) turns out to be just fine as I now have settled on phenomenology as a framework, using case studies to gather my data.  This is actually a whole lot better and I have since heard from other people, whose opinions I trust, that case studies can be a method,  but are best left as a data gathering technique.  I had looked a phenomenology a bit before, thinking that it would fit quite well, but the philosophy and all those dead German men that wrote about it put me right off.  I was being intellectually lazy too.  Some of the writing about it is totally impenetrable twaddle designed to show off the author's brain power rather than to communicate anything useful.  But, having delved deeper, some of the writing about it is quite plain and practical and it is these writings that have made me feel comfortable with the framework and its concepts.

So, phenomenology it is!  I can almost spell it too, now.  In the interests of staying positive:

Ethics and more ethics

So, because my research will put me into direct contact with prisoners, I need to get ethics clearance from my university.  What an interesting process it is has been.  It has made me describe my project, what its goals are and how I am going to go about gathering my data.  I have ended up doing this much earlier in the process than I anticipated because the committee only meets once a month and I wanted to get through all the hoops before my confirmation in July.  I managed it and I have been granted approval subject to minor alterations. I consider this to be a great success and I will make the changes and it will be a better project because of them.  The real benefit came from going through the process of applying and filling out the Committee's form.  I had to really think about what I was trying to do and to focus on really fine detail about how I was going to do it and why.  FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS.  I now have a well focus, defined and rigorous plan for what I want to do.

People stress about 'getting ethics', but I have found the process fascinating, rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable.  I got to go to an Ethics Workshop run by the university.  There was an academic there who asked the presenter, who is a lovely man from the University Ethics C'tee, for a "cost/benefit analysis" of getting through the ethics process.  Seriously. I kid you not.  The lovely presenter said the benefits are you get to keep your job, dickhead.  The dickhead was implied.  The academic said that he told his research students not to bother 'getting ethics' as it was too slow a process and they never do any harm when they are researching anyway.  He actually said that to the ethics guy.  Sheesh.  Personally, I don't want to do ANYTHING without ethics approval.  If anything did go wrong, it would fall directly on my head and my supervisors' heads.  Not fair to them and not something I want to be in the thick of, thankyou very much.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I have found a research methodology!!!!!

Woo Hoo.  I have just come from a meeting with my SUPERvisors and it seems we have settled on a research methodology.  This is great news for me as I was feeling a bit at sea not knowing what my methodology was going to be.  I felt that without one in my head, I didn't know how to proceed because it directs everything, from what sort of questions you can ask, what sort of data you should generate, how you should expect to analyse it when you get it and whether you should be trying to prove a theory or generate one.  Now we have found the best one for my project, I feel that another piece of the puzzle has arrived and settled in and I can move ahead.  I feel like I am walking down an unlit corridor and I can't see where I am supposed to be going.  The path is there, but I don't know where it is.  Now another light has gone on and I can move forward along the corridor.  Into more darkness, but that is OK.  I am moving and that is enough for now.

Here is the document that I sent my SUPERvisors with my thoughts on undertaking a case study research framework.  I addressed the issue against a description of case studies in a research methods text book that I had been reading and tried to match what the book said to my project:


Research Framework Thoughts

My current thinking is around a case study approach. Need to ask S1/S2 if case studies are OK?

According to Creswell, (Creswell 2013) the following are features of a case study:

A specific ‘case’ needs to be identified:

A case can be a concrete entity such as a person, organisation or a small group.  It can also be a less concrete entity such as a community.  A case needs to be bounded or described with certain parameters, such as a specific place or time.  A single case can be selected, or multiple cases to provide a comparison.

So, I could choose a small number of libraries and consider each a ‘case’.  I could choose three cases from different levels of security to provide a comparison.  Each could be considered a case using the above criteria:

Concrete entity: Each case is easily definable as a prison library in terms of its name, function and location.

Bounded or described within certain parameters:  Each library could be viewed as a separate entity as it is physically bounded by location, users, staffing and collection.

So, I think I could argue that each library can be identified as a ‘case’ for study.

The intent of conducting the case study is important:

“An ‘instrumental case study’ is used to understand a specific issue, problem or concern, and a case or cases are selected to best understand the problem.”

So, the specific issue/problem/concern could be ‘intellectual freedom for prisoners’.  Then the case studies could be used to understand how the prison libraries studied can support the intellectual freedom of their users.

