It’s common for professors to invite a librarian to a classroom to discuss research skills, such as selecting databases and choosing keywords, with their students. Once, a librarian even found a fantastic, interdisciplinary set of texts on disability for one of my writing classes. As I collaborated with these colleagues, I became curious about their own writing lives and how it corresponded to my own research and writing process.
This post looks at the features and challenges of academic writing by librarians, not only to bring this aspect of their work to light but also because their writing habits and challenges speak to those of academic writing more generally.
An Interdisciplinary Field with Writing on Diverse Topics
Many, but not all, academic librarians write and publish, and those who do write on a variety of topics. One told me about their plans to write about how academic librarians could use virtual tours of historical library spaces in distant parts of the world. Another was working on an oral history project about queer Charlottesville. A third had coauthored a research guide, structured as an annotated bibliography, to gothic literature in English.
This range speaks to an advantage that librarians may have as writers. Helen Sword has found a “surprise ingredient” in praised academic writing: the authors “think across disciplinary lines” and are willing to write across disciplinary conventions. In this way, librarians, especially those who read widely, are well positioned to write engaging prose.
Striking Out Solo
They may, however, be out of practice—at least in terms of writing—when they enter their profession. I’ve never met a writing instructor who doesn’t teach the importance of writing regularly. Students who are returning to school after a break often describe how hard it is to begin a draft. Yet master of library science programs may require students to write very little.
Their final projects may take forms other than a sustained essay. Students may have to write a set of policies, or a guide called a “SPEC Kit.” They may elect to write a thesis, but it is often optional. Without gaining practice and developing habits in graduate school, it may be especially challenging for librarians to write to the standards of peer-reviewed publications.
Other challenges will likely sound familiar to any academic writer. Whether a graduate program requires students to write a little or a lot, students in any field commonly have to write without much explicit instruction. “They assume you know how to write when you start,” one librarian said. Like other graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, library studies students may not question this or see it as a problem, given that many have written a lot as undergraduates before entering their programs.
Navigating Unfamiliar Genres
The assumption that graduate writers already know what they’re doing misses that approaches to writing vary based on a project’s research method. The methods used in library science differ widely, as I learned, and students may be working with surveys, statistical analysis, or qualitative research for the first time, especially if they come from a humanities background. Without explicit discussion, even students who are comfortable putting words on the page may not know how to give their ideas shape. This isn’t so different from the experience of a graduate student trialing a new method in a different field, but librarians may do much more testing.
All academics have good reason to expand their range beyond academic genres. As one librarian mentioned, she’s been encouraged to write for both peer-reviewed and public-facing publications. While only the former may count for tenure-track faculty, a well-placed piece for a general audience will build anyone’s profile and, potentially, career. This is to say, academic writers must be increasingly flexible with regard to genre and audience.
Scholars of linguistics have developed guides to “genre analysis,” which involves approaching texts as models for writing in a new genre. Breaking down models for their characteristic features is valuable. Still, carried out independently, outside a classroom, this process may still leave a writer with questions about where conventions are strict and how they leave room for variation.
Managing Professional and Personal Expectations
Librarian writers tend to receive significant support from their peers and supervisors. They also develop forms of mutual support that may not be built into their jobs, like writing groups. Yet it can be hard for all kinds of academics to find direct guidance on writing post-graduation. It usually isn’t incorporated into professional activities, so it is necessary to seek out feedback or wait until a piece goes through a peer review process at a journal or press.
Conferences, a source of feedback for academics in many fields, don’t function the same way for librarians. Presenters at library conferences tend to speak spontaneously alongside their slides, rather than reading a paper. This may be an effective way of sharing ideas and connecting with peers, but means that a conference paper doesn’t serve as a stepping stone to an article in the way a paper in another field often does.
As with any academic role, the conditions librarians work within can make steady writing challenging. The responsibilities of a librarian vary even more widely than those of academic faculty. Some librarians may focus on service, while others may need to publish to advance.
Even librarians who are committed to writing have limited time for their projects. One said she is allotted four hours per week for writing, and she and her colleagues mainly find time over breaks—a common situation. Especially when tenure-related targets aren’t in place, librarians, like academic faculty with a significant teaching load, may find they have to accomplish a lot in limited time and purely through their own motivation.
How can institutions create more opportunities for exchange between academic and library faculty? One suggestion might be for professors with solid training in academic writing to reciprocate for the research support from librarians in their teaching. Developmental editors would also welcome chances to work with the librarians, who may often seem to be out of our orbit.
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About the author
Rachel is a developmental editor who has taught academic writing and writing-intensive humanities classes for more than ten years.