Why Do We Write?

Today’s guest post is by Anne Welsh, Lecturer in Library and Information Studies, University College London. Anne considers the implications of writing in a vocational discipline where theory and practice are integrated; how writing in these areas are considered within evaluation processes such as the REF 2014; and asks what this might mean for the academic book of the future in vocational disciplines.

“It’s not the people who write the book who make the future. It’s the people who read the book and implement it.”

Ela Szubarczyck

Practical Cataloguing in practice at RUSI Library

This statement on my Facebook page was sparked by a question about influence on Twitter last weekend. It got me thinking about the somewhat bigger questions of why we write, and whether there are any distinctive qualities about vocational disciplines that make writing and action linked in a visceral way.

I’m very interested in the pedagogical underpinning of vocational disciplines within the academic setting. The fast-approaching centenary of our department (the oldest library school in the UK) has taken me to a place in my research exploring not just our history, and Library Education’s move from learning-on-the-job to study-at-university, but, more generally, the concept of Professionalization and what Watson (2002) has described as the reinvention of certain occupational groups as professions. In a forthcoming book chapter (Welsh, 2016), I argue that university became the natural location for Library and Information Studies because, as Jarausch (2004) has highlighted with regard to other professions, “it was not expertise as such, but its certification which created cultural capital” (p. 367).

Be that as it may, vocational subjects integrate theory and practice, and, from the publication of Dewey’s (1916) Democracy and Education onwards, it has been recognised that this balance requires active learning in the classroom; that learning by doing is as important as learning by reading. Of course, Dewey and subsequent theorists have had an influence across the board in Education, not solely in vocational areas, but there’s a logic to the idea that when we are educating professional groups, there is a direct link between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the workplace. Elsewhere (2013) I’ve described how in my own field we are working within Kolb’s (1984) dynamic process that shows experiential learning occurring within an equilateral triangle with corners labeled “Education”, “Work” and “Personal Development.”

From this point of view, our aim as educators is to draw on each of these areas to progress students through the hierarchy of Bloom’s (1984) taxonomy: from knowledge, through comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis to the highest order of learning, evaluation. Significantly, in vocational subjects, the end result of a student’s university education might be that they continue to further academic study, but it is likely, in most cases, to be that they progress into the workplace to apply the knowledge they have gained ‘in the real world.’

This means at least three things with regard to ‘the academic book of the future’ in the context of vocational disciplines:

  1. Academics have the potential to directly impact their field through their books (and other outputs).
  2. There is competition, both for academic publishers and for authors who are academics, since experienced practitioners are also publishing.
  3. In order to achieve (1) there are effects on (2) with regard to such important concepts as subject-matter (the books commissioned by publishers), diction (the dry, dull language favoured by some sectors of the Academy will not reach as wide an audience as engaging language) and pricing (monographs that outprice their market will not sell either their pages or their ideas as widely as books that do not).

In brief, the academic book of the future within vocational disciplines has a wide audience that is not only ready-made, but is made, in some respects, by the authors themselves. For example, former students who learned in class from my book Practical Cataloguing are now emailing me asking when my next book Cataloguing and Decision-Making in a Hybrid Environment will arrive with them, because as practising librarians, they have the book on order to help them with their current role.

More importantly, I think that in vocational disciplines authors have decisions to make based on our motivations. For REF2014, I was advised not to include Practical Cataloguing despite its having sold thousands of copies. The REF panel in our area is very wide, and it was suggested that people who have never catalogued might not see the academic value of a book that discusses the seismic shift in the intellectual models underpinning our international standards and its predicted impact. More recently, a senior colleague in the Faculty told me that the book was regarded as “knowledge transfer” rather than research, “because of the series”. “It’s not in a series,” I said, and he responded, “You know what I mean. Facet – they publish for librarians.” Biting my cataloguer’s tongue (Facet is a publisher, not a series), I smiled as he continued, “But it’s excellent for impact. If you didn’t put it in for REF2014, maybe it can be an impact study for REF2020.” Because a ‘secondary market,’ beyond the couple of hundred academics who might read a monograph, is, in academic terms, “public.” Because a book on an apparently dry topic that I wanted to be read by busy professionals needs to be written in a style that makes them want to keep on reading, and that’s not the language of the Academy. Because a ‘manual ‘that instructs people how they might do something can’t possibly involve research, can it? Not even when it’s the first to look at a new international standard and interpret it and theorise how it might be applied.

And that brings me back to my opening comment. The question that triggered all of this asked simply “Who are your most influential new thinkers about the library of the future?” The answer, for me, was simple: “All of the students. Not just the ones here [at UCL]. It’s the quieter majority that will make ‘the library of the future.’” Because, in my eyes, they will. Writing a book or giving a conference paper (or having thousands of followers on Twitter) may be “influential”, but only if people in the world take up an idea and put it into practice. Without that, all our writing, all our speaking, all our thinking, in fact, goes nowhere but the library shelf (or university repository).

I can touch some of the things my students and former students have implemented when I walk into their libraries. Colleagues at the Bartlett can literally touch the walls and ceilings and floors their students have designed. Slade colleagues could even bid on the artworks their alumni exhibit (if the academic life pays them enough money). And when we write, it’s not solely for the few experts in our own fields, it’s not solely for current students, it’s for the whole professional group to which we belong. My senior colleague’s right about me, but for the wrong reasons. My books aren’t Academic-with-a-capital-A. Not because I’ve missed my market: let my research articles take care of the REF, I say. My books are written for anyone who catalogues who wants them, and specifically for anyone who wants to change cataloguing to think about and mull over, and build something new in the real world. For the opportunity to do that, I’m very grateful to my publisher, Helen Carley at Facet, and I’m even more grateful to the wider cataloguing community.

I don’t know if what I’m finishing at the moment is what you would consider an ‘Academic Book’, but I reason that as long as universities are running vocational courses like the MA Library and Information Studies on which I mainly teach, books for librarians will be a part of my future. As a non-publisher, I suggest that, more widely, books for the professions that sell in their thousands are, perhaps, as much a part of ‘The Academic Book of the Future’ as monographs for academics that sell in the hundreds … or even the tens.


Image: RUSI Library, with thanks to Ela Szubarczyk, who appears in the photo. If you are interested in a cataloguing internship at RUSI, please email library@rusi.org in the first instance.


Bloom, B.S. 1984. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: Longman.

Dewey, J. 1916. Democracy and Education: An introduction to the philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan, https://archive.org/details/democracyeducati1916dewe

Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Jarausch, K.H. 2004. “Graduation and Careers.” In A History of the University in Europe. Volume III. Universities in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (1800-1945), ed. W. Rüegg, 363-389. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watson, T. 2002. “Professions and Professionalism: Should we jump off the bandwagon, better to study where it is going?” International Studies of Management & Organization 32(2): 93-105.

Welsh, A. 2013. “Experiential Learning in Historical Bibliography.” In Ambassadors of the Book: Competences and training for heritage librarians ed. R. Mouren. Berlin: de Gruyter. 147-162.

Welsh, A. 2016. “‘Expertise – Certification – Cultural Capital’: The education of librarians in the UK.” In Educating the Profession: 40 years of the IFLA Section on Education and Training ed. M. Seadle, Clara Chu and Ulrike Stöckel. Berlin: De Gruyter. (In press).




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