What research feels like…

I’m sure it doesn’t feel like this to everyone else but I’ve had three very similar situations recently and they’ve all felt the same.

Situation 1: building up to my MA dissertation proposal.
Situation 2: tentatively figuring out a PhD proposal, working alongside someone I admire (and who is so very, very clever).
Situation 3: being challenged to write my own assignment question for a topic about which I knew nothing less than nothing.

I’d probably say that these are unintentionally ranked in terms of my levels of confidence – and it surprises me that the PhD proposal felt a little less daunting than the assignment question!

As a passionate reader, English graduate and teacher of English, I frequently fall into figurative language to explain how I’m feeling, so bear with me. Also, I apologise in advance if you are a meteorologist and this analogy is flawed at best and laughably inaccurate at worst.

In each of these situations, the initial research experience felt as though I was staggering into a tornado, clutching a sparrow egg of an idea. Initially, I cradled the tiny egg, keen to keep it safe but its fragility wasn’t the only issue; I also had to travel unscathed through the swirling debris of distraction, other people’s ideas and literature. Eventually, after being turned around, pushed back and, once or twice, knocked down, I made it to the middle. The eye. Everything was still spinning and eddying around me but, at last, I could hear my own thoughts and catch my breath. Not only that, the egg was close to hatching.

Image result for in the eye of the storm

All was well.

Except for the fact, so close to the birth of the idea, I then had to exit the tornado, through the violent vortex again. The fear of losing the egg was more tangible and pressing on the second leg of the journey because it was closer to hatching. What if it struggled through the shell only for the hatchling to be crushed before it had gulped its first breath? Leaving the storm was harder than entering it because the twisting, churning mess was comprised of my own self-doubt and imposter-syndrome. If it all went wrong at this point, it would be at my own clumsy hand.

Along the way, I have developed some techniques to cope with the experience of journeying into the research storm, particularly with help from my personal tutor and some excellent mentors. I have no idea how to work on exiting the storm or the aspect that should be (theoretically, at least) within my control: me.

Blagging it or is that the point?

I work for a large college group. Each site is relatively specialised and the campus I’m on features a lot of land-based and industry courses. This makes it absolutely the best place to work; it’s such a beautiful setting.

Some days, when I amble across campus, I’ll see a horse or two, someone carrying a ferret, a tractor, students swinging from trees with chainsaws (it’s alright – it’s part of their arboriculture course), nursery school students in a neat walking crocodile as they collect pinecones and horticulture students building bug hotels. All this against a soundscape of clanging from the forge, revving from the garage and sawing in the carpentry workshop.

Naturally, this range of courses means we receive a myriad of information requests each day from students and staff, with needs spanning learning, research, professional development and teaching. We run courses on a very wide spectrum from level 1 BTECs to level 6 HNDs. My degree is in English and Theatre Studies and I spent the first 14 years of my working life teaching English. My area of expertise includes pathetic fallacy, spliced commas, anthropomorphism and the semantic field. I can spot synecdoche and allegory from ten paces. Do I know anything about swim bladder, the diagnostic processes for feline renal failure, bombproofing horses (nothing to do with body armour), destructive testing methods, animal welfare legislation, butt joints (raise a single eyebrow here), carburettors, upsetting metal (not making it cry) or ascertaining soil PHs? The answer was* an emphatic no.

What does a library professional do when met with a request for information so far out of your remit it may as well be in another planetary system? Well, in many ways, the answer is simple: you do your job.

In a number of library settings, it is not the library professional’s job to draw upon a specific knowledge area. This is the case in an FE setting such as my own. Our sister campus does have subject librarians because the site is bigger with more staff. Our campus is smaller, ergo with a smaller team. Initially, our role is to connect the user to the information they need. To do so, we activate our information literacy skills: questioning, scanning, summarising, finding, seeking, evaluating, analysing. Thereafter, our role is to help the user to develop the skills they need to connect themselves to the information they want. In short, to develop their information literacy skills. These skills allow you to find out what you know, what you don’t know, what you don’t know that you don’t know! It is a skill set that goes beyond any single subject.

I don’t think I’m blagging it when I help a student find out how to diagnose swim bladder before they find their fish floating upside down at the top of the tank. I think I’m doing my job and using information literacy skills to demonstrate that anyone can learn how to blag research anything.

