Which Comes First, Research or Writing?

As I write the reference book, I continually have the conundrum compared to the which came first, the chicken or the egg. In this case, it’s the research or the writing.

Reference and access is a large part of my daily duties, as with many archivists. It comes naturally to me, and I have my routine to provide good reference and customer service. When I agreed to write this book I thought “Great! I get to write about what I do every day.” Because reference is one of my favorite parts of my job, I initially thought it would be easy. Not that writing an entire book is easy, but I already have solid knowledge about reference and access.

What I’ve discovered, not completely unsurprisingly, is that it’s easy to write about what my staff and I do every day, but that doesn’t mean it encompasses all aspects of reference and access. I knew that I’d do extensive research to make sure I address all types of institutions, practices, policies, history, context, etc. The research is crucial also to provide resources to archivists who want to learn more about specific aspects, as well as demonstrate developments and foundations of reference.

On the one hand, I can easily make notes and outlines about what each book section/topic needs, but on the other hand I need to read what is the vast amount of literature out there for citations. So I find myself again in the same place as when I wrote my dissertation – where to stop researching and write, or do I just write and fill in with research.

Truly, it’s best to go back and forth; do some research and write about it, then write about your ideas and find the research to go with it. I love doing research. Searching through databases, reading footnotes to find more literature, exploring the non-archival writing to see how others use/view archives, and reading what I find. I especially love learning – how reference evolved through history, how different institutions provide services, ideas for outreach, and I even enjoy reading policy manuals. Some of this is not just for the book but also how I can improve and evolve services at my own institution.

I really enjoy writing as well, but that of course is much harder. Sometimes the thoughts are there but don’t come out. When I’m on a good writing spree, I just let the thoughts flow. It can be harder to find literature to justify what I wrote, but I also do not need a citation for every single sentence or idea. I know I have something to say, and I will say it so that readers can use, interpret, and reconfigure the content to best serve their needs.

I see this struggle in many people that I talk to and article submissions I read: too much research without enough analysis or interpretation. We are all adept and finding information, so we don’t need just the references, but why that literature matters. In the case of this book, I don’t need to make an argument for reference and access, but instead provide a wide array of concepts, theories, policies, and practices so anyone who reads the book is able to find something that will help with their job or possibly for future scholarship.

So, there is no one solution of which to do first – research or writing. But it is important to not get too caught up in the research so that the writing doesn’t happen. Currently, I’m at a point where I need to step away from the research for a while and just write. I have a lot of notes, quotes, and so far 263 citations in 71 pages. Likely, some of those will be removed, combined, or moved to “works consulted,” and I want to make sure they don’t disrupt the reading. Writing should reflect the author’s thoughts and ideas, and the research is to enhance them and provide further reading. So here goes!

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