Case studies need to provide an in-depth understanding of each case:

‘An in-depth understanding is reached by generating many forms of data.’

In this study, I could look at the following:

Access policies/practices
Borrowing policies/practices
Collection management policies/practices
Services available
Observations of staff and users
Interviews with staff/users
Collection analysis
User needs analysis
Mission statements
Photographs/video of the physical spaces (if allowed)
Probably heaps more

Good case study research involves a description of the case’:
A good case study according to Creswell includes a description of the case in addition to exploring the themes and issues uncovered during the research.  This could be a nice fit for me as I could:

1.     Describe the cases using documentation, policies, photos, demographics of users & staff etc., then;
2.     Use these descriptions and qualitative data from interviews and observations to explore the theme of intellectual freedom of their users.

“Themes and issues can be analysed across cases for similarities and differences among the cases”

This could be good for me as I could pick three varying prisons maybe, high, medium and low level security and use each as a case.  I could then explore the theme of intellectual freedom across these three cases.

“Case studies often end with conclusions formed by the researcher about the overall meaning derived from the cases”

This format would therefore allow me to draw some conclusions about how well each of the libraries studied were able to support the intellectual freedom of their users.

So, a collective instrumental case study would allow me to select several research sites to show different perspectives of the one issue: how prison libraries support the intellectual freedom of their users. 

Creswell suggests the following typical format for case studies:

“Provide first a detailed description of each case and themes within the case, called a within-case analysis, followed by a thematic analysis across the cases, called a cross-case analysis, as well as assertions or an interpretation of the meaning of the case.”

“In the final interpretive phase, the researcher reports the meaning of the case.”

I think this framework might be a good fit.  Need to see what Peter and Sue think.

Creswell, JW 2013, Qualitative inquiry & research design: choosing among five approaches, Sage Publications, Los Angeles.

My SUPERvisors liked it and felt that it was a good fit!!!  Hooray.  So, case study is the methodology for me.

I think this is more than an inch along the corridor.  I think this is a big step.

Monday, March 3, 2014


Today I have a wonderful opportunity to discuss my research with a room full of really clever people who have extensive experience in qualitative research.  My lovely supervisor SR has offered to come along to take notes for me so I can concentrate on what is being said.

I had to submit a two page summary of my topic to give them all background to my interests and plans.  This is what I wrote:

Prison Libraries – Jane Garner

What are you exploring as your topic?

My topic will be based around library services provided to the inmates of Victorian prisons.  I want to know how prisoners are using their libraries, what value they place on their libraries and how well their libraries are able to cater to their needs.

Why this topic? – where are you in it?

I am starting this study with the belief that libraries are valuable and have the potential to change lives for the better.  I am also of the belief that trying to improve the lives and outcomes for prisoners is important.  The vast majority of prisoners will re-join our communities.  Any measures we can take to improve their employment opportunities, their sense of empathy and belonging and their views of themselves and their potential are valuable steps in assisting them.

I want to study this topic because I believe that libraries represent freedom: freedom of choice, freedom to share ideas and knowledge, freedom to take the ideas and stories of others into our own consciousness and allow us to reposition our impression of ourselves.  I am interested in this representation of freedom in a place where the removal of freedom is a primary goal of the environment. 

 I am also starting with the assumption that the libraries provided to prisoners may be inadequate in providing their potential benefits due to funding, physical access, staffing and institutional support issues.

What’s known and written about this area and how would you want to improve, challenge etc. that material?

There are publications on how prisoners respond to the books they read, how literacy effects crime rates and recidivism, the history of libraries in prisons, award winning prison libraries throughout the world and bibliotherapy to create change in lives.  What I have failed to find is the prisoners’ view of the libraries that serve them.  We know they value books and reading, but what do they think of the places that can provide them with these items and services?  How do they use them?  Are they permitted to use them as they would like? Do the collections provide them with the reading they want and/or need for recreation, learning and legal advice? Are they comfortable places that optimise their use? Do prisoners find them intimidating or inviting?  Do prisoners feel they can exercise their freedom to choose the ideas that they wish to expose themselves to, or are there restricted opportunities to read as desired?  Do prisoners recognise the value of their libraries, or are there factors that inhibit this recognition?  Are the libraries able to be a representation of freedom in an otherwise restricted environment?

