On Librarians Writing

It seems to be the month for librarians to write about writing. Within the past week I’ve read three different articles or blog posts about librarians writing: Emily Ford’s Becoming a Writer-Librarian in In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Trudi Bellardo Hahn’s and Paul T. Jaeger’s From Practice to Publication: a Path for Academic Library Professionals in College & Research Libraries News, and Joanna June’s Learn to Write (Well) at the Hack Library School blog. They’re all worth reading for potential writing librarians, and they made me reflect a bit on my own life as a writer. As an experienced writing teacher who has managed to publish some professional writing in a variety of formats, I thought I’d toss out my thoughts on writing as well.

Hahn and Jaeger write for academic librarians wanting to publish research, and their advice is more specific than the other articles. They have a helpful chart of different ways to proceed toward publication, with four categories: A) Highly Competitive Publications, B) Less Competitive Publications, C) Unpublished Presentations, and D) Support/ Service/ Recognition. I’ve done a bit of A, C, and D, and a whole lot of B. Since I don’t care whether my publications are “highly competitive” or not, I can work comfortably in the “less competitive” domain. This is also what they suggest for new librarian writers. “Academic librarians who are just starting out should consider all the options available in column B.” Column B includes articles in non-refereed journals, magazines, or newsletters; columns in a journal or magazine (permanent); guest columns; and blogs among others. That seems like good advice. Looking back at my CV, two of my first three publications were in C&RL News itself, and the next few were guest columns or editorials or entries for a column I edited. I was a librarian for years before I published anything peer-reviewed and I avoided tenure-track jobs so I wouldn’t have to write before I had something to say. They also give the good rhetorical advice that “a highly competitive outlet is not necessarily always the best fit for a project, and the desire to have materials published in a certain type of outlet should not be prioritized at the expense of the determining the most appropriate outlet and audience.” That’s hard advice for someone needing to publish peer-reviewed articles for tenure, but still sound. Some topics need a book and some a blog post.

Ford also gives some good advice. The “Writing is Social” section reports about her participation in Academic Writing Month and Digital Writing Month, which provide social incentives and support for writers. I’ve never been a social writer myself, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that writers use all kinds of different tactics to be productive. I usually don’t show my writing to anyone before sending it off for publication, but I’m a good self-editor with a lot of experience. Most people would benefit from a “community of practice,” I suspect. “Reflecting on Writing” suggests reading about writing, which might be something librarians don’t think about doing. I haven’t read her suggestions before, but with 17 years off and on teaching writing, I’ve read a lot of books on writing. Ford’s choices seem concerned with making writers more productive or overcoming blocks. I’ve never had writer’s block or difficulty organizing a writing project, so those aren’t issues for me, but I know they are for a lot of people.

However, I also think it’s a good idea for potential librarian writers to read nuts and bolts type books they might otherwise skip. Examples I’ve profited from in the past include: Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct: a Rhetoric for Writers, Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose, and Diane Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference. Hacker is the most basic, and I probably wouldn’t have read anything like it had I never taught writing. However, it’s still worth the time. I’ve encountered lots of writing from students and other unpublished writers that still have basic problems with subject-verb agreement or pronoun-antecedent agreement or who don’t know whether use which and that with restrictive clauses, or for that matter don’t know what a restrictive clause is. Williams’ book is an advanced guide to prose style and Barzun’s is full of solid rhetorical advice. Lanham’s short book is a good guide to revision, which is something lots of writers dread.

June’s short blog post contains useful tidbits for writers: read critically, write a lot, step away from your writing for a while before revising, and proofread by reading your writing aloud. All are sound suggestions.

Ford admits that she always wanted to be a writer. I’m sort of like that. I remember in the 5th grade wanting to be a fiction writer, but as I grew up that goal changed as I studied new subjects. At various times from age 13 on I’ve wanted to be a journalist, a photojournalist, an architect, a musician, a fiction writer (again), and an English professor. But mostly it’s been writer. I still write fiction sometimes, and have a couple of finished novels and lots of drafts, but I don’t bother trying to publish any of it because it takes too much effort and I don’t really care if it’s published because I write for my own satisfaction. Librarianship was what I ended up with after I’d abandoned other ideas., and it’s turned out that librarianship has offered me plenty of opportunity to write anyway.

When you’ve done something for so long, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate how you do it, but I decided to try. Below are the activities that I think have had the most positive influence on my writing.

Teaching writing

Teaching writing has probably done more to improve my writing than anything else. My writing was already strong in college, and I got through many a class with an A merely by my ability to crank out thousand-word essays at a rapid pace. However, that ability was mostly because of reading (see below). Teaching writing improved that ability significantly because I did two things I’d never done before: I read a lot of writing by inexperience writers, and I studied the nuts and bolts of writing. People who read a lot learn about what good prose reads like, but they don’t necessarily think analytically about how writing works. As a teacher, my job wasn’t just to grade essays, but to give specific advice for improvement, and to do that I needed to figure out what was wrong. Why didn’t that sentence work? What’s wrong with the organization of this essay? And what specifically can that writer do to improve? Doing that is a lot harder than you might think. Teaching writing gave me a vocabulary for discussing writing that helps with my own writing, but that I might not have gotten otherwise.

Teaching also exposed me to a lot of bad writing. People who read a lot of published prose might not realize how very bad most writing is. Especially in the pre-blog days, truly awful writing was unlikely to be published anywhere with much of a readership. But wade through a stack of 40 student essays and you realize that writing is a far from natural experience. Reading bad writing makes it easier to figure out what good writing is, though. Reading great novels or polished essays critically can teach you a lot (see below), but reading bad writing gives you a new perspective. If you can figure out why it’s bad, you’re on your way to looking at your own writing more critically.

Reading Everything

Writers read. This shouldn’t even have to be mentioned, but I can almost guarantee you that if you never read, you’ll never be much of a writer. By reading, I don’t just mean novels or great literature. In fact, unless you want to write fiction, there’s not any need to read a lot of fiction. But it helps to read everything: novels, short stories, poems, essays, new articles, encyclopedia entries, cereal boxes, blogs, tweets, comic books, textbooks, book blurbs, and even scholarly articles in library science. I’ve been an avid and indiscriminate reader ever since I can remember, and every little bit has contributed to my development as a writer.

Reading Critically

On the other hand, being an indiscriminate reader all the time isn’t a good idea. You need to learn to read critically. Good writing as well as bad writing can be read critically. Understanding how bad writing works can help you avoid it in your own work, but understanding how good writing works is more important and more difficult. My writing efforts are mostly novels and essays. I’m curious about how both work. My time as an English major and grad student has given me a large vocabulary to understand and describe writing in a critical way, which is sometimes different than how I might think about writing as a writing teacher. Thinking about writing as a critic and thinking critically as a practioner are both helpful.

Writing Every Day

Writers write. This was the advice I once gave someone who was pestering me over drinks about writing. She thought the drunken escapades of her life would make great blog fodder. Maybe. But although writers often like to drink, the most important thing is writing. Writers write, usually every day. It’s a bad sign when people keep talking about what they would write if only they could get around to it. It doesn’t even matter that much what you write. Sure, if you’re working on an article under a deadline, you might focus on that, but writing about anything helps. You can even write about how you want to write and have nothing to write about. It’s still good practice. And if you can just write a page a day on a writing project, that still adds up pretty quickly. Writing has been a daily part of my life for 25 years, and that constant practice is part of what makes it so easy for me.

Writing in my Head

Writers write and read about writing, but a lot of writing looks suspiciously like staring into space, or walking, or (in my case) lying in bed early in the morning with your eyes closed. William Wordsworth used to go for long walks composing poetry in his head. I’m frequently thinking about things I might write, conjuring up thesis and motive in my head, pondering possible organization. The actual typing part is often the last and fastest part of the writing process, at least for me. So while you should write every day, you could also spend time every day thinking about whatever you might want to write.

Accepting Constructive Criticism and Editing

Inexperienced writers are often insecure writers as well. They don’t like criticism. It offends them that someone would think their writing needs improvement. The writers most resistant to criticism are also usually the worst writers. Experienced writers learn that writing is just words on a page,and they learn to appreciate constructive criticism. This is different from merely negative feedback, which can be dismissed. Someone recently in public called a piece I wrote “pure bilge,” but that’s the sort of emotional and derisive comment that makes me question the reader’s judgment, not my writing.

Writers should also learn to accept editing. I write pretty well, but I’ve had numerous editorial suggestions over the years. With very few exceptions, I’ve taken the suggestions and revised accordingly, because good editors aren’t trying to change your message but improve its communication. Sometimes writers resist editing out of pride or insecurity, and sometimes it’s out of exhaustion. Years ago a librarian asked me to read an article he’d written before submission to a journal editor. I agreed. It was an incoherent 50-page article. That was the bad news. The good news was that with a bit of work it could be turned into two very good 25-page articles, and I suggested how to do that. He was exhausted and said he’d just trust the editor. I replied that if the editor was any good he’d say the same thing I did. Despite considering my comment arrogant at the time, he later sheepishly admitted that the editor was pretty good, plus he got two good articles published instead of one.


Some writers can produce polished prose on the first sitting without any revision at all. I can occasionally do that with short blog posts, but for most writing I revise, sometimes a little and sometimes significantly. Even with writing as informal as blog posts, I often reread the piece several times, making major or minor corrections as I go through. This is where knowing the nuts and bolts of writing helps the most. Writing a draft is sometimes mindless, because the goal should be to get some words down, but revising should be thoughtfully done. For blog posts my goal is clarity and coherence, but when writing for publication I spend more time thinking about everything from sentence structure to organization.

So that’s my story. Every writer’s story is a little different, but those are the activities that I think have helped my writing the most.

If Research Essays Were Written Like Bad News Articles

‘Tis the season when college students across the country are handing in research essays and term papers. Having graded many hundreds of essays over the years, I think I can speak with assurance that the hardest essays to grade are the bad essays. There are a lot of bad essays, and one of the reasons might be because a lot of popular reading consists of bad news articles, which are legion. I’d like to take a look at one and compare it to bad research essays, mainly as a way of celebrating the fact that I don’t have any research essays to grade this semester.

I chose an article about consumer technology, but I could easily have chosen one about politics. Consumer tech and politics both have a huge amount of insubstantial nonsense written about them, and that’s even when you exclude the ludicrous subgenre of iPhone rumors. Whether it’s the pseudoevent (“It has been announced that the President will be making an announcement later in the day”) or the article empty of real content (“Polls tell us that if people were voting today instead of six months from now when the actual election is held, they would probably vote this way, but there’s no way to know if that’s how they’ll vote in November”), political news is generally stuff and nonsense. What passes for tech news might be even worse.

So, what would research essays look like if they were written like bad news articles? We can see an example with this article: Is There a Future for Laptops?

1) They would have provocative titles that don’t represent the content well.

You have to admit, “Is There a Future for Laptops?” is a provocative title. It’s also a stupid title, because the answer is obviously “yes.” Even the writer thinks so, despite all the dithering. In fact, that’s what makes it provocative. While the title is provocative, the article itself is almost devoid of content, opinion, or argument. The concluding paragraph begins, “Although I don’t see this scenario playing out quickly, there is a real possibility that it could become a trend.” Think about that as a conclusion. The writer has pretty much strung some words together that should make a sentence, but not actually said anything or taken any stance. Plus he probably got paid for it. Now there’s a talented hack. There is a real possibility that just about anything could become a trend, and we all know it, so there’s no use writing it.

2) They would have verbose introductions having nothing to do with the topic.

This article seems to be a bad example of the five-paragraph essay. If you’re unfamiliar with the form, Google it. Plenty of examples will show up. In a diagram, the first paragraph is represented as an inverted triangle, and the advice is to start broad and then narrow to your main thesis. Thus, a bad essay about the future of laptops might begin, “Since the dawn of time, man has wondered about the future of the laptop.” This awful article doesn’t even get points for staying on topic. The first six sentences and two paragraphs are about the writer’s obsession with food and himself. A lot of so-called news articles these days begin like personal essays. As a reader, I appreciate it, because it lets me tell immediately who’s not worth reading. If your article is about some hot button political issue and you begin by talking about what you were having for lunch when you heard about it, I can tell at a glance that you don’t have a thing to say worth saying and move on. Ditto with laptops and what you like to eat.

3) They wouldn’t have thesis statements.

What is a thesis statement? There are various definitions, but a thesis statement is basically an arguable and falsifiable claim. “There are various kinds of computers that suit different purposes” is a falsifiable claim, for example, but not an arguable one, since nobody who knew anything about computers could possible argue against it, but if there were no computers in existence it would certainly be false. If there is a main claim at all to this article, it’s that laptops might possibly sell less well in the future than they do today. Is that really arguable? Can’t we all agree that’s true? Yes, they might. Is it falsifiable? I don’t think so, because it doesn’t really make a claim about anything. They might, they might not. We get pap like, “If this speculative trend becomes a reality, the ramifications for the laptop vendors could be significant because they sell the majority of their laptops to consumers.” The writer can write that sentence and “I have a thousand-word column due and nothing to say” at the same time.

