College & Research Libraries News

INNOVATIONS: Creativity and the research process in academic libraries

By Michael Engle

Reader Services Librarian Linfield College

We don’t often associate creativity with the work of librarians or librarianship. A look at Li- brary Literature shows that no subject headings containing the word “creative” are used to describe the work and writings of librarians. Yet biblio- graphic research is a creative process. Just as a writer searches the linguistic universe to bring a poem or novel into being, so the researcher searches the bibliographic universe to bring together the ideas and information in books and articles, joins them with personal experience and a particular vo- cabulary, and creates a unique product. Those of us who work with researchers have much to learn from the writings and experiences of the teachers who work with writers.

In a recent book,1 William Stafford writes and talks about his particular way of teaching writing and writing poetry. We are familiar with the idea that writing is a creative act; Stafford’s book shows us that the teaching of writing can be a creative act too, part of a process entered into by the poet/ teacher and the students. The way the teacher en- ters into this process is all important to the integrity of the creator and of the creative product. Staf- ford’s role as a teacher of creative writing is to par- ticipate in the process, rather than to channel it with positive and negative judgments, providing an opportunity for the writing which comes from the inner life of the student to grow.

The way we enter into the research process is equally important. If we understand research as a creative act, Stafford’s approach to teaching writ- ing begins to make sense as one approach to teach- ing research. Stafford encourages joint participation in the creative process without imposing outer standards at the outset; the authority of a librarian who approaches teaching in this way comes from her ability to enter into the creative acts of the other researchers in the library—not as judge but as fellow traveler. By joining the researcher in the search process, librarians act as midwives for the creative process of others. Research becomes not only something that happens externally as a result of contact with the appropriate books, indexes and catalogs, but also something that comes from within the researcher. Stafford uses the image of two rivers flowing together to describe the way this inner and outer work intermingles and carries the creative process in the combined currents.

To experience this process, we must continually be performing our own research on topics of personal and professional interest to us and then creating something out of that research—a paper, a presentation, a new understanding. We can know something of the struggles of research for students by learning something entirely new, such as online searching, word processing, or public speaking. Taking a class in the college or university where we work can lead to a clearer understanding of the fear and marginality that are common to student researchers as they make the transition from high school and public libraries to effective use of an academic library.2 A thorough and continuing personal grounding in the experience of learning and research in an academic setting prepares us to join students and faculty in the creative act which bibliographic research can be. Listening to creative writing teachers and writers and reading their accounts of how they teach and how they write, we can begin to see our work as part of a creative process, making something new, original, never before seen or understood in that particular way.

Because a focus on process is central to both creative writing and creative research, we can each find help for our work when we hear and read writers on writing and teachers on teaching writing. Stafford’s particular approach may not be appropriate or helpful for everyone, but I believe all librarians working with researchers can find inspiration and help in the experiences of creative writers and teachers of creative writing. As the importance of creativity for librarians is recognized, we may even see some new and creative subject headings in Library Literature.


  1. William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986).
  2. Constance A. Mellon, “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development,” College & Research Libraries 47 (March 1986): 160-65.
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