A woman is crouching down in a garden, their back to us, holding a plant in their hand
LibParlor Contributor Reflection Series

An Ocean In Between The Waves: An Early-Career Academic Librarian’s Foray into Research, A LibParlor Series, Part I

In the first of two posts, LibParlor Contributor Justin Fuhr shares his first research project and what he learned along the way.

Justin Fuhr is a librarian at the University of Manitoba. He’s interested in relational practices and building community in academic libraries. You can read his reflection on connection at ACRLog. He’s also examining researcher profiles and identifiers at his institution with one of his colleagues. When he’s not working, he and his wife are looking after their two young kids, he’s singing in a men’s choir, or playing disc golf. Find him on Twitter.

The nice lady next door talks of green beds/And all the nice things that she wants to plant in them

I wanna grow tomatoes on the front steps/Sunflowers, bean sprouts, sweet corn and radishes

I feel proactive, I pull out weeds/All of a sudden, I’m having trouble breathing in

Courtney Barnett, “Avant Gardener


I’ve found conducting research one of the most challenging aspects of academic librarianship. It’s also one of the most rewarding. 

I’m an early-career librarian, having worked just under two years as a librarian and five years as a library assistant before that, all at the University of Manitoba. At the beginning of this year, I finished a two-year research study: my first. Academic librarians, in my experience, don’t feel the same pressure to conduct research and publish as some of our other academic peers. However, it’s still expected in some fashion, at some point, so it’s good to have an idea of what you’re doing. For me, finishing my study has been simultaneously exhausting, exciting, relieving, a moment of professional growth, and finally, validation that it all came together in a way I’m very proud of. 

I’ve been reflecting on my research process and I got to thinking of my research similar to growing a garden: you prepare your plot and seed (planning your research question, methodology); watch the seeds grow into something substantial (data collection); pick your produce and figure out what you can make (data analysis); cooking your meal (communicating your findings); and finally, enjoy the fruits of your labour. Just take the example of Courtney Barnett above to heart and remember to keep breathing. 

Preparing the Garden

I started my first research study while I was working as a library assistant, about six months prior to being hired as a librarian, back in the middle of 2019. I had received a grant from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) to explore emerging areas of academic librarianship and training initiatives. This was the biggest motivation for me to develop and start my research study (and to finish it!), especially as I was just about to graduate with my MLIS and working as a library assistant, but still, six months before I was hired as a librarian. Research was not part of my job at that point. 

Because research was not part of my job for the first six months of me receiving my grant, I couldn’t submit my Research Ethics Board application at my institution. I had everything ready to go, but had to wait until I started my new position as a librarian to get ethics approval in early 2020. 

It was a blessing in disguise to wait. In the time between my grant and ethics approvals, I changed methodologies and tightened up the scope of research to focus on research data services – and made sure to clear this by CARL. I was originally going to use semi-structured interviews to collect data on skill gaps of data librarians. However, I decided to use a survey instead to reach more participants. Waiting gave me time to design my survey, tighten up my research question, and I didn’t have to modify an approved ethics proposal. 

However, survey design is difficult. I spent as much of my time as possible thinking of ways to capture data I wanted to capture. I read Arlene Fink’s helpful book How to Conduct Surveys: A Step-by-Step Guide. I spoke with colleagues who had designed their own surveys and had two colleagues give feedback on mine. Having given my survey a lot of thought, I felt confident in it. Imagine my surprise when in the following year, my data analyst criticized my decision to allow for ‘not applicable’ responses to my Likert-scale questions – thankfully, a fairly minor issue. You can’t escape it! I don’t mind failure and think talking about making mistakes is a valuable part of growth, which was thoughtfully covered by Halle Burns in this post.

Waiting Around for Those Seeds to Grow

After you’ve prepared your plot, it’s time to water your seeds and watch them grow to collect your data. For me, deciding where to recruit participants was challenging. In my case, I developed a survey, so I needed to find a way to reach a lot of potential participants. I decided on sending out my survey to various data librarian-related listservs. But which ones? How many reminders should I send out? Am I cross-posting (do I care)? 

After I decided on which mailing lists to send my invitation to, I had to figure out how to send an email to the list. Sometimes this required admin approval, sometimes not. Sometimes this required that I be an active subscriber to the list, sometimes not. 

