Why We (Should) Write

I’m always surprised when wonderful librarians who are so erudite and thoughtful speaking on some area of their practice recoil when I suggest they write an article. Lack of confidence (which I don’t understand because they have so much knowledge) or the reason lack of time (which I completely understand) usually predominate as excuses.

But as David McCullough says, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” To sit down and write out what you do or your accumulated knowledge about a given topic or book means organizing your thoughts and making connections for others which compels you to be a stronger librarian and more intentional in your work. As school librarians, it’s important to place ourselves in the shoes of our students. Seeing my article bibliographies when I open Noodletools or discussing how I organize my notes for a paper lets students know that I use the tools I’m asking them to use in their research and writing process (although they are mystified that I do it voluntarily).

Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard

David mccullough

Consider also the benefit to your relationship with teachers and administrators. When we complain that few of our colleagues and division administrators understand what we do, writing an article that demonstrates our pedagogical understanding of some aspect of our job draws the curtain back on what happens in the library and they are suitably dazzled. Getting the school’s name out in the form of your bio at the bottom of an article or in discussing what the school does well places librarians in a position of being seen as a positive advocate for the school, never a bad thing.

The connections I’ve made to other librarians through my writing have been invaluable. I’m a big believer that you get back what you put into the universe and writing is sharing a part of yourself. In everything I have written, someone has reached out to let me know how I helped them or sent an email that inspired an exchange that offered me more knowledge about my topic. Writing offers school librarians a chance to step out of our relative isolation and make contact with our compatriots outside of our school campus, an important aspect when we don’t always have a chance to mingle daily with someone who knows our job. 

What to Write About

School librarianship suffers from the fact that the majority of us spend our day putting out fires, ordering materials, navigating databases, and delivering amazing information literacy instruction in our library…and rarely mingle with other librarians. We assume everyone else does these activities like we do, and therefore don’t recognize when we are being innovative. I have never visited a single library (and pre-COVID I made a point of doing best practices visits to three to nine libraries a year) where I didn’t come away with a tip or practice idea that made me look like a goddess when I returned to my school.

While a little dated at this point, several chapters continue to have wonderful advice to offer new writers

Walt Crawford in his book, First Have Something to Say: Writing for the Library Profession, encourages writers to think of themselves as an expert rather than as an authority, a term which has a lot more baggage. An expert has attained some level of mastery (which we all have done) whereas an authority exudes a judgemental gravitas that the majority of school librarians thankfully don’t possess. You are an expert on a host of different topics relating to your work and people would benefit from reading about your perspective. If you’ve ever presented at a conference, write up your presentation into an article or blog post and share it with a wider audience. Publishing means your print article will be more findable in scholarly databases, or your blog article on an established website will be indexed more readily in search engines, so you would reach a wider audience than the 40 people in the ballroom of your conference session by also publishing an account of your work.

Think about what you love about being a librarian. Is it children’s or YA literature? Be a book reviewer or write articles about themes you’re seeing. Information literacy? Tons of magazines, both commercial and organization-specific publications, want to see writing on instruction. Professional development geared towards teachers? Now you’ve branched out from librarian-focused magazines and journals to broader educational organizations like ISTE and ASCD. Copyright and intellectual freedom are hot topics that affect our work and they are frustrating areas where people always need advice. And kudos to you if you have an area of “cross-pollination”; management, technology, engineering, higher education are all areas of expertise you might have from non-school librarian work you’ve done. Making connections between those areas and our work with school libraries could be of enormous help to the profession. 

Finding a Venue for Your Writing

Full disclosure, the vast majority of my writing opportunities came directly or indirectly from my volunteer work. My first writing opportunity was for the KQ Blog in 2004 after someone had heard me complain at an ALA conference (probably at the ISS Section table back when we would meet by section and committee at tables in a gigantic, cacophonous ballroom) that you couldn’t apply for National Board Certification without being state-certified. My momentary rant led to an offer to write the “anti” position for a pair of blog posts about whether state certification should be necessary for independent school librarians (Lewis 2004).

If you think that serving on a committee is out of your financial or time grasp, consider that many regional and state organizations (as well as ALA, AASL, and ISTE) now offer virtual committees rather than requiring that you shoulder the expense of travel to distant conferences. Offering to write for your membership organization’s blog or journal is a wonderful way to dip a toe into the writing waters and often gives a less intense introduction to the editing process than if you started with a more national journal or book chapter for an academic press. Remember that writing often comes from connections, but it also fosters connections. Considering that we have jobs dependent on fostering relationships and collaborating, seeing writing as an extension of that role should make this activity feel more natural.

Before you choose a potential publication, you need to decide which audience you’re aiming for. I separate this into “the choir” and “has no idea what we do.” “The choir” refers to the publications and blogs you read right now for your work which are squarely aimed at librarians. You can write assuming certain background knowledge and your content is usually more practice-focused. “The choir” also encompasses the weightier peer-reviewed journals where you might publish action research or ethnographic studies (I’m assuming you aren’t doing long-term statistical analysis as a practicing librarian but if I’m wrong, go, you! And write an article about that balance, please.)

