Research in fiction writing: What problem is this investigation trying to solve (for librarians)?

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So I’m at a point now where I’m starting to put the findings from my investigation research in fiction writing into article form and I ran into something of a problem when I started writing the abstract.

There are a lot of ways to write abstracts, but the model I like to use is one where you state the motivation for the research, the specific problem you were trying to solve with your research, your approach to the study, and your results. In this case, I knew all about the approach I took and what my results were. I even knew what my motivation was. The trouble was, I didn’t know what problem I was trying to solve other than that there was a gap in the existing literature and I wanted to fill it.

When it comes to library and information science scholarship, wanting to fill a gap in knowledge often isn’t enough to make your research important and publishable. It also has to be useful in some way. That’s because librarians pursue research not only to learn more about how people find, evaluate, and use information but also to find ways to improve their services, tools, and collections. Contributing something that can help prove the value of libraries to those with control over our budgets (and our existence) is generally seen as much more important than pursuing knowledge for the sake of it.

And in a way that’s lucky because if the literature in our field didn’t focus so much on practical application, my first three scholarly articles probably never would have been published. As a scholar, I wasn’t ready to think more philosophically or theoretically about what we as librarians know and how we know it.

But that started to change with “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” Even though that article is more “philosophical” in nature, it has an entire section on a suggested practical application of the ideas it discusses. That part was actually relatively easy to write compared to the rest because I didn’t always quite know what I wanted to say about the contextual nature of research or how to say it but I knew what it would look like in the classroom.

This time, practical application is harder to come by and that could potentially hinder the chances for the article I write when it comes time to submit for publication.

I thought looking to the literature on creative information seeking would help. What were the stated goals and research questions of others who had investigated questions around the role of research in creative pursuits? It turns out that of the 30-40 articles I read, almost all of them had a stated or implied aim of helping librarians to improve their services and collections. They didn’t seem to see a value in what they were doing beyond how it could be used to either “correct” the behaviors of creative patrons which weren’t in line with the system libraries had in place or to “correct” the services and collections themselves.

There are a lot of problems with this, many of them outlined by Sandra Cowan in her article “Informing Visual Poetry: Information Needs and Sources of Artists,” a fairly scathing critique of the way LIS scholars study creative information seeking(1). The biggest problem for me and the work I’ve been doing is the assumption that creative researchers use the library at all. Or that they should, if they don’t. Because, again, it’s all about the value of the library. The more users the library appeals to, the more value it will have. So we have to find ways to bring problem users and non-users out from the cold in order to increase our perceived value.

The thing is, I’m not really interested in “correcting” anything. In fact, this has been a real barrier with the few fiction writers I’ve talked to (the ones who aren’t librarians themselves) because they assume that as a librarian investigating their research habits, I’m trying to sell them something. I’m not. I want to understand what they do, not correct it.

But why do I want to understand it?

Because I think creative research, in all its guises, is different from the more academic and scholarly research I often teach about and practice and I want to know about those differences. I think it’s important to study them so that I can better understand what research even is.

And that, I think, is the problem that I’m trying to solve.

Librarians, especially academic librarians, often have a very limited view of what qualifies as research. To us, research is a process for finding, evaluating, and using information that results in the production of an academic research project (usually either a paper or a presentation) or a scholarly research project (a scholarly article or book). Ideally, this process involves the use of library resources.

Because we think of research this way, we shape our teaching, our services, and our collections around that one, very limited idea of what research is.

But research isn’t just that one thing. Research is contextual. Everything about research from where you search for information, what types of sources you use, and what information you create or produce as a result of that information depends on the context.

And unless we understand what research looks like in those different contexts, we don’t actually understand research itself.

For some, this might not seem like a problem. It makes sense for our focus to be on scholarly and academic research because that’s the type of research our users engage in most often. I think that’s fair. I mean I do have some thoughts on whether we can continue to call ourselves “research experts” if we choose to ignore the larger world of non-library research in our thinking and scholarship, but I can’t generally disagree with the idea that our users need us to be experts in the type of research that they actually do.

When it comes to teaching, though, I feel differently. As an information literacy instructor, I want what I teach to have value. Teaching students exclusively about academic and scholarly research skills has value but only insofar as it helps users meet their most immediate information need. Beyond that, it has no value.(2) Not to the type of research that students, who are only students for a small fraction of their lives, are most likely to do once they graduate.

So as an instructor, I need to understand research better so that I can teach it better and in a way that is more meaningful to students. Because I want my teaching to have a more lasting impact on how they think about and approach research throughout their lives.

That, I think, is the problem I’m trying to help solve. Filling the gap where our knowledge about creative research should be is a necessary step toward expanding our understanding of what research even is. Better understanding research has implications for our services and collections but if we continue to tie our thinking about research to the library, we’re inevitably going to miss the bigger picture. Because research doesn’t have to be just a mechanical process for gathering sources to insert into an academic paper. It’s so much more interesting than that.


(1) Sandra Cowan. “Informing Visual Poetry: Information Needs and Sources of Artists.” Art Documentation 23, no. 2 (October 1, 2004): 14–20.

(2) This may sound harsh, but there are a lot of studies out there that show that the transferability of academic research skills to other research contexts is mixed at best.

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