Thursday, November 10, 2016

Developing a culture of writing and research among Irish Librarians

We - Jane Burns, Helen Fallon, Mary Delaney -   were pleased to have the opportunity to host a roundtable discussion on 3rd November, at the International Summit of the Book Conference2016 in Limerick.   In this blog post we endeavour to capture the key themes and discussion points from the roundtable.  We welcome comments and insights from participants in the roundtable and also from anyone with an interest in academic writing.

Writing Stories The three facilitators briefly shared their individual writing stories.

Helen’s story
Twenty-five years ago, I was an early career librarian grappling with writing about my experiences as a VSO Lecturer/Librarian in Sierra Leone. I knew it was important both personally and professionally to create a record of library education in that specific time and place, before so much was destroyed by civil war.
  After I returned to DCU from my two-year career break I was tremendously encouraged by the Library Director Dr Alan MacDougall and his wife Jennifer who had grown up in Ghana and had a personal interest in libraries in West Africa.  At that time few Irish librarians were publishing; those that were tended to be at senior levels.  There was no expectation to publish and my writing – as I suspect was the case with those that were writing – was done outside work time.  Alan and Jennifer’s encouragement gave me the courage to send my article to An Leabharlann. I realised that I didn’t need to be a senior librarian to publish: I just needed to be committed to putting the time and effort into writing and through the process learn and develop and extend my skills.  About ten years ago, I attended an MU Academic Writing Workshop facilitated by Dr Rowena Murray, author of “How to Get Published in Journals.”   I realised that writing for a peer reviewed journal didn’t require a large body of research and bolstered by  Rowena’s encouragement, I  went on to write for peer-reviewed journals and to deliver academic writing workshops in Ireland and internationally.  This year I edited a themed issue of NewReview of Academic Librarianship (NRAL) and also co-ordinated an open access Irish issue of NRAL.
Encouragement, learning the actual mechanics of writing and understanding how to structure articles, getting a great creative buzz from writing and publishing and the motivation to write in my personal time were important factors in my development as an academic writer.
Mary’s story
I have always enjoyed working in an academic library environment helping library users to find information for their research. My library career was always centred on delivering and managing library services in partnership with staff and students to meet their teaching, learning and research needs. As a librarian I became interested in pursuing a Doctoral Qualification for two reasons. The first was to become more familiar with the actual process of undertaking a significant research project. By doing this I expected to gain an insight into the practical challenges and opportunities faced by so many library users in terms of finding the right information. Secondly, I was interested in taking the concept of Information Literacy and looking at it through the lens of Education rather than through the lens of Library & Information Science.
 This was important as I wanted to consider the wider concept of Information literacy within the context of pedagogy and disciplinary knowledge.  I pursued an EdD programme with the University of Sheffield on a part time basis while continuing to work fulltime. The nature of the part time course meant that I could fit in studies around an already busy schedule and this was important. Additionally, six taught modules helped me to gain an understanding of key areas in the field of Education and gave me the opportunity to meet colleagues from across the Higher Education sector who were also pursuing this programme. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to complete Doctoral work and encourage anyone thinking of pursuing it to do it. In more recent years the number of library staff pursuing Doctoral qualifications or considering pursuing them is rising. Dr Claire McAvinia, Dr Jane Secker and I presented on this topic recently and discussions continue in a recently established Google group doctorlibrarians

Jane’s story I have always enjoyed writing especially creative wiring but writing as a professional librarian was very daunting. I first met Helen Fallon when she returned from Africa and we were both working at DCU. I have never been to Africa but listening to Helen’s stories I could imagine that I had.  Helen was one of the first librarians in Ireland to be writing academic articles and she helped the rest of us get involved by running Academic Writing Workshops. Before I attended her workshop I felt that I had very little to contribute, but after that session I felt confident and capable. One of my first articles was based on a previous article by Cathal McCauley, his support with this gave me good grounding by using his methods to produce a timely article which demonstrated how fast social media was changing in the LIS environment. I’ve gone on to publish articles in journals on different topics, such as Digital Humanities, Medical Education, and Health Librarianship. The other area I love as much as writing is research and when thinking about how I could further develop this path, especially to compliment my role as a lecturer at UCD I decided to undertake a PhD.  I met with Mary Delaney who was at the final stages of her doctoral work and she not only gave me fantastic advice but encouraged and inspired me to believe that I could do it.  Librarians are amazing- the impact of encouragement should never be underestimated.
We then invited the participants to briefly share their writing stories. Below is a synopsis of the themes in the rich discussion that ensued.  Many of the participants had experience of writing and one had published a book.