“Has no idea what we do” probably triggers the faces of quite a few people you know; think about what roles they have. Independent School, the magazine of the National Association of Independent Schools, has been – along with their elusive and exclusive conference committee – the Holy Grail of librarians hoping to make our work more visible to the NAIS audience. Several years ago, an independent school librarian actually managed to co-author an article for Independent School that referred to the role of the independent school librarian and – I swear to you – it was the scene in Sorcerer’s Stone when Voldemort is “killed” by the infant Harry Potter, with ecstatic witches were setting off fireworks and shaking the hands of strange muggles because of their happiness. Independent school librarians sent congratulatory texts and “did you see??!!” emails across every known listserv as this glass ceiling shattered. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) and ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) also have excellent periodicals that administrators frequently read and have even broader audiences. Getting the school librarian role in front of them and emphasizing how we increase student achievement is crucial work that can be accomplished through writing articles about our impact.

A fantastic anthology of short articles covering a broad spectrum of writing-related topics

So practically, where should you look for writing opportunities? First, I’d hit up your databases or walk into the nearest academic library which usually lets you do a search on-site using their resources. Take a look at what has been written about your topic and consider where there are gaps you could fill or if the information needs updating. Look at the length and tone of articles for individual publications to get a sense of their preferences. The below list links to the “writing for publication” page of each of the following venues where you can find their query and length requirements as well as formatting guidelines. Since many of them have themes for each issue and are looking for features or supporting articles on that theme, it pays to ask if your proposed idea could fit into a future issue if you’re not sure. Carol Smallwood’s anthology, Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook is a treasure trove of infinitely readable short articles on a variety of topics related to writing for publication, including how to handle the query process.

On September 14, 2021, AISL hosted an informational webinar on writing for publication featuring Meg Featheringham, AASL’s editor of Knowledge Quest, the KQ Blog, and AASL’s e-newsletter, and Rebecca Morris, co-editor at School Library Connection. These knowledgeable editors had valuable information to offer to librarians considering writing, with great behind-the-scenes considerations they take into account when choosing manuscripts. Definitely check it out, not only for the great information but to see how lovely and not scary editors are.

Here is a list of potential markets for your articles, in absolutely no alphabetical order:

An Altruistic Approach

I’m assuming some readers might still feel reluctant about writing an article. Since librarians skew to an altruistic personality type, I’m going to take advantage of that tendency and connect writing to helping others. Has there been a librarian whose work meant a lot to you? Writing an article that demonstrates how you apply their work to your practice gets more people aware of them. You might have a wonderful teacher or librarian at your school who you want to help develop professionally and bring attention to their work; writing an article together helps you both. Finally, thinking about what articles would benefit someone new to the profession allows you to create work that helps your colleagues. 

Consider also that writing for publication can be a wonderful PD group to offer at your school. The power of faculty members coming together and being a little vulnerable speaking about what they do in the classroom and worries they have about writing can’t be overestimated. Your school librarian role helps you as a facilitator for this type of work, since you can help teachers brainstorm ideas, highlight your databases for searching for potential subject-specific publications they could target, and edit one another’s work (having a second set of eyes compare a manuscript to the publication guidelines is worth its weight in gold). Teachers will not forget your helping them promote themselves and the work they do while you strengthen relationships. You may help someone so well with their APA citation that they have you come in to teach their class the same skill!

Hopefully, you’ve found a few good reasons to consider writing, as well as an inspiration or two that gives you some idea of what you might want to share. Please consider the below list of committee members as your personal pep rally and don’t hesitate to reach out with questions. Librarians who write build community and a powerful practice, so make the library world a better place and share a piece of yourself. 

Want more help and advice? Please feel free to reach out to AISL’s Publications Committee members:

Debbie Abilock: dabilock@gmail.com 

Tasha Bergson-Michelson: tbergsonmichelson@castilleja.org 

Sarah Davis Sarah.Davis@viewpoint.org 

Christina Karvounis: KarvounisC@bolles.org 

Cathy Leverkus cathyl@thewillows.org 

Courtney Lewis cllewis@st.catherines.org 

Alyssa Mandel amandel@oda.edu 

References

Crawford, W. (2003). First Have Something to Say: Writing for the Library Profession. American Library Association.

Lewis, C. L. (2004), January/February). Independent School Library Media Specialists: State Certification Unnecessary. Knowledge Quest on the Web. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org.sapl.sat.lib.tx.us/ala/mgrps/ divs/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/kqwebarchives/kqwebarchives.cfm. (Totally not the link anymore – I have no idea if you can even find this outdated initial writing piece.)

Smallwood, C. (2010). Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook (ALA guides for the busy librarian). American Library Association.

5 thoughts on “Why We (Should) Write

  1. Your post is full of useful information, advice, and encouragement for members of AISL to share (write) about their experiences and expertise in all aspects of their lives. I particularly enjoyed your allusion to Harry Potter and the AISL librarian that wrote an article for NAIS. Thanks for supporting writing at AISL as a member of the Publications Committee.

  2. This is such a great post, Courtney! I just wanted to add that the principal who hired me into my current position told me that before deciding to make the offer to me he read through many of my blog posts, a piece I’d written for publication, and my twitter feed. Sometimes things you put out there will open doors to opportunities you never expected!

    • Thank you, David! I had a similar comment made to me in my current job when I was hired, indicating that a candidate who writes has an edge over a candidate who doesn’t because the school likes having its name out in the world of education. 😉

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