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Library offers diverse audience to help ‘road test’ your research questions

At a library in Shoreditch, east London, a network for researchers, students and activists is helping academics to reach a wide audience.

The Stuart Hall Library Research Network is a monthly forum for the discussion of topics related to the library’s collection: race and diversity, diaspora, cultural studies and the philosophy of identity. The call for proposals reads: “We are looking for exciting and engaging ways of uncovering your research.”

Nick Brown, the library’s manager, says that each event hears from two presenters, linked by topic or career stage, followed by an open discussion. He argues that students and early-career researchers, in particular, can benefit from the chat. “They find it easier to network in an informal setting, and they have the chance to meet established academics in a relaxed environment.”

It’s not just business cards on offer, he adds. Take books: books that are harder to find than those on the library’s shelves. “I’ve come across zines, monographs and pamphlets for our collection that I’d never have found by browsing industry catalogues,” says Brown. “All thanks to people who’ve come along to a meeting of the research network.”

The scheme helps academics to reach a wider audience, says Brown, adding that you never know who is going to be watching the presentations. “Quite often it’s people who aren’t interested in the main dialogues that are happening in academia—particularly when the topic is race. Our remit is to engage with a very wide and diverse community. Stuart Hall [the sociologist after whom the library is named] believed firmly that knowledge existed outside the academy.”

The importance of such exchange is clear, given that researchers are increasingly encouraged to track the impact and dissemination of their work. “The framing is different from traditional academic modes,” Brown says.

Learning how to transmit ideas to different audiences is a great skill for an academic, but it’s not always easy to work out how to prioritise outreach activities alongside research, admin and teaching. Brown argues, however, that the library offers something in exchange: the chance to road-test an incipient research plan and see if it stands up to unpredictable lines of questioning.

Participants might even discover new avenues of research. Brown says he’s seen collaborative research projects develop from an evening’s discourse, uniting people who might never have worked together otherwise. “The network is interdisciplinary in its very nature,” says Brown. “And isn’t that what it’s all about these days?”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight