Say it loud and say it proud: the superhero approach to being a librarian scholar

How to raise your profile and professional expertise

By Leo Appleton - November 26, 2018  9 mins


I was recently at a conference where participants were discussing the visibility of academic libraries within their institutions. The consensus was that because libraries often operate with no fuss, coping with unexpected events quietly and pragmatically, they often fall off the radar of the institution’s senior leadership. Yet libraries are innovative and creative problem solvers that manage sophisticated systems and relational databases. They are super responsive to their customers and embed quality assurance, performance measurement, and continuing development and improvement into their day-to-day operations. Libraries are often involved in pedagogic research, and librarians themselves are well versed in evidence-based decision making and planning. But because the library staff sees all of this wonderful proactive activity as business as usual, they often forget to brag or boast about it!

We should be incredibly proud of our profession’s amazing work, and one of the ways in which librarians and information professionals can share and “shout” about their achievements is through engaging in scholarly activity, including presenting at conferences and writing for publications. This can raise the profile of librarians and information professionals and their library services both internally and externally.

The superhero roadshow

Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be involved in something known in UK academic library circles as the “superhero roadshow.” It is a three-hour workshop, aimed primarily at academic librarians (although it has recently branched out to other library sectors), in which participants are asked to think about their professional achievements and how they could turn them into scholarly outputs.

The roadshow’s name is because it draws heavily upon a “librarian as superhero” metaphor and includes an activity where participants rank themselves on the superhero scale of professional pride. You can read more about it in a recent article by Wendy Morris, but I will highlight the roadshow’s principles and share its main takeaways in a bid to champion and encourage professional engagement as widely as possible.


The starting point (and, for me, the underpinning principle) of the superhero roadshow is professional pride. You cannot genuinely commit to scholarship if you are not proud of what you do and engaged in your profession. Job satisfaction and fulfillment are essential in any profession or vocation. Esteem and self-actualization sit at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory as relevant to librarianship as any other profession. Talking about pride, success and achievement is not usually an easy task for library and information professionals. My experience is that even those of us who identify as extroverts revert to the stereotype of shy and retiring librarians when we are asked to talk about our professional achievements, demonstrating the matter-of-fact stoicism that gets us through our daily activities, even when those standard routines are successful and fulfilling.

Therefore, the first task of the workshop, as painful as it sounds, is to get everyone talking about feelings. We start with personal life achievements and ask participants to think about successes outside of work — winning an award for a sport or leisure activity, climbing a mountain, overcoming a fear — and how that felt. Participants usually describe feelings of joy, happiness, fulfillment, or pride.

Once we have jumped this particular hurdle, it is often easier to think about professional achievements to which we associate the same feelings. Once we can identify feelings of pride, we’re ready to consider the next principle: professional engagement.

Professional engagement

For me, pride is the cornerstone of professional engagement. It has to come first. You can gain pride from any job done well, including jobs that you don’t particularly like (such as cleaning the bathroom or changing a flat tire), but to fully engage in your profession, you need to be proud to be part of it.

Professional engagement comes in many shapes and sizes, depending on how much time and energy you have, but it essentially comes down to how much you do outside of what is expected. This doesn’t necessarily mean extra hours. Are you involved in or leading projects? Are you on an internal committee? Are you an active member of your professional association? Are you always looking for a sponsor for your innovation or good idea? Are you involved in creative library marketing campaigns? Do you stay aware of current trends and themes in the profession? If you answer yes to any of these questions, I would argue that you are professionally engaged. Engagement happens when librarians are passionate and interested in what they do and when they feel proud to be a library and information professional.

From engagement to scholarship

Once professional engagement is present and acknowledged, it is time to think about sharing your enthusiasm through celebrating successes, and that is where scholarship comes in. Successes often come in the form of accomplished projects, innovations, or good practices that can become case studies. There are several reasons why such achievements should be captured through a scholarly output: sharing good practices, time-stamping your project or innovation and creating a reference point, professional development, professional responsibility, or giving something back to the profession.