4) They wouldn’t have arguments.

If there’s some kind of claim, there might be some kind of argument, only there’s not. Instead of any sort of argument or analysis, we get stuff like this:

Many conversations also addressed the future of tablets in general and how they could impact the laptop landscape. Quite a few of the folks I spoke with have started to use Bluetooth keyboards with their tablets and they say that using a tablet/keyboard combo really changes their thinking about laptops. A lot of them only take their tablet/keyboard with them on short trips, leaving the laptop home.

I have heard this case repeated a lot lately by tablet users. Many find themselves spending more time with the tablet since they can do as much as 80 percent of their work on it and thus they are relying less and less on the laptop.

So “quite a few” folks this one person happens to have spoken to at a tech conference say something, and that’s somehow evidence about the “future of the laptop”? Even the writer knows it’s not, since he won’t just come out and say the laptop is doomed. “Many say”? “I have heard”? Sounds pretty dubious to me. I’ve heard many people say they will always need their laptops, because there are some things that just can’t be done on a tablet. If nothing else, I’ll say that many, many times, which should count as evidence for something.

The article is so vague and speculative that there’s really nothing to argue for. That should be a sign that it’s not worth writing in the first place. It fails as opinion, because there’s no argument, and it fails as news because of the pointless opening and the vague reporting. “Many conversations.” “I asked some execs.” If you’re reporting on a conference, this is about as insubstantial as it gets.

5) The sources would be vague and disconnected.

This article could be considered a research essay that “writes from sources.” It’s half report, half argument, and all bad, but there are some sources involved. Only none of those sources are named, none of their statements sufficiently analyzed, and they’re all left hanging loosely together. “One guy said this about tablets. Another guy said this about laptops. Someone else said a third thing about some other stuff. And I really like food.” The only way this filler could get any worse would be for the writer to write “very” 10-15 times before every adverb to boost the word count. It’s what writing teachers sometimes call a quotation quilt, except without the quotations or the quilt.

Fortunately, because of the heroic efforts of teachers and librarians to instill a capacity for critical writing into students, there won’t be many college research essays like that. Or at least none that I have to read.

The Library and the Research Essay

I’ve been wanting to write about the Citation Project, a recent study about first-year research essays that found, in the words of Inside Higher Education, “research papers written in first-year composition courses at 15 colleges … simply copy chunks of text from the sources they cite without truly grasping the underlying argument, quality or context.” Barbara Fister responded already to this in not one, but two posts arguing that the first year research paper should be abandoned. That bothered me, because lately every time I want to write about something, I find that Barbara has already written about it and said more or less what I would have said, but better. I’m not sure that the research paper should be abandoned unless unlikely reforms come about, but maybe we should change our expectations of what it’s supposed to do. It seems to me there’s two components to this argument. The first is to determine what we mean by research, because that’s a shifty term in academia. The second is to ask what research has to do with the first-year research essay. If the goal of the first year research essay assignment is to teach students how to understand, evaluate, and integrate sources into their writing, then it might be a good idea to remove the library research component from the traditional assignment.

Let’s begin with some definitions of research from the OED:

2.  a. Systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject. In later use also: original critical or scientific investigation carried out under the auspices of an academic or other institution.

 b. Investigation undertaken in order to obtain material for a book, article, thesis, etc.; an instance of this. 

c. The product of systematic investigation, presented in written (esp. published) form.

2a is the definition of research that most fits for the sciences and social sciences. In this sense, research involves investigating some object or set of objects–stars, rocks, mice, humans–asking questions, conducting experiments, forming and testing hypotheses, etc. Then, the results of this research are reported, which gives us definition 2c. In Wayne Booth et al.’s The Craft of Research, we get a similar definition. For them, research is gathering information to answer a question that solves a problem, and the solution to that problem is to be reported in written form.

The humanities work a little differently. In an article about humanities research practices, Rebecca Green* (quoting Stephen Stoan**), notes that a book or article in the sciences “reports the results of one’s research,” but in the humanities it “is the results of one’s research.” There is no separate research that one writes up afterwards. There may be an object of study, but the way in which it is studied differs from the sciences. Consider an essay on Hamlet. It might contain an analysis of the text and an interpretation of the meaning of the play, but literary scholars rarely study Hamlet the way a biologist would study a mouse. In the humanities, the product of research is part of the process of research, and without the written form there would be nothing at all. Something like definition 2b is a step in this process, but it’s not the entirety of the research. A scientific experiment can theoretically be replicated, but an interpretation of Hamlet can only be repeated.

