From academic librarian to Research Fellow at CIHE

Emma Coonan

Category: Centre for Innovation in Higher Education

8 August 2018

Cartoon goldfish leaping from a small bowl to a larger one

I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the view that 'learning should be everyone’s business in universities' (Hilsdon, 2011). However, having worked as an academic librarian for the last decade, the gap between ‘academic’ and ‘academic support’ has sometimes felt very wide.

Despite having a good publication record and an established research reputation, I didn’t feel I could call myself a researcher. Although academic librarians frequently teach, support learning, advise on research design, and, indeed, are experts on situated academic information practices, the one thing that’s generally off-limits is “doing research”. While thankfully it’s not a universal prohibition, and many library staff are engaged in excellent evidence-based practice, elsewhere there can be a unspoken feeling among library managers that research is what academics do, and is not for the likes of us!

So for years I’ve been poised between identities – librarian by day, and a less easily definable someone who writes, examines PhD theses, gives professional workshops on research design, and edits a peer-reviewed journal (Journal of Information Literacy) by night (or more often in the early morning, with added espresso).

Cue the new year of 2018. I’m working on a chapter about the scholarship of teaching and learning, getting ready for a Higher Education Academy (HEA) writing retreat I’m treating myself to, and feeling despondent about a job interview that I felt hadn’t gone as well as I’d have liked. My new phone (a Christmas present) makes an odd noise, and it takes me a moment to realise it is ringing. Then it takes me ages to figure out how to answer it. Once I’ve worked out how to use my new phone, I discover that the interview had actually gone fine and I’m now a Research Fellow.

So did everything change in that moment? Well … yes and no. Owing to a complicated set of circumstances involving a long notice period and being part-time since 2017, I started my new role while simultaneously finishing up my old job. For two months I spent two days a week researching and three days a week in my librarian role (if you’re confused, imagine how I felt). More interestingly, I’ve found that the work I do at the Centre for Innovation in Higher Education (CIHE) isn’t so very different from what I did before: it’s the impact that is different, profoundly.

Where once I filled in endless project documentation to apply for my own time in order to design online learning, now I use the same idiom of ‘risks’, ‘resources’ and ‘deliverables’ to write bids for research funding (£50K and counting …). Where I used to help students, researchers and professional colleagues put together practical, meaningful and ethical research designs, now I’m doing that for my own research projects. Best of all, I still get to do what I’ve always enjoyed most: meet academics who are passionate about teaching, and share ideas and practice about how we can create engaging, inclusive and transformative learning experiences for our students. The difference is, at CIHE I can do something real and tangible to support them and help them to turn their excellent teaching into outstanding research.


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