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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 5


To niche or not to niche?

As you progress in your library publishing career, you will need to decide whether to carve yourself out a particular niche or to diversify your writing and research interests. Some who write more than two or three articles on a given subject will find that they are quickly pigeonholed, so make this decision before it is made for you!

The right decision for you will depend on a number of factors, and your focus may shift over the course of a lengthy publishing career. Following, though, find some discussion of the pros and cons of each approach that will help you make an informed beginning in library publication.

Specialization: pros and cons

There are a number of pluses to becoming a specialist, and academic librarians in the throes of the tenure process may feel a particular pressure to specialize. Publication requirements can inspire academics to research various aspects of one larger topic, allowing them to publish a number of related articles more quickly and efficiently and providing fodder for a tenure or promotion folder. Those who decide to pursue the PhD will also find a pressure toward specialization, and will likely begin by publishing shorter material that builds up to their larger dissertation topic.

Non-academics, though, can also consider focusing their work and developing their expertise in a particular area. Writing extensively on a topic builds your reputation as an expert on that subject. This can parlay into speaking invitations, monthly columns, or solicitations to write a book – dropping additional professional development and exposure opportunities in your lap.

You can use and reuse the research you have done on your area of specialization, never having to start from scratch. Your in-depth reading and research allow you to understand your subject more fully and help you build your confidence as a writer: you own your topic. Exploring different areas of a subject can be rewarding, and, the more you learn, the more in-depth you will be able to go. You can write about how your topic changes over time, about how changes in the profession affect your thinking, about how another writer's views have affected your own, about various aspects of a broader issue.

Those who think they may eventually wish to diversify their writing into other areas may reconsider excessive specialization, though, as they run several risks. First, readers and editors may identify them with their previous writing and feel leery of inviting them to contribute on another subject. This may fit your needs now, but if you in the future wish to branch out, you may be distressed to find yourself pigeonholed.

Secondly, limiting your writing to a single area can in time undermine your own confidence in your ability to branch out. Building a niche equates to creating your own comfort zone, and we all have difficulty moving outside of our comfort zones. Trends and topics come and go, in the library world as everywhere else. If you specialize in a disappearing trend, you will need to make the transition to other topics, or cut short your writing career. Steven Bell, Director, Paul J. Gutman Library at Philadelphia University , mentions a colleague who wrote extensively on training patrons to use CD-ROMs in libraries, only to disappear from sight with the emergence of the web. As he notes: "I think this points to the weakness (danger?) of specializing. You may have a great niche, but in our field the technology and issues change so rapidly that you may find that suddenly your niche is no longer relevant". Know the difference between specialization and getting stuck in a rut.

Lastly, your reputation as an expert in a particular field comes with the responsibility to protect that reputation. If you misstep, misspeak, or miss an opportunity, your errors will seem all the more glaring due to your expert standing.

Diversification: pros and cons

When you diversify your writing and research interests, you are never likely to become bored; you can always pick a different direction, or work on a different article or topic for a while. Focusing on breadth as opposed to depth gives you an excuse to read extensively in the profession and to keep up with the multiple issues affecting librarianship as a whole: you never know where your next idea might come from.

As information specialists, we know the value of lifelong learning and continuing to assimilate bits of information; these come in handy in unexpected ways as we carry on with our day-to-day duties. As a generalist, these bits of information you pick up during your varied writing and research projects can come in handy while you write on various topics.

Working on various projects and topics allows us to develop ourselves professionally in various ways. Steven Bell shares: "I also find it a better learning and personal professional development experience to explore a variety of topics, because, as I research and write about each, that's how I learn about them and develop expertise. So I find that I end up having a more well-rounded professional experience by moving to new topics on a regular basis". Researching, writing, and thinking about various aspects of our diverse profession keeps us connected with new developments, and informed on topics that affect our individual work and our field as a whole.

When we diversify, though, we run the risk of researching a given topic less thoroughly in cases where our minds have already moved on to the next project or subject. Librarian authors are as susceptible as anyone else to the "grass is greener" syndrome. When we are bogged down on one project, the next can beckon seductively, urging us to abandon our current work and move on to a seemingly more stimulating topic.

Diversifying our writing can also be exhausting. When you always write on something new, you never have the familiar comfort of building on a base of expertise. Be sure to schedule yourself downtime between projects in order to renew your interest in professional writing, and allow your mind to relax before picking up something new.

The best of both worlds

Many librarian writers carve out a middle ground, specializing in a very broad area that still allows them to draw on multiple topics and trends. Others take the time during their writing careers to become serial specialists in a number of different areas, moving among them as circumstances and the needs of the library literature change. You can delve in depth into a topic for a year or two, then move on to new interests and ideas.

Another approach is to choose several different areas to specialize in, becoming known as an expert on multiple topics. Eastern Illinois University Librarian and Assistant Professor Sarah Johnson, who writes on topics ranging from professional development to historical fiction, explains: "I like the idea of specializing in a bunch of diverse areas – that way there's plenty to write about".

You can also use your specific interests to branch out by offering your expertise in collaboration with others with related but different interests. University of Connecticut Reference Librarian & Liaison to Sociology Tiffani R. Conner says: "My greatest hope, truly, is to be able to collaborate with others who have specializations themselves (or maybe just educated interests), so that we can collectively create great articles and contributions". Move slightly out of your comfort zone, see how it feels, and work with others to extend your own expertise and publishing efforts.

Take some time to think about where you want to take your writing career, and about what feels most natural to you. Your decision depends on factors as varied as your current position, your interests, and what you want to get out of your writing and research. Opportunities await in any event; remain flexible enough to take advantage!