This leaves us with disparate definitions even for the work of the professionals, those professors employed by colleges and universities and expected to do “research.” Biologists, economists, historians, literary scholars, and philosophers are all supposedly doing “research,” but the processes and results couldn’t be more different. Research, in the broadest sense, could just mean “whatever those professors in research universities do,” whether it’s studying planets or interpreting poems. Research can be broadened to include analysis, argument, and interpretation, three of the key features of work in the humanities. Some people make the more dubious distinction between “research” and “opinion,” as in everything that doesn’t involve some study of objects in a distanced and quantitative way is mere opinion. I’ve encountered this strange attitude many times in librarianship. Recently an article I wrote that is clearly an example of applied ethics was called an “opinion” article, as if there’s no difference between opinion on the one hand and analysis and argument on the other. While I interpret this as an ignorance scholarly genres, the more generous interpretation would be that I write for librarians but outside conventional library science genres.  Regardless of my inadequacies as an LIS researcher, it should be clear that we have different working definitions of research that depend upon the discipline of the researcher. The key requirement for them all is that they supposedly make some new contribution to knowledge, no matter how small.

How does this relate to whatever it is students are supposed to be doing for the first-year research essay that so many of them are assigned? I suggest not much. The most applicable of the definitions offered above is 2b, investigation to obtain material for an article. Rarely, as far as I know, do first-year students writing a research essay for a composition class do research in the scientific sense, that is, actually study first hand the object of investigation. They don’t use labs, and seldom conduct surveys or do field work or anything that might count as original research in the sciences or social sciences. Occasionally they do, but this is atypical. Thus, most of the “research” they do involves gathering material about a subject through library searches, Internet searches, footnote chasing, professor recommendations and the like.  For the most part, the best chance of writing a research essay they have is following a humanities model where their analysis, interpretation, and argument are themselves part of the product of research. Otherwise, given the time constraints and the limited knowledge of their subject, most essays would be merely reporting the research of others. If indeed students are merely cutting and pasting from sources without understanding what they’re reading, then maybe that’s what most students are doing anyway. 

If we think of the research essay as a report of the results of research, then our typical approach to research and the research essay is disconnected from the method of a lot of the essays themselves. Librarians are most helpful at the gathering sources stage of research, and it’s easy to treat that as the research, and the essay as reporting the results of that research. However, the gathering of sources is research only in the broadest sense; it’s not research at all in the sense understood in the sciences, and only the first and easiest step in the sense understood in the humanities, and, because most writing instructors are trained in the humanities, of most research essays assigned to first-year students. Typically, for the research essay, students are supposed to write using sources and have a thesis and an argument. They need not only to find and evaluate their sources, but integrate them into an essay and also have something original to say about them. They have to make an arguable claim about some topic using their sources in some way, and they have a lot of trouble.

So when students are writing that first research essay, they’re trying to learn severa
l skills simultaneously, crammed into a few weeks’ time. They must learn to find appropriate sources, understand and evaluate them, and integrate them into a coherent essay making an arguable claim that is related to but not supplied by the sources themselves, and they typically have 3-4 weeks to do this about topics they likely never encountered before, and almost certainly have never studied in any academic way.  And they have to do all this while undertaking no research in the scientific sense, and without the broad and deep contextual knowledge necessary for scholars in the humanities. Considering all this, it’s no wonder the average research essay is mediocre by scholarly standards, and why so many students gravitate to the same lame topics, and use the Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center instead of a regular index, as discussed by these librarians. It’s also no wonder that so many of them apparently don’t understand what they’re reading very well.

On top of this, consider who teaches most writing courses and how: graduate students who are and should be concerned with their own studies and dissertations or adjuncts teaching several courses a semester for relatively low pay and no benefits. This is because at a large number of universities writing instruction isn’t taken seriously. It’s easy to tell this about the institution you work for. If your institution has brand new graduate students from various disciplines with a week’s training teaching first year writing courses on their own, then that institution doesn’t take writing instruction seriously. Everyone pays lip service to how important writing is and how much students need to learn how, but when a large university with an inadequate budget is shepherding thousands of students through first year writing courses, then quality and care start to suffer. Writing is often taught under near factory conditions, and when an overworked grad student or adjunct is facing a stack of forty or fifty or a hundred student research papers, how could anyone really expect the best possible instruction and feedback.