The superhero roadshow covers two kind of scholarship:

1. Presenting

There are lots of opportunities for librarians to present their achievements, including local, national and international conferences and events covering all library sectors and also more specific areas of librarianship, such as acquisitions, information and digital literacy, teaching and learning, copyright, cataloguing and indexing, research support, health information, or open access. The choices are almost endless, and most professional library staff should be encouraged to at least attend one conference or similar event as a delegate. I wrote about the role of the conferences in continuing professional development in a Library Connect article earlier this year (see article here) and I believe such engagement is fundamental to professional development. However, the superhero roadshow encourages librarians to take the next step and respond to calls for papers and see if they can make the move from delegate to speaker.

Librarian scholars can look to several types of events, including conferences, seminars, workshops, colloquia, and symposia. For academic librarians we encourage seeking out a local higher education conference or symposium as a gentle introduction to presenting that will provide a familiar yet captive audience. Other sectors will have similar local opportunities.

And of course, you don’t need to jump into an hourlong presentation! There are many types of presentation formats, including full papers, short papers, workshops, lightning talks, PechaKucha (20 slides shown for 20 seconds each), poster presentations, or panel discussions.

Presenting and public speaking require specific skills that take time to perfect. There are resources available to help develop such skills, but from a scholarship perspective it is important that library practitioner and scholars are ready to make this move. Looking out for calls for papers, preparing your abstracts, and writing your speaker biography are great starting points.

2. Writing

Academic writing often seems less daunting but more time consuming than presenting at conferences. We encourage roadshow participants to get involved in both, and writing for publication usually naturally follows from presenting at a conference. (Indeed, there might be an expectation for you to write up your paper for publication in the conference proceedings.)

Just as there are multiple opportunities for presenting, there are many different opportunities for writing for publication. Scholarly writing is not just about academic writing, which needs to go through a rigorous peer-review process. There are many others channels available:


There are many resources to support librarians in academic writing. Most notable are Helen Fallon’s blog, Academic Writing Librarians, and guidelines published by Anthony Brewerton (2010) and Emma Coonan (2017). Coonan’s guidelines are worth elaborating on because she breaks down the art of academic wiring into a few manageable steps and suggests a structure using a tool called “The Thing Explainer”:

  • Introduction: Here’s the thing I did and this is why it needed doing
  • Literature review: Here’s what other people said about this thing (and what they left out)
  • Methods: Here’s how I did it and this is why I did it this way
    • Here’s someone else doing it this way because that helped me see why it would work for my thing
    • Here’s why doing it this way meant I’d be able to actually learn something from it
  • Limitations: Here’s how it might not have worked fully, all the same
  • Ethical implications: Oh, and this is why it’s OK to do it to humans
  • Findings: Here’s what happened
  • Discussion: This is what I think it means for what I started out wondering
    • This is what it means for the rest of us and what we do (or know)
  • Further research: Here’s what else we could do about this

What next?

The superhero roadshow also briefly covers how you might engage in scholarship through social media, but this is more about blogging and using altmetrics to demonstrate the immediate value and impact of your scholarship. This is often useful if you need to use your scholarly outputs to raise the visibility of your service or your achievements (one of the reasons we would engage in scholarship in the first place).

As part of the conclusion to both the roadshow and this article, it is important to acknowledge that becoming a librarian scholar is not always a straightforward process. Once you have harnessed your own engagement and enthusiasm you will also need time, support from your colleagues, and support from your managers. But the main ingredient is pride, which manifests itself as enthusiasm, and if you have this, you are in a position to get started. To end the roadshow we ask our (by now) library superheroes to commit to a scholarly activity — and if you have made it to the end of this article, I would love to ask the same of you. I would very much like to hear from you if you are planning on loudly and proudly proclaiming your newfound library superhero status!


Appleton, L. (2018) “Training and Development for Librarians; Why Bother?” Library Connect, August 21st 2018

Brewerton, A. (2010) “Skills for Today’s Information Professional: Writing for the Professional Press” University of Warwick Institutional Repository

Coonan, E. (2017) ‘The Thing Explainer” The Mongoose Librarian

Morris, W. (2017) “Superhero Librarians are Coming: Get Your Capes On!” SCONUL Focus, issue 70,


Leo Appleton
Written by

Leo Appleton

Written by

Leo Appleton

Director of Library Services

Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom


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