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.


Circle of procrastination

One of the things about having a lot of interests (or hobbies, or whatever), is that whenever I’m doing one thing, it means there are other things I’m not doing. So working on my novel means I’m not practicing the guitar or piano. And practicing guitar or piano means I’m not doing anything about the clutter that’s piling up all around the place. And picking up the clutter means I’m not answering email. (Or it would, if I were someone who actually got around to picking up that clutter.) And if I just meet up with some friends for dinner or a drink, then I’m not accomplishing anything at all that I feel like I’m supposed to be doing.

All this means no matter what I’m actually getting done, there’s always something to feel guilty about at the same time.

That’s one way of looking at it.

But this circle of procrastination is also a powerful engine for accomplishing things. Because when I just don’t feel like playing the guitar, I can be a complete bad-ass and put it on its stand and then move on to something that I was procrastinating about before. So not only do I get the naughty pleasure of slacking off, I’m actually accomplishing something.

Ha! Take that, universe.

Note: Apparently I didn’t invent this system. (What?!) For further reading, see for instance this New York Times article, which refers to the Stanford philosopher who wrote this Structured Procrastination post (and a book about it, too). And of course The New Yorker has published a piece on what it all really means. Or, you know, you can google “positive (or productive) procrastination” and see what you find. When you’re supposed to be doing the dishes.

My “What Happened to Kim” novel — how it started.

I’ve been working on this novel since November 2011, when I tried National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time. On October 31st 2011 I was just doing Halloween things and wasn’t even thinking very seriously about trying NaNoWriMo. Trying to write 50,000 words in a month, and a 30-day month too — it felt like such a crazy idea. After all, I have a job that I love, that is very full-time. On top of everything else that needs to happen in any given month, like family, picking up groceries, going out to see the occasional band, basic hygiene, everything.

But on November 1st I started anyhow. I had no plot in mind and no plan at all, just one scene with two girls who are standing in their high school smoke pit on the first day of Grade 10, talking about how they spent their summer holidays. One of them, the school bully, is bragging about working as a prostitute over the summer, and all the money she’s made. The other is shocked and a little scared.

That’s all I had. But somehow I managed to write almost every day, did a few crazy catch-up days here and there when I fell behind, and more characters showed up and did things, and this turned into a whole book.

To my great surprise, I hit the 50,000 word target on the evening of November 28th.

I felt pretty great.

IMG_2447.JPG - Version 2

The photo doesn’t show it, but at the end of the NaNoWriMo process, when they confirm that you are a “winner” (have achieved the 50,000 words), a video comes up that shows a lot of people cheering for you. I admit, it made me cry a little.

At that point I didn’t want to think about what would come next.