Given this reality, it might seem like I’m making a case against assigning research essays to first year students. After all, they’re not really writing research essays, but merely “research” essays at best. The gathering of sources is fitful and minimal; there’s no mastery of any subject or contribution to knowledge; often enough there’s little in the way of originality or good argument. So what’s the point? The point is, they have to start somewhere, even if the result is merely a replica of a research essay. That is, unless things change. But things aren’t going to change.

If  there is to be reform, I do agree with Barbara in a sense. I see a case for eliminating the research paper in the sense librarians understand it. The Citation Project isn’t about library research. It’s about writing from sources. Maybe it would be better if the library research part were removed completely from first year composition classes. One problem with using the research essay to teach about evaluating them and writing from sources is that it’s usually the one essay where the instructor hasn’t read all of the sources. You can’t evaluate how well students have understood and integrated sources into their essays without having some familiarity with the sources themselves. Writing instructors could eliminate the library research portion of the research essay, give students 15-20 sources about a given topic with which the instructors are intimately familiar, and then tell the students to use at least a set number of those sources to write an argumentative essay. Except for the source gathering part of the paper, this would include all of the higher order “information literacy” skills, and would allow instructors to better evaluate the use and understanding of sources.

By  separating the source-gathering from those first research essays, and not expecting freshmen to learn how to use libraries and find sources when they’re still not able to write academic essays using sources, instructors would have more time to help students evaluate the sources they do have. That separation could mean separate courses in library research or more focus on helping upper-level students. That support would be best working systematically with all the students in a department to teach them research skills in a discipline. It could also mean creating separate Information Literacy Across the Curriculum programs (though that wouldn’t be my name of choice!), perhaps aligned at later stages with Writing Across the Curriculum programs.  Neither type of program seems to have achieved wide and lasting success, and I’m skeptical about ever getting widespread support in higher education for either type of initiative, but that would indeed be better than what most students get now. Or there could be a two semester writing sequence like some places have, with any library involvement coming in the second semester.

Even creating a mediocre first research essay in the way commonly assigned requires learning the basics of a lot of skills. Finding a topic, understanding that interesting topics are necessarily contested topics, navigating a library, rudimentary database and Internet searching, crafting a thesis, dealing with arguments and counterarguments, all the while learning enough about a new topic in a short time. Having steered a few hundred students through this process over the years, it’s not surprising at all that they don’t read and understand and integrate their sources perfectly. It’s a wonder to me how many manage to come out with ten reasonably coherent pages that have some relation to their thesis. And yet, they have to start somewhere. Scholars don’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. Maybe it’s too much. Maybe first year writing courses should focus on writing and evaluating sources, and postpone library research instruction until students have more mastery of academic writing.

*Green, Rebecca, “Locating Sources in Humanities Scholarship: The Efficacy of following Bibliographic References.” The Library Quarterly 70: 2 (2000): 201-229. 204.

**Stoan, Stephen K. “Research and Information Retrieval among Academic Researchers: Implications for Library Instruction.” Library Trends 39 (Winter 1991): 238-58.

Timing of the Research Question

There’s a good article in the latest portal that should be interesting to any librarians who provide research instruction for first-year writing students:

Nutefall, Jennifer E. and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. “The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10 (4), October 2010: 437-449. [Librarians with access to Project Muse can click through.]

The literature review alone is an excellent quick overview of what some librarians and writing instructors have written about the research question. The study itself was of librarians and writing instructors at George Washington University. At GWU, the writing courses are topic-based and capped at 15 students (which is similar to the model at Princeton).  The authors compared the attitudes of librarians and writing instructors toward the research question. Librarians and faculty agreed that good research questions should be complex, worth answering, and interesting to the student. But they disagreed on the timing of the research question. Librarians tended to want students to have clearly formulated questions early in the process, while faculty tended to think that focused research questions come late in the process after a lot of exploratory reading has been done.

