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Learning to Write as an Academic Librarian

September 29, 2021
Photo of notebook with handwritten notes
photo by charlotte m johnson

Like many library school graduates, I found myself landing a faculty position with no real experience in participating in scholarly writing and publication. This kind of scholarly output is expected as part of the promotion and advancement process for many librarians, so if I was going to succeed, I had to figure out how to write something other than a paper for class. In my case, I’ve been teaching myself how to write by working on a literature review for the past two years. This experience has been something of a lab course in “How Scholarly Writing Works.”

The idea had started out as an annotated bibliography of library storage literature–a way to help other storage practitioners easily find articles relevant to the issues they were trying to address. I was quickly informed that “LibGuides are not research” (which made me laugh). Never mind the fact that I had never actually written a formal annotated bibliography before, much less one that could possibly be formatted as an article. So as I read and took notes over the next several months, I pondered over what form this article would take—how I could make this annotated bibliography something that contributed not only practically to my colleagues, but intellectually to the field.

After some time had passed, and I had written most of an annotated bibliography, I came across a literature review article by a colleague and suddenly realized this was a genre of article that existed. It was the ideal format to put my ideas into, especially if I compared the themes I saw in the literature today to those I saw in another similar annotated bibliography written in 1994*. That meant, of course, that I had to start rewriting my article, actually synthesizing and making conclusions based on what I had read for so many months, and not just summarizing what I had read. I scanned through other lit reviews and imitated what I had seen there, discerning the patterns in how their arguments were laid out and how they were formatted.

I definitely made some mistakes along the way. For example, my literature collecting was embarrassingly unsystematic, and I didn’t keep track of how I was collecting articles. For a month or so, I dropped the “comparison to the 1994 article” angle because I was convinced I would have to essentially re-do the work already done in that other article in order to do my comparison any justice. Finally, even when I thought I was synthesizing, I was still summarizing and had to delete a lot of my work all over again.

Through constant trial and error, however, I am nearing the end of this project. I’ve ended up learning a lot—not just about writing literature review articles, but the scholarly writing process as a whole. For example, I wrote out a fake proposal that forced me to think structurally about what I was writing and why. I started keeping a notebook of my writing efforts: making lists of what sections still needed writing, which needed synthesis; journaling to organize my thoughts and impressions on what I was learning. I also benefited from receiving feedback from my colleagues by joining our library’s writing group.

In my experience, I found success taking on the challenge of teaching myself to write scholarship by imitation—pretending I knew I what I was doing—receiving feedback from more experienced colleagues, and then revising my process until finally I actually do know what I’m doing. Like any skill, it took experimentation and practice. And several rough drafts.

 

*O’Connor, P. (1994). Remote Storage Facilities: An Annotated Bibliography. Serials Review, 20(2), 17–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/0098-7913(94)90026-4

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