Supporting Each Other as Librarian Researchers

We’re at an interesting stage in the library where I work. Retirements and folks moving on to other opportunities have meant that we’ve done a fair amount of hiring over the past almost-five years. The result is that right now we have more untenured library faculty than tenured, and most of our tenured library faculty are interested in seeking promotion in the future. With so many research-active librarians (myself included!), I’ve been thinking a lot about how best to support us all in our scholarly goals. We’re all at different stages in our scholarly work, some beginning to develop a research agenda, and others immersed in long-term projects; some of us working individually, and others in collaboration with colleagues in and outside our library, at our institution and others.

I’ve been interested to read about Angie’s and Hailley’s experiences at the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, which have provided lots of food for thought about how to integrate research into our work as academic librarians. At my university we’re fortunate that library faculty have research leave available for the first 5 years of their tenure track (as do faculty in other departments), and all librarians have a fairly generous annual leave allocation and can apply for additional research time as well. While library faculty are on 12-month contracts and still don’t have as much time for their research as do faculty in other departments, the various forms of leave are super important for making progress on our scholarship.

Even with our leave, it can be a challenge to develop and sustain our research in practice. Over the summer I spent some time talking with my colleagues in small groups of folks who are at roughly the same point in their tenure or promotion track, chatting over coffee about what kinds of support they’re most interested in, and thinking on ways we might all support each other. Collectively our research is topically diverse: some of us work primarily in LIS, others outside of LIS, and some do both. We’re a small library — including me, we have 13 library faculty right now — and, combined with our varying degrees of experience in scholarly research, we’re in a good position to mentor each other both collaboratively as well as individually.

It’s been terrific to see the informal mentoring and support we’re all giving each other at the library where I work, and I’m actively working on ways we can keep that going and add more structure. Each week over the summer I blocked two hours in our library classroom for what we’re calling reading-writing-research coworking. Scholarly work can be lonely work, and while it’s expected that we’ll do our scholarship off-campus while on those various forms of leave, we wanted to make some space for that work together in the library as well. Everyone’s schedule is different, and of course folks were out for vacation over the summer, too, but we held that space and time every week for whomever was around and available (myself included!) to come in and get some work done on their research.

With the busy semester starting up soon (and our library classroom needed for instruction) we will probably reduce the coworking timeslots to once or twice a month, and I’m thinking on other opportunities for support. Earlier in the summer I pulled together an annotated list of research-focused resources, including long-time favorites like A Library Writer’s Blog and relative newcomer The Librarian Parlor, just to name two. I’ve shared this with my colleagues and left it open for editing so that we can continue to add to it. During our summer group chats I also heard that more informal opportunities for research conversations would be welcome, so I’m hoping to schedule some time for coffee and cookies and research conversations a few times during the upcoming semester, too. And I’ll keep asking my colleagues what they need to support their research; in my experience it’s completely normal for a research agenda and practice to evolve over time, and I expect we’ll need to change or add to our scholarly support strategies over time, too.

What are your best practices for supporting librarian research? Drop us a line in the comments and let us know.

You Should Really Think About Publishing Something

It’s a piece of “advice” we’ve all received at some point or another in our academic librarian career. We may be on the tenure-track, in a continuing appointment position, promotion eligible, or classified as administrative staff. But at some point we’ve all heard some variation of the following statement:

You should really think about publishing something.

Sometimes it’s said in passing by a colleague who received similar feedback at some point. Others times it comes up in conversations with supervisors, mentors, or department chairs. It might be a breezy statement or one laced with concern. It frequently shows up around review or promotion time or sometimes just when someone happens to look at a cv or think it might be appropriate. When and how it comes into being, it remains a supremely unhelpful statement. It’s the kind of statement that causes more angst and stress than positive action. It reinforces the idea that a line on a CV is what’s important. It has the potential to create writing prompted by fear and/or a desire to “get a name out there” or just to “get something published.”

Those of us who teach and work with undergraduate students focus on helping students value their curiosity and prior knowledge so that they can cultivate their own research interests and produce work that elicits pride. We don’t tell students that they should just “write something.” We ask them to think about what sparks their interest. In our classes we practice asking questions rooted in curiosity and wanting to know more about an idea or subject. We focus on research as an iterative process and the way that new ideas emerge from the reading we do, the conversations we have, and the thoughts with which we wrestle. We do this because it helps students improve their thinking and writing, and it creates a connection to their work. I want us to have this time connection to our own work.

