Guest post by Nancy M. Foasberg. Nancy is a humanities librarian at CUNY’s Queens College, and most recently published, “Student Reading Practices in Print and Electronic Media,” in the September 2014 issue of College & Research Libraries.
The LES Authors Panel took place during the General Membership Forum at ALA Annual 2013 and featured four LES members with a history of successful publication in the field of literature librarianship.
The panelists were:
- Faye Christenberry, University of Washington
- Liorah Golomb, University of Oklahoma
- Harriet Green, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Melissa Van Vuuren, Georgetown University
Jen Stevens of George Mason University moderated.
Getting Started with Publishing
At the beginning of the panel, the panelists discussed how they had gotten into publishing. The need to earn tenure played a role for all the panelists. Collaboration, connections and timing helped to provide writing opportunities. Melissa had collaborated with a colleague, Angela Courtney, on an article for The Dictionary of Literary Biography; Angela later encouraged her to contribute to a book series. Faye is a member of the Association of Australian Literary Studies and was able to take over the bibliography for their journal, Antipodes, when the prior author could no longer continue. Liorah saw a play in London that resonated strongly with her and wrote an article about it. Since the play had not yet opened in the United States, her article was the first and had good exposure and recognition.
Choosing Subject Matter
The panelists had very different methods of choosing their subject matter. Harriet talked about how research interests should fit into the current conversations within a field, choosing subjects that will generate interest while still avoiding those that have been overexposed. Harriet’s tenure process requires her to have a research agenda to which all her publications must relate. She chose digital humanities as her “umbrella idea” and researched the current issues that were of interest to the field at the time, ultimately choosing to focus on user experience within digital humanities and how digital humanities tools can be improved. This research is closely related to her day to day work. Liorah, in contrast, writes about whatever is most interesting to her at the moment. She has written about Will Self, women graphic novelists, and postcolonial literatures, among other things. Liorah cites calls for papers and inspiration from colleagues as useful sources for ideas. However, caution is necessary when accepting calls for papers. Her book chapter on women graphic novelists was published by MacFarland, which edited it poorly and included chapters of uneven quality. The book Literary Research and Postcolonial Literatures in English, a collaboration among Liorah, Faye, Angela and Melissa, began as a conversation over beer. The other four authors had already written volumes in the series, so they suggested dividing up the postcolonial volume. They agreed that it had been challenging to write but very worthwhile.
Melissa and Faye focused on the audience for their work. It is important to Melissa that her work and scholarly interests are closely related, so she wants her writing to get out to the user groups that she serves. Her first book, Literary Research and the Victorian and Edwardian Ages, 1830-1910: Strategies and Sources, was a way to bridge across all her education in a venue not limited to the librarian community. Another article came from a workshop with faculty in which they designed assignments to help undergraduates understand reference works. Articles on collaborative efforts such as this can help faculty understand what goes on in the library. Faye, too, has worked on projects that have appeal outside of librarianship. She was delighted to find that her book had been on a preliminary exam list for a school in England. Because her area of interest is Australian literature, it can often be difficult to access these materials she covers in the US. She is interested in using her skills to bridge the gap between people doing research in that area.
All four panelists agreed that they were happy that they felt passionate about the ideas they pursued. Melissa pointed out that she always tells students to switch their topics if they are working on something that they hate, because this doesn’t do anyone any favors. Why spend time and effort on something you don’t care about?
Logistics of Collaboration
Jen asked about the logistics of collaboration, especially over long distances. One way to do this is to divide the work into sections. Harriet and Angela are taking this approach in an article they are writing together, with Harriet merging it into a coherent whole. When Melissa and Angela wrote the DLB article, Melissa did the biography and Angela wrote the summaries. The postcolonial book was divided chapter by chapter, an approach facilitated by the consistent structure of books in this series. Each of the chapters in the book stands alone, so having different voices for different chapters was not a problem. It was still important, though, to look through all the chapters and make sure that they were appropriately cross-referenced and spoke to each other. This is one potential problem with co-authorship. The other approach to co-authoring is to write together. Liorah described collaborating with Aline Soules on an article which compared the MLAIB across platforms. Because they were geographically distant, they did most of the research separately, but they wrote the article together in two weeks during which Liorah visited Aline in California. This article needs to be updated, due to database interfaces and the rise of discovery services, so they will likely write two more articles on the subject together.