Once I got invitations sent out, it was nice to sit back and watch the responses pour in. Things were happening. Data was getting collected. Now what do I do with it?

Pick the Produce and Meal Planning

Data analysis. I had no idea how to analyze my data in any meaningful way. I did some simple averaging, manipulated a few other things in Excel, made some basic figures in Tableau. I had no idea what I was doing. It seems like this is a common experience

I look back on a presentation I delivered to my coworkers at our annual research symposium in April of last year. This was a few weeks after I closed my survey and had done some of the simple things above. I had to analyze the data well to be able to communicate anything of value. I really didn’t know how to proceed. 

During a conversation I had with a colleague about my problem analyzing data, she suggested I contact the Statistical Consulting department on campus; they consult with and analyze data for researchers. “This is perfect,” I thought. “Others had the same problem before me and our institution has a solution!” Yes, it would’ve been perfect, except this was during a global pandemic and the department was closed up. 

Things turned around quickly during another conversation with a different colleague (starting to see a theme?) about the department being closed. My coworker told me there’s a health data analysis centre, the Centre for Healthcare Innovation, and they provide a similar service for health sciences researchers. “See if they can help you out,” she said. And help me out they did. After a short consult with a senior analyst, he set me up with a data analyst to run some models on my data. Did I mention they provided their services for free since my data was much simpler than the health data they usually get? Very nice of them, even though I had a meagre amount leftover from my grant. They wouldn’t accept it. 

After running some regressive models in R and another consult with the analyst, I was off, data analyzed, time to write. “Wait a sec, I don’t understand the analysis, nor the explanation from the analyst.” I had to get some help from our GIS/data viz librarian for me to understand the analysis. Anyways, now I was ready to start writing. 

Cooking Up Something Good

Finally, communicating your findings. Academic writing is something I have a lot of experience with and I’m sure you do too. I did my BA in English literature so there was plenty of essay writing involved over those four years. Writing an original research article is more complicated than the persuasive essays I was used to writing in those early years, but I had extensive experience writing more complicated papers during grad school, as well as doing a lot of reading of LIS literature. 

Of course, there were some challenges while writing; it takes so much time! I started writing in late spring 2020, even before I finished data analysis. I didn’t finish until March of this year. Even though I received so much help with data analysis, and interpreting the analysis, I still had a challenge in communicating my findings in meaningful, factual ways. I think my intentionality and careful thought, combined with the time it took me, guided me towards a well-written article. 

Fruits of My Labour

Seeing your hard work result in a publication is validating, to be sure, not unlike planting your seeds in spring and seeing your hard work bear fruit in the summer. But how do you get published?

I read on one journal’s FAQ to have an ‘informal’ peer review: have one of your colleagues read through your paper to give constructive criticism. In theory, this saves time during the ‘official’ peer-review process and gives your paper a better chance of being accepted. I did this and one of my coworkers very generously took the time to read through sections of my paper, which helped its quality immensely. 

One very helpful suggestion I received from my mentor is to approach editors of journals you want to publish in before submitting. She explained the editors may have a special issue planned on your research topic or a similar article may already be in the pipeline. Since the review process takes so long, and you only submit your article to one journal at a time, it’s nice to have as much information as you can ahead of time. 

Make sure to know what rights you’ll hold after your paper is published. Can you deposit your postprint or publication version  in your institutional repository? Your preprint? Can you deposit it at all? When can you deposit it?

You’ll also want to think about conferences where you can present your research. I find it so validating and rewarding to be accepted to speak at a conference and have people interested in your research. Conferences are great places to not only communicate your findings but to meet new people and potential collaborators as well. 

Lastly, good luck! The research process can be challenging, but as a librarian, you’re conscientious, knowledgeable, and tenacious. You’ll get through it. And there’s one thing I know/The sun will rise today and tomorrow/We’ve got a long, long way to go

To read a summary of the results of my research, you can click here: http://bit.ly/FuhrDataServices. My research will be presented in an article in the May 2022 issue of College & Research Libraries. 

Featured image from Freepik

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

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

1 comment on “An Ocean In Between The Waves: An Early-Career Academic Librarian’s Foray into Research, A LibParlor Series, Part I

  1. Pingback: An Ocean In Between The Waves: An Early-Career Academic Librarian’s Foray into Research, A LibParlor Series, Part II – The Librarian Parlor

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