Finding Topics & Time for Scholarship

Laura’s recent post about faculty book projects has me thinking about writing. Even though I’ve been at my job for over a year, I still feel lucky to have landed a tenure track position at an academic library that I truly enjoy. During my hiatus from the academic world between my time as an archaeologist and when I started library school, I hadn’t realized how much I missed research, and even writing. So I’m pleased to have a job in which research and writing are required.

Of course, it’s one thing to be happy that scholarship is expected of me, and another to actually do the research and writing. When I first started at my job my biggest stumbling block was about the What. What topics could I write about? What could be a subject for a research project, big or small? What ideas were better suited to more informal writing?

Many librarians write about aspects of their jobs: projects and programming they’ve worked on, issues or problems they’ve addressed. So looking to my job responsibilities seemed like a good place to start. At various points over the past year I’ve made a list of everything I’ve worked on at my job and used the list to pick out possible writing topics. As an extra bonus, the lists came in handy when it was time for me to fill out my annual self-assessment a few months ago.

I also keep another list, one I call “research thoughts.” This one’s for ideas that come up as a result of something I’ve read, heard, or seen in the blogosphere, journal articles, conference presentations, email lists, podcasts, and casual conversation. Sometimes they’re directly related to my job, and sometimes they’re not — these ideas are usually not much more than half- (or even quarter-) baked. I check in with this list every so often, and it can provide a much-needed jolt of inspiration during a dry spell. In fact, my current research project started out as an entry on this list after attending a particularly interesting presentation at a conference two years ago.

The other big factor affecting my scholarly goals has to do with the When. When do I research and write? How can I make the time? As a junior faculty member I’m very lucky to have reassigned time during the early years of my tenure track, as do junior faculty in other departments at my college. So I do have some time specifically set aside for scholarship, which has been an enormous help in getting research and writing done this year.

Over this year I’ve found that, for me, frequency counts: I need to write often to be able to write often. This is certainly not unique — many librarians, academics, and writers offer this advice. But it’s a realization I’ve come to slowly as I’m unsure where to fit near-daily writing into the rest of my life. Some days I can grab time in the mornings (I am definitely a morning person), but some days I can’t. Figuring out how to make space for frequent writing is a major goal of mine for the near future.

If you’re a librarian-researcher and -writer, what are some of your best sources of inspiration? And how do you find time for scholarship?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

4 thoughts on “Finding Topics & Time for Scholarship”

  1. Sounds to me like you are doing the exact sort of things I’d recommend for the WHAT and WHEN. Be reading outside of the profession as much as possible to get ideas that will inspire your creative side. But be ready to capture those ideas at all times. I’ve been keeping a “paper idea” folder for many years. I wrote about ways to capture these ideas just recently at DBL:

    I did want to share one possibility for generating ideas for research projects. I find it interesting to review the program bulletins for state library conferences. One easy way to do this is to follow AL Direct which always has links to upcoming state conferences. Sure, you’ll see a lot of the same old topics being presented on, but every now and then you see an interesting idea. It doesn’t mean you have to copy that idea even though I suspect if you did you’d be the one writing the article – most conference presenters at the state level do not turn their presentations into papers. But you can certainly put your own spin on an idea you saw elsewhere. Again, the point is to expose yourself to possible ideas and then let your creativity do the rest.

    My other strategy is just “listen” and “observe”. Many good ideas for library research come from listening to what colleagues are complaing about – and patrons as well. If someone says “why doesn’t this work” or “can’t we do it that way” those can lead to research projects to explore “well what if we did try to do it this way” ideas.

    Good luck in finding the just right research project to tackle.

  2. I’m a heavy user and abuser of CFPs–all of my current research program comes from a conference proposal I sent in a couple of years ago for a GLBT Archives, Libraries, and Museums conference. Out of that brief fifteen minute presentation came colleagues I now brainstorm with on a regular basis, directions for where to take the paper next, and a better sense of what’s interesting to me in the field. I recommend A Library Writer’s Blog, Dolores’ List of CFPs, and Beyond the Job, three great blogs that compile calls for conference and paper proposals in LIS and related disciplines. Google any of those and they should come right up.

  3. Oh, and in terms of making time: You just schedule in small bits of it like flossing and make it NON-NEGOTIABLE. The minute you ask yourself whether or not you should sit down and write, nine times out of ten you’ve just talked yourself out of sitting down to write. It’s like how there are every-night-flossers and non-flossers and only very rarely the occasional-flosser. It has to be a habit, at least for me.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Steven and Emily. Those are great suggestions for places to find research topics, and I’ll definitely add them to my list of resources.

    Emily, your flossing analogy completely resonates with me. (Yes, I’m a flosser.) To start I’m trying for one hour at the same time every day, but even if I can’t swing that I should still be able to fit in a daily (or almost-daily) something.

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