Monday, March 5, 2018

A librarian's perspective on writing for academic publication

Twenty five years ago, I was an early career librarian grappling with writing about my experiences as a Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) lecturer in at the University of Sierra Leone (1989-1991). I knew it was important both personally and professionally to create a record of library education in that specific time and place.  
When I returned to Dublin City University.  I spent a lot of time researching the topic of librarianship in West Africa and taking copious notes. After about a year I abandoned my notes and wrote from my experience teaching librarianship at the University of Sierra Leone.    The advice “why not tell what happened?” is sound.   I was tremendously encouraged to write about my experiences, by the then  Library Director at Dublin City University Dr Alan MacDougall and his wife Jennifer. She 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: The Irish Library.   I received a positive response from the editor and the subsequent publication of my first academic article was a source of great joy to me.  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. 

I then found myself in a bit of a quandary thinking “Two years in West Africa was a bit different.  What will I find to measure up to that experience to write about”?  I realised my writing didn’t have to be about  working in an exotic location: regular routine practice I engaged in was likely to be useful to fellow librarians.  I started to write about the work I was involved in..  This included a staff development programme, the introduction of databases on CD-rom and various other projects. Shifting my thinking to writing from my practice, rather than trying to find out as much as possible about a topic through reviewing the literature worked well for me. Practice based articles are written in the first person generally and have a work limit of between one and two thousand words made them a good starting point from which to develop my confidence and my writing style and find my voice.
Quite a number of years and professional experience-based articles later, in publications such as An Leabharlann: The Irish Library, SCONUL Focus and Adults Learning, I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop at Maynooth University (MU) facilitated by Dr Rowena Murray, author of a number of books on academic writing.  She encouraged me to make the leap from writing practice-based articles to research-based articles for peer-reviewed journals.  Initially I worried that I wouldn’t have the knowledge of research methods or the data to do this.  But  from discussions with people who were writing and from reading, I realised that I could use my practice as the basis of research articles.  Having run a workshop for librarians who aspired to publish in 2007, I surveyed the group of 14 to see what impact, if any, attending the workshop had on their writing habits and outputs.  This was the research I used as the basis of an article.  I  did a literature review, being careful to try to keep to the advice I read that the literature review should be selective rather than comprehensive.  While I mentioned the many general books and articles on academic writing that had been published the focus of my literature was on what had been published about librarians as academic authors.  I included a case study based on the actual workshop – so I had three elements – literature review, case study and survey results.  After the article was published in Library Review – following a peer review process and some changes - I felt more confident that I could write research articles based on my day-to-day practice.  This was a real breakthrough for me.  I have always had demanding jobs so being able to use my work experiences as the basis of my writing has meant I don’t need to spend long periods doing research to learn about a new topic.  
As my confidence grew, I decided to write about library-related issues for discipline as well as library-specific journals. This was influenced by interactions with lecturers particularly those I met in my subject librarian role and my best interactions/ideas frequently came from informal coffee/lunch. I realised that while many of them were experts in their discipline, frequently they were not skilled at effectively source information relating to their discipline and information about the scholarship of teaching and learning in their discipline.  I was fortunate to be asked by Dr Rowena Murray to contribute a chapter to her book The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Murray, 2008). My chapter was on finding information relating to teaching and learning in various disciplines.  From that experience I learned a lot about academic staff view information and information seeking and I realised how import it is for librarians to publish in the same journals as academic staff.  Librarians have valuable insights into a wide range of information and discipline-related topics which are of concern to academic staff, although perspectives may be different.  Sharing perspectives and knowledge is really very exciting -  highlighting issues such as information literacy, open access, maximising research visibility and developing collections of excellence to name but a few issues, from a library perspective. 
I was conscious that there were no supports for librarians who wished to write for publication. I was also conscious of the many false starts I had made, from the number of writing projects commenced and never finished; mostly because I didn’t have any real sense of audience and purpose and target journal.  Aby Day’s comment in How to Get Research Published in Journals  resonated with  me:
The reason many aspiring authors fail is that they throw themselves immediately into the activity of writing without realizing it is the forethought, analysis and preparation that determine the quality of the finished product (Day, 2007, p. 9).
In 2007, with the support of Maynooth University Library, I began running workshops for librarians who wished to write for publication.  These have become an annual event – and sometimes more frequent depending on demand.  I’ve presented workshops to librarians, postgraduates, researchers, academic staff and practitioners across a range of disciplines in Ireland, the U.K. and Malaysia.  Frequently after attending a workshop people are fired up with the desire to write, but it can be difficult to sustain this energy and enthusiasm.  In order to encourage participants to continue writing I developed an academic writing blog   with links to resources I’d created for workshops and  details of publishing opportunities.
I also wrote up the elements of the workshop as an article for SCONUL Focus so anyone could follow the processes in getting from the ideas stage to publication 
My advice to librarians who want to write - Just do it!!!

Helen Fallon
5 March 2018

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