A signpost painted with the word "Start"
LibParlor Contributor Series

Getting Started, Part II: How to Start Research and Writing Projects

LibParlor Contributors Martha Stuit and Joanna Thielen return for their second post, focusing on getting starting with a collaborative research project.

Martha Stuit works with the institutional repository at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. Her research interests include publishing, open access, and data, digital, and critical information literacy. She is a librarian, writer, and former reporter. She earned her bachelor’s and Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan. You can reach her at stuitm@umich.edu, and you can also find her on Twitter: @newerwilderness

Joanna Thielen is an Assistant Professor at Oakland University in Rochester, MI. She is Research Data Librarian and the Librarian for the Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Physics departments. (Whew! All of her job titles are a mouthful.) Her research interests are many, including integrating research data management in the curriculum, and novel ways of serving STEM patrons. She earned her MSI degree from the University of Michigan in 2016. You can reach her at jthielen@oakland.edu.


This article is the second of a two-part series. In Part 1, we reflect on elements that have helped our successful collaborations, hopefully sparking your interest in collaborative research and writing projects. Here in Part 2, we discuss concrete ways to get started on those projects.

Initiating a library research project

We are considering research and writing projects from two angles: our own efforts and results from our survey on the research and publication practices of early career librarians (less than five years of professional experience). Our experiences include collaborating on six presentations and three articles in the last four years. While working together, we often questioned how people even get started on research and publication in libraries amidst varied requirements, positions, and environments. Unlike other fields, librarianship does not provide a consistent introduction to, or emphasis on, these practices. Our conversations, and recognition of the challenges of getting started with these activities, led to our survey. (Full survey results will be discussed in a future journal article.)

Consequently, both our experiences and survey findings inform the following suggestions. We have anecdotally heard that finding a topic of interest can be a barrier. In our survey, we found that collaborators and dedicated time are among the top three factors that respondents said would help them publish more in the future. In the following sections, we share suggestions for starting a project by initially focusing on three areas: topic, collaborators, and time.

Ways to Get Started

Topic

Finding a topic that intrigues you and is of interest to the library community is tough. However, when you are not personally interested in a topic or select one because you think you “should” (i.e. it’s popular!), you will be much less motivated to finish it. Identifying a topic can involve trial and error to figure out both what interests you and what would be useful in your job, library, and the profession. Ways to do this include examining your interests and expertise and keeping up-to-date with the library profession (e.g. reading LIS journals, professional blogs or trade publications; engaging with professional listservs or social media; and attending professional development opportunities). The topics for our presentations and articles have come from our own experiences and questions, conversation with colleagues, and even serendipity.

If you can’t think of a topic immediately, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have interesting things to say. Evaluate your work for potential research projects. You could research and write about a project within your unit. For example, assessment, something librarians increasingly include in their work, is essentially research, and findings could be reported in a publication. Additionally, recent LIS graduates can use projects from classes, internships, or extracurriculars as a launching point for a research project. We wrote an article in College & Research Libraries News about a student-led library conference that we helped plan during graduate school.

For writing, you might consider starting with writing for professional blogs (like Librarian Parlor) or professional articles (usually editorial review, not peer-review). These articles take less time than journal articles and can serve as stepping stones to larger projects. Blogs and professional articles offer a space to reflect on your questions, observations, or concerns about your work issues. These reflections can grow into ideas for research.

Takeaway: Scrutinize your current and past work for areas to research and write about. Nothing is too small or uninteresting when you are fascinated or concerned about it. Be honest about what you are and are not interested in because research and writing require a lot of energy that is hard to muster for topics for which you lack passion.

Collaborators

Doing a research project independently can be daunting and unwieldy; working with collaborators helps share the load. Collaborators provide diverse perspectives and help solve issues or answer questions in your work. While we wrote extensively about the mechanics of our collaboration in Part 1, we’d like to revisit it here because it’s such a key component for research projects.

Collaborators’ level of experience and stage in their career can impact projects. Collaborators may be published authors or novices. There are benefits to working with fellow beginners because you can figure it out together, as well as advantages to the expertise that published librarians bring. We didn’t have experience with research projects, but we knew we worked well together after collaborating in library school. Subsequently, we sought input from more experienced librarians during all of our research projects.