*Now, I know a little but I am by no means an expert.

Happiness level 10

Some days, in the library, the tiniest event will make you burst with happiness. In fact, the highs and lows (and highs and lows and highs and lows) remind me a great deal of the emotional rollercoaster of teaching because with the highs you know you’ve really helped someone else.

On Tuesday 22nd January 2019, at approximately 11 a.m., I experienced a level 10 happiness buzz. A chatty, bright, regular student was working in the library with the rest of her class and their lecturer. They were preparing for a looming assignment on animal disease… I can’t remember what, specifically. Our conversations went something like this.


Student: I don’t know how a library works.

Me: (Blank face) Eh?

Student: Honestly, how does it work?

Me: (Still looking confused) But… but… you’re always in here. Using it. That’s how it works. You come in and do what you need to do.

Student: Yeah… but how does a library work?

(I assume she means that she doesn’t know how the catalogue works or how to locate books on the shelves, both are common issues for our students).

Me: Right. Well, what are you researching today?

Student: We have to write about [specific topic I cannot recall].

Me: Ok. Come around here so you can see my computer. (I open the catalogue, show her how to use search terms and we write down some Dewey numbers for potentially useful books). Now we use these numbers like clues in a treasure hunt. Follow me.

(We walk around the library. I show her how the shelves are zoned and how to look for books first by locating the whole number, then the numbers after the decimal point and then the letters. We pick maybe four or five books. I’m feeling pleased that I’ve helped another student to become a more independent book seeker).

Me: Shall we add them to your account? You can do the scanning bit, if you like.

Student: Why would we add them to my account?

Me: Well, that’s a lot of reading. You might not finish it this lesson so you could carry on reading them at home. Maybe mark the useful pages with post-its.

Student: (Completely stunned, blank face).

Me: Okaaaaay. (Assuming she thought the pile looked unmanageable to lug home). Well I guess it’s a big stack; we could always leave it on the reservations shelf for you so they’re here next lesson.

Student: (A few seconds silence). You mean I can take the books home?

Me: Yes.

Student: To my house?

Me: Errr. Yeah…

Student: (Huge gasp).

Me: (Baffled). Are you okay?

Student: (Shouting and running around the library, and the adjoining computer room, addressing everyone in her lesson. Actually, even people who were not in her group). Oh my God, guys. Guys! Guys! Did you know we can TAKE THE BOOKS HOME?! This is the BEST THING EVER.

Me: (Internally). Ah. So when she said she didn’t know how the library worked, she literally meant she didn’t know how the library worked.


The student returned at lunch time and the end of the day and repeated the same public service announcement to anyone she hadn’t caught earlier in the day… all with the same enthusiasm and unbridled joy. At least half of the people she spoke to also hadn’t realised they could take the books home.

It was such a pleasure to watch someone realise one of the basic tenets of a library. Kept me smiling for several days. It also served as a reminder that I shouldn’t assume anything, ever.

How did I end up here?

I’m currently undertaking an MA in Library and Information Services Management as a distance learner with the University of Sheffield. I came to the MA via a reasonably long career in education and a growing sense of unease. Tutoring and teaching students undertaking GCSEs, A Levels, the Humanities Access to HE, undergraduate degrees and PGCEs has drawn me to conclude that our education landscape is disappointingly geared to exam success and standards. This has increasingly felt as though students are spoon-fed information designed to pass exams via mark schemes, matrices and rubrics. Why wouldn’t you? As a teacher, you want them to win the game. There is little time or opportunity to develop students’ resilience, critical thinking or analytical skills in state education classrooms; consequently, as adults, they frequently struggle to independently acquire, filter and use information in learning, professional or personal settings. This gap needs to be bridged so that all learners hone the skills related to effective research: selection, verification, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

It wasn’t until I started the MA at Sheffield that I realised the skillset or bridge I was describing not only had a name (information literacy) but also that other LIS professionals and bodies are dedicated to its advocacy. It feels like I have found my people and my purpose!

My current role is in a FE setting where I see first-hand and close-up the empowering impact of information literacy and the debilitating effect of a lack thereof. It feels as though the FE sector is where I am meant to be.