The authors speculate that this divide might be caused by the different research methods of librarians and writing faculty.

the research projects the librarians described are more focused on particular audience needs. For example, they investigate and share better pedagogical techniques for library instruction with other librarians. For the most part, librarians seemed to prefer a more structured research process in their own work and prefer to teach a more methodical approach to research to first-year students. For faculty in the UWP, the majority of their projects study how people and cultures exchange knowledge. When faculty describe their own research process it is similar to those documented in other studies as typical for “expert” researchers.Their methods rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. (445-46)

The implicit claim that librarians aren’t “expert” researchers would certainly explain a large portion of the library literature. Based on the library literature I’ve read, librarians aren’t typically expert researchers in the sense that they rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. There’s a whole sub-genre of library literature that requires knowledge of nothing more than how to send out an online survey and how to report results. 

There’s definitely a disciplinary distinction in play. Even the best of the library literature tends to work under social science models, where research questions are often formulated more specifically than in the humanities, especially compared to literary and cultural studies in which a disproportionate number of writing faculty are trained. However, I suspect that disciplinarity is only part of the disjunction. The differing functions of the librarians and faculty, or at least how many view those functions, could account for some of it. Having taught a few hundred writing students of my own, and provided library research assistance in some form or other for more students than I can remember, this is the distinction that makes the most sense for me.

Librarians want early, clearly formulated research questions, preferably with good keywords, because it’s at that point that librarians can be most useful, or at least when many librarians feel most useful. Often enough, librarians are helping students find information on topics the librarians know even less about than the students if the students have done any preliminary reading at all. And the help often provided will be with some sort of literature search in one of the library databases. Those librarians need focused topics so they’ll know which databases to search, which keywords to use, and which results to examine in more detail when they find some. It’s the level at which a well-trained reference librarian with an adequate collection of resources can help just about any researcher. The great thing about the methods librarians use is that they work, almost all the time. The difficulty comes when they don’t work because researchers aren’t clear and specific enough in their goals.

For writing instructors, on the hand, “research” in the sense of finding concrete sources about a given topic isn’t the most important thing, because their function is quite different. Whereas librarians often enough get students with at least some focus, writing instructors usually begin with the chaos that is most student writing in the early stages of a first-year writing class. It’s the function of the writing instructor to teach students to form this chaos, to shape it, discipline it, focus it, and just when the students have mastered one skill, it’s time for the writing instructor to push them further into the unknown with the research essay assignment. A writing class is always in some stage of managed chaos, and the writing instructor is always helping students find their way. It’s not that librarians are afraid of the chaos. It’s just that there’s not as much for them to do. Focus can also come through the writing process, so that students with only a vague idea of what they want to argue develop their best ideas only after they start writing. One of the librarians studied likes students to envision their entire project, what they want to do, the types of sources they’ll need, etc. Librarian nirvana. The problem is, this isn’t how beginning researchers work, and it’s not really how a lot of experienced researchers in the humanities work. The actual library searching portion of most student research essays is a small part of what they’re learning to do, and not the most important part.

The authors of the study suggest that librarians and writing faculty should work closely together and be clear about their expectations and when research is appropriate. I agree completely. But another possibility is for librarians who feel comfortable enough to step out of their usual function of helping students find information only after they know what they want. At my library, this is more typically done with advanced undergraduates. Often enough, research consultations fluctuate between what I typically think of as a library research consultation and what I typically think of as a writing consultation session. The line between those two is easy to cross, if it exists at all. When I was in library school, I worked both at the information desk in the main library and as a writing consultant in the writing clinic on campus, and it was interesting how frequently what I did for students was the same. That’s because the writing and research process are inextricably intertwined, but the organization of universities means that the two functions are split between the library and some other department.

I’ve met with many students where I helped them figure out what they were really trying to research. We might discuss possible topic options and limitations, or how books and articles can be used to develop and narrow ideas, or how some strategies will work better than others, or how they can use sources as models and not just support, or how they can link disparate strands of research to develop a question, or how various sources might function in their essays. These are all research issues and also the sort of thing covered in writing courses. I’ve had numerous students ask me what I thought about their topic, or whether they should change it. Through in-depth interviews held during lunch with at least three other librarians here, I confirmed that the practice isn’t just confined to me. Librarians do this sort of thing all the time, even if they don’t realize it.

As Nutefall and Ryder imply, we should be aware of our disciplinary boundaries and blindnesses when working with writing students and instructors. But if we’re not already, we should also be willing to to do more with students than just help them search for topics they’ve already narrowed down. The research process is far more than searching, which is easy for us to forget sometimes since we often see just that part when working with students. We should be comfortable working with the chaos of the vague topic and the inchoate research question, because we often have a lot to offer students throughout the research process.