April is the cruelest month for library instruction, and for me April started a week early. I have various pitches I make to students about the research process, and I’m not sure I agree with any of them. Sometimes I tell the students that the techniques and skills we’re learning aren’t really the interesting part of a research project. The goal is not just to keep finding books and articles, but to find the right books articles and then join the scholarly conversation on a topic, to do the work of analyzing, synthesizing, and creating scholarly works. What I’m teaching them is how to do this more efficiently so they can get to the harder work later. This is what I sometimes tell students in the first-year writing seminars to motivate them to pay attention to me for a while. Typically they pay attention to me anyway because I move around a lot and vary the pitch of my voice, but still.
I’m not sure I believe this, though. Certainly analysis, synthesis, and creation are the final paths and goals of scholarly research from the standpoint of the academy. Everyone is supposed to produce. Reading widely might be great, but if you don’t produce an essay to grade or an article to publish, you haven’t done your job. And, I suppose, for some people these are their actual motivations. Even full professors keep writing books and articles. But for a lot of people, the research process is an end in itself. Think about all those professors who read and teach and keep up on their fields, but don’t publish anymore. They’re certainly researchers and scholars, even if they never produce anything.
Librarianship is probably the profession that most attracts these kinds of people. I know it’s an attraction for me. I’ve published very little, though I read and write every day. One of the attractions of being a librarian is that I can follow my intellectual whims in relative ease and comfort. There’s no predicting what subject might catch my interest as I’m reading something else, and being a librarian makes it easy to track down a quick introduction to a topic and maybe a couple of articles and books. Then I read them and some other tangential topic sparks my interest, and I follow that one up, and along the way almost everything I need is provided by my own library. I sometimes wonder how people without ready access to research libraries get by. I would be very frustrated. In the humanities, I’m a jack of many trades and perhaps a master of none, though technically I’m a master of arts with a piece of paper somewhere to prove it, so I suppose I could call myself a master of English literature, not that I would ever do that.
For some reason I assume that most people are like this, only the topic varies, and that even students enjoy researching in at least some fashion topics they’re interested in. They want to know more about this pop singer or that television show or whatever. That’s probably just me wearing my librarian glasses, though. Sort of like to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, or to a man controlling the most powerful conventional military on earth everything looks like a conventional war. To a librarian everything looks like research.
Still, I might try to make this pitch during my upcoming instruction season, to propose that the research process is so enjoyable that some people never abandon it for writing. It’s so much fun to track down one more article and find out just a little bit more about the topic that they may finally just have to go cold turkey with library research and sit down to the less enjoyable art of scholarly writing. For some the end is writing and publication, but for many the research is an end in itself. Sounds great for librarians, but for some reason I don’t think this would fly come grading or tenure time.