How are you thinking of approaching it?

I would like to do the following:

Learn about the libraries:
·       Gain access to the prison libraries to study their physical presence in the prisons.
·       Study any rules regarding access to the libraries
·       Study the collections to judge their coverage, omissions, currency etc within three categories of reading: recreational, educational, legal
·       Look for any restrictions/censorship of materials available
·       Study collection development, funding.

Learn about the prisoners’ views and uses of the libraries: (lots of ethical issues to consider)
·       Borrowing records?
·       Interviews?
·       Observation?
·       Written responses?

What are you aiming for?

I am aiming for an understanding of how prisoners use, view and value their libraries and an estimation of how well their libraries cater to their needs.  I am also hoping to discover and represent the views of a population that have not been heard before.

The questions came from the convenor.  Since writing this, I have been over it with my supervisors and can see many of its weaknesses. I have been working on finding data to back up the assumptions that I have made in the summary.

I am feeling a little nervous about the session, but it is a wonderful opportunity to pick the brains of some really clever and experienced people. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Meeting with PM & SR

I met last week with P & S and had a very productive time.  I was feeling a bit stalled before it but now I feel that I have tons to go on with.

We worked out that I should focus on three strands of library use:

  • recreational
  • educational
  • legal
This is a better fit for a PhD, although it is too big for a Masters.  The idea is that I go for confirmation with the Masters and they think is so wide and and wonderful that I should convert to a PhD.

Peter has sent me a template document for the Confirmation process which I haven't looked at yet, but I am grateful for because I felt a bit like I was walking around in the dark, not knowing what I was aiming for.  Now I have a structure to work within, I feel more comfortable.

We talked about a research methodology again.  I said that I thought 'Action Research' wasn't feeling right and suggested either "grounded theory' or 'phenomenology'.  They both said that the head of school hates 'grounded theory' and that is seen as a bit of a joke, or the theory that you have when you don't have a theory.  So, I have been investigating phenomenology this morning.  It seems very philosophical, but looks like it might fit quite well.  I will look into it further.  I don't mind not using grounded theory as it felt so unstructured and I like having a skeleton to hang my work from.

Here are the Muppets explaining phenomenology:

It didn't really help!

This one did though:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Qualitative Interest Group

My very wise supervisor suggested I go to a meeting of the Qualitative Interest Group (QIG).  In the interest of immersing myself in all possible opportunities, I did what I was told and went along.  I was very glad that I did.  The group is run by two women, one of whom is called Lyn Richards.  It is a group of researchers, graduates and academic who are all involved in qualitative research in some way.  I found the group extremely useful and thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by really clever and experienced people.  They were all interested in each others' work, including mine. It gave the feeling of being in a community - a good feeling.

Lyn has asked me to present my topic for the next meeting in March as a design example for the group to work through and give me advice.  What a fantastic opportunity.  I can't believe my luck to have such input from some really cluey and experienced people so early in my work.  I am feeling slightly uncomfortable with it though as I feel like I am going behind the backs of my supervisors.  I really have no idea if this is a valid impression or not, so I am going to ask them if it is OK with them if I proceed with the activity.  I hope so, but am fully willing to forgo the opportunity if PM or SR want me to. They have to be happy with everything I am doing.  This is important to me.

Lyn Richards

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Cold Call

My reading keeps bringing me back to the publications of Associate Professor Megan Sweeney.  She has studied reading in women's prisons and how the women have benefitted from reading fiction, self-help and other books.  She mentions prison libraries a little and usually describes them as under-resourced by the prison management.  I thought she would be a great person to be in contact with, so, through the magic of the internet, I found her website: and emailed her.  I thanked her for her publications and explained briefly what I am doing. She looks nice on her page.  I wonder if she will answer me!

Well, she did!  Very nicely too.  Maybe one day I will visit her! That would be fun.

Things to do next

I have come across a book called "How to write a thesis" by Rowena Murray.  I want to read this.  I can download it free for a week via the RMIT library, or I can buy it for about $35.

Spend to day reading on the topic to help refine my ideas of what I want to focus on.

