Feeding the Hippo (Community Matters, Reprise)

December 11, 2011

To be a “library academic” is to bridge two worlds – the world of the professional librarian and the world of academe. Becoming a full-time academic provoked me to change the title of this blog – because, on the positive side I have time to think a lot more about Historical Bibliography, my favourite preoccupation of which is marginalia, and on the less positive side, I’m not actually working in a library any more, I’m on the margins, looking in.

And it’s not just me. Research shows that knowledge transfer from academe to the outside world is quite low. Librarians read journals like Update and Library Journal that give them ideas for their professional practice, but academics are given no reward for publishing in these journals. We have to aim for journals with high impact factors, like Library Quarterly and Library Trends because impact factor = international quality research = (we think – they’ve not confirmed it yet) a good score in the REF (Research Evaluation Framework) which is the measure by which assurance is passed that we are doing our jobs as academics.

Similarly with books. As a librarian, I bought books that were practical in focus and helped me to do my job. Some of my favourites were Thesaurus construction and use: a practical manual, Social software in libraries and, of course, Essential cataloguing. It was a no-brainer for me that when I wrote my own book, it would be written in this style, and no surprise that the title Sue Batley and I used for our work (in press now) was Practical Cataloguing.

Ironically, for very practical reasons (RDA has taken a long time to get to a stable enough place for a book to go through proofreading, printing, binding and distribution without being totally out-of-date), it’s taken three years to move from book proposal to finished book (Sue’s just indexing it now). These are the same three years in which I’ve moved from practice (Librarian of the Eyes and Vision Specialist Library of the then National Library for Health) into academe (Lecturer in Library and Information Studies). I’ve been thinking a lot about my new role as an Early Career Scholar (to use the academic jargon) and what it means to be bringing out such a practice-orientated book as my first monograph.

Of course, the book follows some of the syllabus I teach students on the core cataloguing module on UCL’s MA LIS, so it is also very practical for my work. But the feedback from publisher’s readers is that it will really work for people who work in libraries and want to learn to catalogue. Great! But is it good for the library community and bad for my academic career (not academic enough)?

We shall have to wait and see on both counts. Speaking to friends, I’ve heard stories of library academics being told their work is “turgid”, “dry”, “inaccessible” or, at the other end of the spectrum, “just not clever enough.” I guess the issue is that we do have a foot in each camp, and two separate audiences.

After three years of thinking about it (on and off – I do have other things to think about and other work to do), I guess that ultimately my heart is with the community. As I submit a properly academic article to a properly academic journal and hope it gets in, and as I download the application form to join a new community, the Society of Authors, once the book hits the shelves, I can’t help thinking about all the support I’ve received from my friends in the cataloguing community and, most of all, from my publisher at Facet, Helen Carley.

Above all, I am really proud to be a member of Facet’s author community, to work with such a brilliant team of women (Helen, Sarah Busby, Lyn Franklin) and, glancing through the other titles on the Cilip stand at Online, I couldn’t help but think that whoever wins the Facet book voucher in the draw is winning a great prize. It’s worth feeding the hippo (see picture) just for that.

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