A friend and colleague once told me that their most productive writing time was the year after their sabbatical year. That year off from teaching and service work gave them a chance to read, explore different ideas, and find space for themselves within a meaningful academic conversation. That’s the difficult stuff–the stuff that takes the most time. Instead of saying “You really should think about publishing something,” we could encourage reading, questioning, and exploration. We could make time in our workplaces–which might mean dropping something else–for professional reading. We could share our own research interests and ideas with our newer colleagues and help them spark their own interests. We could ask questions about their practice, listen to their ideas and concerns, and encourage their interests. Small questions are sometimes the most interesting! Would could embrace the practice of curiosity.

There are so many more productive, helpful things we can say and do to encourage writing and research within academic librarianship. What was the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received?

Making the space: Researching beyond IRDL

I’ve spent the last week at the Institute of Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL). Most of the workshop has happened in the beautiful William H. Hannon Library on Loyola Marymount’s campus. Last month on the blog I talked about my preparation for this week-long research workshop. The week has been a whirlwind and it’s hard to believe we’re finishing up today (Saturday). I have learned a lot — about the research process, the projects my cohort members are working on, and about librarianship at a variety of institutions. I feel energized and excited about conducting strong LIS research. My research project has changed and evolved and I’m headed back to Penn State with a stronger version of what I submitted back in January.

Throughout the week, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been intentional about creating space for this learning and research. When I was preparing for IRDL, my research mentor mentioned in an email that I should set aside my work for the week in LA. I took their words to heart; I put on my out-of-office message, alerted my co-workers that I wouldn’t be responding, and haven’t replied to anything. I put my work in Pennsylvania on hold and that allowed me to concentrate on the material being covered. I had the chance to develop my project, connect with my peers, and apply what I was learning.

And everything was okay.

My colleagues respected my time to be away and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in this work. This time pushed me to spin my wheels, read more of the student engagement and involvement literature, and craft a journey map template for student engagement opportunities. During our workshop days, I got to spend time with my peers and work through the research process together. We spent an hour crafting 10 survey questions and an afternoon deciding on a set of questions for a focus group. What I learned was that in order to get the data you need, you have to be willing to devote uninterrupted time to finding ways to ask good questions. A good survey just doesn’t happen; it requires thoughtful decisions, defined variables, and a pilot test. This stuff cannot be rushed.  

So yes, it was great that I had this time to think, process, and experiment. This time was exactly what I needed. But I know that once I’m back in Pennsylvania, all those other priorities will return. IRDL has been good for lots of things, including forcing me to consider how I should spend my time when I come home.

The question I keep returning to is: how do you create this meaningful space for research work? How can I replicate the work environment of this week? Can I find ways to be just as intentional about setting aside work for this work when I’m back in Pennsylvania? I have never been good about blocking time and asking for that time to stay uninterrupted. In order for me to do this project, and to do it well, I’ll need to start defining those boundaries more clearly. It’s a habit to be developed.

But it’s not something that I have to do on my own. Community is always an important piece of my librarianship and with research, community support is important. We built LibParlor to create community and now, after a week in Los Angeles, I have a new community to lean on. We tell the students we teach that research isn’t a solo process and that’s a good reminder for us too. Throughout IRDL, I have seen the strength of collaborating with others for surveys, interview questions, and inferential statistics. It’s better to tackle that stuff with someone else and I’m thankful my research network community continues to grow. And I know they will help hold me accountable for the time I need for this project.

While I’m still figuring this out, I’m sure others have some ideas. So, how have you created this space? How have you found balance between the day-to-day of your job with the time to research? How do you depend on and support your research community?


Featured image of the William H. Hannon Library, taken by the author of this post.

Preparing for my IRDL experience

This past weekend, I spent a large amount of time at my dining room table, reading Collecting Qualitative Data: A Field Manual for Applied Research by Greg Guest, Emily E. Namey, and Marilyn L. Mitchell. And I was enjoying it.