I have a meeting with PM on Wednesday and I feel anxious that I won't have done enough.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Found a good thesis

I had to go to work yesterday, so no progress.  But today was good as I found an American PhD thesis all about censorship in the American prison libraries which touched a bit on the value prisoners place on their libraries and some content from prison librarians.  This led me to some further references from her bibliography that I will follow up.  One in particular looks interesting.  I like that I feel excited when I follow resource trails and find something good.  I think this is a good sign!

This is a book that I have ordered on ILL:

And this is a review/summary of the book that I found interesting:

In reading today, I have been attracted to the ideas of how reading for recreation can benefit prisoners, in ways beyond the obvious time filling factor.  There is something transformative about reading, fiction and auto/biographies in particular that can benefit prisoners.  This is a line of discovery I could follow.  My concern with this is that this topic may be about books and reading, and not about libraries.

An alternate idea that came up today in my reading that could be interesting is the idea of the value placed on the library by the prisoners.  Several things I read to day talked about how the library in a prison was seen by the inmates as a sanctuary and neutral space, a safe place and the only place in the prison that provided an 'escape', comfort and the opportunity for some autonomous activity - reading and choosing the direction of the reading.  This is interesting too and could have a topic in it somewhere.

I think a question I need to ask my supervisor relates to whether a thesis about the value placed on reading outside of education and legal needs can be a 'library thesis'?  I think this is the line of enquiry that interests me most at the moment.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What I have done today.

Today I have done the following:
  • Chosen a referencing software: Endnote
  • Downloaded Endnote 
  • Downloaded a citation style from my institution library for my department
  • Read two articles
  • Found references to 7 more articles that I would like to read
  • Entered each of the ones I want to read and those that I have into Endnote
  • Marked each reference as 'read' or 'unread' so I can sort the library and make a reading list for myself
  • Done some database searching to see if anyone is working on my topic - nothing so far (good thing)
  • Checked out the Thesis Whisperer blog
  • Had a nap
  • Walked the dog
  • Returned an overdue library book
  • Wrote up this blog.
Not bad.  Time to go get the kids from school.  This is Frank, the dog.


Thinking about a topic

I have started reading around my area of interest with the goal of narrowing down my topic to a specific area and research question.  Current thinking:

  • Explore the experiences of prisoners reading fiction - the role that reading of fiction plays in their lives.
  • Explore the responses to libraries by prisoners
    • What value do they place on them
    • To what extent are they used
    • How are they used
    • What role do they play in the life of prisoners
  • The transformative experience of reading fiction (see Sweeney's article 2008, Peschers 2011 in particular).  If I was to follow this line, which seems to interest me the most, how do I make this a 'library' thesis, not a thesis about reading?
  • Do our prison libraries restrict access to any reading materials?
  • Are there examples of censorship?
  • Maybe not just recreational reading. Sweeney's "The Story Within Us" mentions a prisoner who says she values self-esteem books and parenting books to help her when she is released to be a better parent and to help with her views of herself.
  • Has access to a library, either within an institution or via a public library extension program, had a positive impact on the lives of prisoners/ex prisoners
  • Has access to a library, either within an institution or via a public library extension program, assisted in offenders achieving their goals?
Keep in mind that this is not a consultancy.

Preliminary Reading

These are the two books given to me by my lovely supervisor, PM. I am about half way through the 'Doctorates Downunder' one. I am pretty much reading it cover to cover, but the other one I will dip in and out of.

First steps

This is a list of what I need to do first:

  • Read the books PM gave me
  • Check that no one else is working on, or has researched my topic
  • Read some other PhD theses to get a good idea of what is involved
  • Read around my topic to help me refine my research questions
  • Read about 'action research' and see if I think it would be an appropriate research theory to work with.
  • Decide what referencing software to use. Either Mandelay or Endnote, I think.
  • Organise a desk/student card/ access and photocopy card.
The kids go back to school tomorrow, so I can get stuck into it!

Monday, January 27, 2014

It begins here.

This blog is to be a place where I keep a record of my progress through my PhD.  This is the very beginning. I will use this space to record what I have done, what I need to do next, any advice from and records of meetings with my supervisors and my general progress as I climb this mountain.  I hope this blog will connect me with others taking a similar journey.  I also hope it explains to my friends why I might be a bit grumpy/elated/desperate/in need of a baby sitter etc. at times.

If you are reading, thanks for keeping an eye on me!

If Eddie can do it, I can too.  I might have to work a bit harder than he did though!