Key issues

Nearly all participants reported finding time to write a challenge.
  Suggestions included writing practice-based articles for journals such as SCONUL Focus, whereby work-related projects might form the basis of articles around 1,500 words in length, that do not require research or references. The concept of snack and sandwich writing (developed by Rowena Murray) was suggested.  Snack writing involves writing for a short period.  Helen described using 30 minutes of her one-hour lunch break for writing about five years ago. Doing this half-hour three times a week she wrote a practice-based article over a few months. Writing with a particular publication in mind and a structure were seen as important in not wasting time. The value of deadlines was also stressed; some people write best when under pressure: “Commit to doing something and then you are going to have to do it,” one participant observed.  The three facilitators explained that most of their writing is done in their own personal time.
Identity The issue of librarian as researcher and writer was raised across the room. Some participants spoke about the “grey space” that librarians inhabit where we are at times teachers/lecturers and at other times researchers while also fulfilling the more traditional role of librarian. As the profession continues to evolve so too will our identity. As this was an international conference it was interesting to get an international perspective on this challenge which varies from country to country.

What to write and where to publish One participant told of the value of writing 1,000 word evidence-based review papers for the Emerald journal “Reference Reviews”.   Going on editorial boards also offers opportunities to write and review and both presenting and reviewing were seen as closely related to writing.  SCONULFocus and An Leabharlann were mentioned as places people had published.  Academic Writing Librarian blog was seen as useful for calls for papers/presentations etc.  The value of writing for non-library journals and writing with academic colleagues was noted. Libfocus was highlighted as a wonderful space for writing blog posts and sharing ideas.  It and other social media outlets were identified as valuable spaces for writing personal opinion - in addition to other types of writing - on library-related topics. Book editing, online publishing, producing education packs, presenting, writing reports/flyers for events etc. were all seen as valuable in developing writing skills.  Having data and recognising the potential of the data we routinely collect is also important.
How to write Different types of writing present different challenges.  It was recognised that a more relaxed style of writing is used in blogs and social networks.  Some of the group had experience of creative writing and “learning how to write academically” involved moving out of the comfort zone: “I love writing fiction, academic writing is more of a chore” one participant commented.   Writing to a structure for the library literature presented challenges. It was noted that there is a lack of theory in much of the library-related writing that is being done.  Frequently writing is case-study based, using projects as the basis of articles, rather than in-depth research, which requires more time. Variation in peer-review was also discussed.  It sometimes happens that people get dramatically different feedback from the two reviewers in the double-blind peer review process and this can be difficult to deal with.
Developing a research and writing culture Both academic writing and doctoral research are developing among Irish librarians.  This is evidenced from the number of librarians doing doctorates, the growth in publishing by Irish librarians, attendance at the annual MU academic writing workshop and the continued growth of the Libfocus blog. This developing culture needs to be nurtured and developed and senior managers are key to this. It was felt that this culture is much less developed in public libraries.  Developing communities of practice around writing and research was suggested as a way to develop this culture and the value of networking and writing with people outside the profession was discussed.  It was felt that academic writing could help change the perception of the role of the Librarian and is a useful form of professional development.
We invite people to continue this discussion via social media. If you would like to write a short blog post (500 words approx.) telling your writing story, please contact  If you want to suggest writing resources you found useful, please tweet and include one or all of our twitter handles, which are below.  If you are not on Twitter just e-mail any of the three of us. We’d love to keep the conversation going and sharing our insights, ideas, experiences (good and bad) of writing, will help us develop a vibrant community of practice around academic writing.
Below are a few resources you may find useful.


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