Library Research and Writing: A Personal Adventure

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Library Research and Writing: A Personal Adventure

A summary of the author's sabbatical leave experiences and reading on

library research methods and writing for publication. It describes the

techniques of locating and reading library materials, note-taking, and

writing. It includes a few basic rules and some avoidable pitfalls the

author found through trial and error. Many of the cited works were not

written by librarians, although research and writing are part of the daily

activities of most librarians.

More than thirty years ago, Jesse Shera asked why few librarians study research questions. He concluded that the problem was not librarians' inability to do research but their focus on case studies that could not be generalized.[1]

Since then the authors of several articles have analyzed the relationship between research and the service functions of most library positions; the amount of discretionary time available within the work week; the value of research itself; and the distinction in roles between teaching faculty and librarians. There is no consensus on these issues.[2] The presence of seminars on research methods in the programs of several recent national conferences[3] may indicate a continuing concern with the amount of library research or a continuing belief that librarians will do more research if they are encouraged to build on the skills they already possess.

Librarians analyze and evaluate materials, search for information, and determine the subject content and significance of texts. It may be difficult to broaden these activities into research projects, but the techniques should be applicable to research. This was my assumption when I began a sabbatical project on subject cataloging without first reading about research methods.

A DEFINITION OF RESEARCH

Research has been defined as "being able to frame a significant question,"[4] or "any systematic quest for knowledge that is characterized by disciplined inquiry."[5]

My problem was that I did not focus on a single question but rather on two of them: Is there a coherent theoretical basis for subject cataloging practices? Can subject heading forms be predicted, at least within each major subject field, to increase the success rate of subject searching? I intended to create training materials for both the cataloging and reference departments and I thought that I could combine the two questions into a single project. I should have limited my project once I realized it was really two projects.

THE LITERATURE SEARCH

My sabbatical proposal plan began with a literature search both to gather background information on the topic and to avoid duplicating work already done. Since I was studying an activity directly related to my work that I read about in professional journals, I did not need to acquire an overview from a general article in an encyclopedia or from an introductory textbook. Instead, I began with sources I had cited in the sabbatical proposal and with a search of the library catalog, Library Literature,[6] and the ERIC indexes after identifying the most promising subject terms for each. I also checked the catalog for the works of authors whom I knew to be authorities or prolific writers on subject cataloging.

I should not have begun with the materials in my own library because it does not support a library school. I would have read all of the materials here eventually, but by beginning with older sources I spent too much time on dead or irrelevant issues. I should have begun with the most recent publications and worked backwards to discern intellectual trends,[7] identify the most influential writings, and concentrate on the current issues.

Before I began, I worried that I would reach a point where I did not know what to do next. This never happened; often I had the opposite problem of having to choose between several possible next steps. …