So how do you find collaborators? Consider collaborators who are both internal and external to your library. Martha worked in small libraries for two years and found that having external research collaborators was necessary. Her connection with Joanna, from library school, allowed her to pursue projects outside of her jobs despite the fact that they did not require research because Joanna, as a tenure-track librarian, needed to pursue research projects. Additionally, casual conversations can lead to collaborative projects. Talk to your colleagues who are active in research and publication and see if you have mutual areas of interest. What are they currently working on? What do they hope to do in the future? Joanna started a longitudinal research project with the Education Librarian at her library after discussing their shared interest in data management for social science researchers.

When looking for external collaborators, network at conferences and professional development opportunities, and keep in contact with the librarians whom you meet. Presenters are always delighted to talk with attendees. Martha and Joanna were approached by one of the Librarian Parlor editors after giving a lightning talk at a conference, and we were thrilled! Joining local, state, or national committees offers another way to hear what others are working on. You may not be doing exactly the same thing, but you could research and write about how your work is similar or different (e.g. the same service at differently-sized libraries, or the unique ways of providing a service at individual libraries).

Finally, adding your voice on social media can be a great way to network, hear what others are working on, and converse with potential collaborators.

Takeaway: Think broadly and creatively when trying to find a collaborator. Don’t be shy about asking someone to collaborate or seeking input.

Time

Notably and unavoidably, in our experience and in results in our survey, time is frequently a limiting factor for researching and writing. In Part 1, we discussed time in terms of availability and scheduling. Here, we consider the project timeline and scope, which go hand-in-hand with availability and scheduling.

Plotting out the steps for a research and writing project reveals exactly how much work it will involve. Establishing when tasks will happen and setting a projected completion date helps allocate your time, manage everyone’s workload expectations, and reveal the full extent of a project.

While there are many project management tools to help with this, we simply chart out a timeline in a shared Google Doc. Considerations for your timeline could include deadlines (e.g. for conference proposals); academic calendars (e.g. busy vs. calm times of year); professional responsibilities (e.g. your dossier deadline); and personal availability (e.g. vacations), among others. Sometimes choosing a date when you would like a project to finish helps (e.g. submitting an article by the end of the summer). Through a combination of working backwards from an end date and listing all the tasks that need to happen, you can shape a timeline to keep you and your potential collaborators on track.

Be realistic with that timeline. How much time can you commit to the tasks? If you don’t have time during your workday, are you willing to devote morning, evening, and/or weekend time? What would that look like in terms of time (e.g. one evening a week)? Can you block off time on your calendar (E.g. two hours every Thursday; a weekend morning or afternoon)? For a year-long research project, Joanna blocked off three hours every Thursday morning to work. While this time was sometimes shortened or rescheduled, having it on her calendar was a useful visual reminder.

When you answer these questions, you can determine what is reasonable to do in the available time and how much time that you can devote to a project. It also helps with divvying tasks up between collaborators and breaking them into bite-sized pieces between intermediate deadlines. For example, instead of a task that says “do survey,” tasks would include writing survey questions, pilot testing, identifying advertising venues, etc. List steps comprehensively, even when they seem small.

Takeaway: Think of your timeline as your project map that includes intermediate deadlines and specific tasks. It is a living document that you and your collaborators can modify.

Conclusion

We hope that this article has given you some concrete ways to identify a topic, find collaborators, and scope your time. These practices have worked well for us and are backed up by our survey of early career librarians’ key factors for research and publication. We have enjoyed our collaboration and want to share what worked well. But these suggestions may or may not work well for you.

Whether you are required to research or not, you can explore research and write. Explore a variety of topics, and pick what resonates with you. Work with collaborators. Figure out how much time you can devote. It’s about finding what works best for you.

What other tips for getting a research and/or writing project started do you have? Please feel free to share them in the comments below or on Twitter!


Featured image by meisjedevos from Pixabay


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writers do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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