Time for writing is a crucial consideration. Harriet has one research day a week, which she is allowed to take off campus. For those who can’t negotiate this time, she recommends carving out time in the morning and evenings. Her institution sponsors productivity seminars and invited faculty development expert Kerry Ann Rockquemore to speak to them about techniques for carving out time to write. Liorah did not have the same release time, but writing was a priority for pre-tenure faculty, who weren’t required to do a lot of service at her institution. Writing is less urgent now that she has tenure, but she still gives herself deadlines. Melissa took research leave to work on Literary Research and the Victorian and Edwardian Ages, 1830-1920, and also negotiated for some Fridays off campus. This worked well because it provided a big chunk of time for writing. Now that she is not on the tenure track, she can still do research and even request some time, but there is less time available and less support generally. Faye also prefers big chunks of time in which to write. At her institution, librarians are not faculty but can apply for research leave of up to a year, although they only get three months of pay for this. She used her weekends to work on the book, because she couldn’t get the big chunks of time she needed during the day. Harriet’s tip from Kerry Ann Rockquemore is to plan well and make the writing as important as everything else you have to do. If you want writing to be part of your career, you have to give yourself accountability to make sure you spend time on it.
Suggestions for New Librarians
Finally, Jen asked for suggestions for librarians who want to publish. Harriet suggested co-authoring, finding a topic in which you are really interested, and starting small. Book reviews, BiblioNotes, and guest columns are good places to start. Liorah has written critical reviews for RUSA and little book reviews like the ones in Library Journal Express. At her institution, this is considered service rather than publishing, but it is disciplined writing, so it makes good practice. She recommended caution when choosing partners for collaboration, describing one project which did not happen because her potential writing partner is having difficulty writing and publishing. Melissa recommends joining a writing group or research circle, in order to bounce ideas off of colleagues and talk about the difficult parts of writing. This can be helpful when trying to get past a roadblock, and hearing other people’s questions can also help shape things. Don’t be afraid to let people read your writing. Harriet has participated in the Library Research Round Table, which pairs authors with each other. Writing groups including faculty from other fields are also useful, because they provide a different perspective. Faye mentioned the new ACRL handbook on academic writing for librarians, which looks like a useful volume and includes chapters on many of these topics.
Liorah mentioned one more unexpected thing about research. When she surveyed the listserv about poetry collections, she had to undergo an IRB process. Harriet said that at her institution, there is a shorter exemption form and she can use that one because the IRB knows that librarians are just asking questions.
During the audience questions, the panelists were asked about their advice for librarians who are not in tenure track positions, especially if people at their institution discourage them from writing. Melissa recommends framing writing as service because it benefits the profession. Faye feels that writing helps her to better understand what her faculty go through when they write books. Harriet recommends collaborating with a faculty member, which makes writing part of the job. Melissa also suggested writing outside of work hours and mentioned that even with the support that she had, she ended up doing a lot of the work outside of business hours. Most of the articles in the literature are written by librarians on the tenure track, which narrows down who we get to hear from in the profession.
There was also a question about editorial feedback. Liorah talked about the lack of editorial feedback when she worked on the MacFarland book. This creates problems because revision suggestions are what show that a publication is peer reviewed. Melissa finds that editorial feedback can vary wildly. With journals, it depends on what the editor tells the reviewers. As a guest reviewer, she wrote a lot of feedback, because she finds it very helpful. Too often, commentary focuses on things that would get worked out in copyediting, but it’s really more useful to know about the problems with the argument.
I for one found the discussion very helpful. Thanks to the panelists for participating!