An underappreciated librarian superpower?


I was at a writing meeting the other night, feeling very stuck with the progress of the novel I’ve been working on. So I tried a little exercise to try to unstick myself: writing book jacket blurbs from the perspective of different characters. My thinking (backwards as this may sound) was that a reader should have a reason to pick up the book — as a writer, shouldn’t I have access to at least the same motivation? Maybe boiling down my concepts would help me to refocus and redirect my story. Worth a try, anyhow.

The organizer, across the table (and — full disclosure — across a couple of glasses of beer) from me, mentioned that some writers she knows have friendly competitions to do this kind of thing, challenging each other to write blurbs with ridiculously low word counts, say 27. A few of us laughed. How was that even possible?

But then I counted the ones I’d already written. 32 words. 29 words.

No, I’m not a novel-writing genius with a special talent for boiling my own stories down to blurb length. But I’m a librarian, and we are trained experts at recognising the “aboutness” of publications. And at least back when I was in library school (and at least in a couple of the courses I took — other librarians’ mileage may vary), we learned a thing called writing annotations.

Librarians summarize things all the time.

So it turns out that there are a couple of obvious places where these librarian and writing skills overlap:

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 4.19.23 PM

Venn diagram creator courtesy of (which apparently doesn’t approve of the word “aboutness”)

Maybe this diagram doesn’t exactly capture the cool possibilities. But hang on. This can lead to exciting things!

Let’s start with academic libraries.

Every so often I read an article about how little most of us know about important research being done in universities. (Here’s an example I saw today: Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers.) Scholars are mostly talking to each other about their discoveries, in a language that’s mostly inaccessible to the rest of us. And media don’t cover it because they don’t know about it, and — not surprisingly — they aren’t usually scouring academic journals for possibly interesting stories that they can translate into approachable language for non-experts.

Where can librarians come into the story? At universities, librarians are encouraged to be aware of faculty members’ research areas — which is essential if we are going to make sure we have collections to support them, and if we are going to have well-informed conversations about topics like scholarly publishing, copyright, open access, and so on.

So once we have all this valuable knowledge, maybe we can do more by applying these annotating and summarizing superpowers — and particularly for “discovery” and curation, connecting researchers with our communities. One somewhat writerly idea:

  • Write regular features (published on our library webpages or blogs, or in newsletters if we have them) highlighting some of the work of researchers at our institutions, and link to the publications. (And post to social media.) Note: This one, in addition to being more writerly, requires more investment, and may overlap with other groups on campus (Communications offices and so on).

These three are all well within “usual” library and librarian spheres:

  • Annotate, highlight, and feature publications by local researchers in our library’s search results.
  • Edit and add Wikipedia entries with information about research done by scholars at our institutions (and add references).
  • Provide space and support for faculty and student activities that may arise out of the heightened awareness (Panel discussions? Workshops? Wikipedia editathons? Journal clubs?)

Do you already do any of these at your library? Do you have other ideas? Let me know!

And last of all, a Kate Beaton cartoon. Because I’d love to take a history or literature class from her.