Now granted, this wasn’t a book I just happened to pick up as a fun weekend read. This book, along with a few others, are part of the curriculum for the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL). I’m a proud member of their sixth cohort. IRDL is an IMLS grant that aims to bring together an enthusiastic and motivated bunch of librarians that want to conduct research but need a little extra training and help. Early this year, I submitted an application, where I proposed my research project, included a one page cover letter about what I hoped to gain from this experience, and provided a letter from my institution that they would support me if I was accepted into the cohort. Once I received the good news, I booked a flight to Loyola Marymount University for early June, where a weeklong in-person workshop will take place. The workshop is the jumping off point for our project; beyond that week, we will meet virtually throughout the next year and talk to our assigned mentor, who is there to make sure our project stays on track. All of these support mechanisms are to ensure we get our project completed and to help each other along the way. Now that my spring semester is over, it’s finally sinking I’m less than a month away from our in-person workshop. My pre-workshop preparation has stepped up!

Beyond the training and getting to know a cohort of enthusiastic librarians who want to conduct research, I am excited to spend the next year on a meaningful and complex research project. Those that know my position know that I have spent almost two years building relationships, getting library colleagues to define student engagement in a similar way, and understanding how students at Penn State navigate student engagement. I think I’m finally at a point where I’m ready to learn more while also thinking about ways to make an impact and influence future directions. That’s where my IRDL project comes in.

The quick sound bite of my project: I’ll be using journey mapping techniques to have students at Penn State chart their student engagement journeys. What I want to know is how our students actually experience student engagement during their undergraduate careers and who are the people, units, resources, and opportunities they discover along the way. Of course, through this all, I’m also curious about how the library has or has not played a role in their student engagement journey. Ultimately, I want to get a more nuanced picture of what our students experience and begin to identify common points where the library could get more involved. While I understand that each student engagement journey will be unique to the student, I assume there will be some trends that emerge from these maps that can inform the work of both the libraries and Penn State’s Student Engagement Network.  At times, the project seems daunting, but the more I read in preparation for IRDL, the more I begin to feel ready to take on this project. I know I’ll be learning a lot as I go, and also get more opportunities to meet students at Penn State, which I am all about.

Well, my qualitative research book is calling to me, got to get back to reading! But I will definitely be documenting my time at IRDL and my student engagement journey mapping research in a variety of online spaces: on this blog, on my personal blog, on Twitter, and on LibParlor. So, more soon!


Featured image by rawpixel.comfrom Pexels

Herd Immunity

I’ll add to the post-ACRL 2019 conference reflection writing with a nod to the presentation I can’t stop thinking about and sharing with colleagues:

When Research Gets Trolled: Digital Safety for Open Researchers
by Reed Garber-Pearson, Verletta Kern, Madeline Mundt, Elliot Stevens, and Madison Sullivan

This group of librarians from the University of Washington advocate for educating scholars on digital safety and privacy, particularly those who make their work publicly accessible, do research with or about people from marginalized groups, and/or identify as a member of a marginalized group. They acknowledge the risk that public intellectuals, or scholars who seek to make their work open, take on in this world of targeted online harassment, doxxing, and offline threats. People of color, and women of color in particular, are most likely to be impacted by these acts of sabotage and harassment; we need only look at Roxane Gay‘s Twitter feed at any given moment to see this kind of gross activity.

It is, quite frankly, terrifying.

The presenters make the case that this kind of trolling can have a serious impact on academic and intellectual freedom: If a researcher is brutally bullied online and threatened offline, will they be less likely to continue their line of research and make their work publicly available? For all that we in libraries push for open access to research, we need to be equally concerned about the safety and well-being of the researchers we are asking to share their work. In advocating for their safety and sharing information about protecting themselves online, librarians can help boost what the panelists’ referred to as “herd immunity.” Researchers who protect themselves online also protect their colleagues, friends, and families, as online harassers often jump between networks to target others.

As a woman of color who does most of her thinking and writing openly online, I will admit that this presentation hit me hard. I have friends and acquaintances who have been horribly bullied on social media and in comments (yes, I always read the comments and know it is the wrong thing to do). I always thought this was to be endured. Trolls gonna troll. I am so appreciative of this collective of librarians who are sharing ways to prevent, or at least mitigate this harm and harassment. I thought the presenters struck the right tone–not alarmist, but informative and considerate. They had the best interests of researchers–and yes, that includes us as librarians–in mind. Their goal was to embolden us, not frighten us into retreating. This presentation was a good reminder that supporting researchers doesn’t end when the research concludes. If we want to push for open access and a public discourse of scholarship we have a professional obligation promote the digital safety that allows this open exchange to flourish.

You can read notes from the panel on a collaborative GoogleDoc, view their presentation slides online, and begin thinking about how you can create digital herd immunity at your institution.