Adaptability and Inspiration: A Nomadic Research Leave

by Lise Doucette
Assistant Librarian, University of Western Ontario

I’m just past the halfway point of a nine-month sabbatical (combined research/study leave), and reflecting on my experience so far has brought up two interrelated themes: adaptability and inspiration. These five months have challenged my ideas of what physical and digital environments are conducive to and motivational for my research and study, and I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate some of these new practices into my non-sabbatical work life come April, 2017.

As a bit of a creature of habit, I like the office I’ve had for the past three years at Western Libraries, with its window, big desk, print books, and easy access to printing out PDFs of articles. While spending my research leave outside of London, Ontario, was appealing for a number of personal and professional reasons, I was also a bit apprehensive about not having a real home or office. A nomadic research leave also meant that printed material wouldn’t be practical (heavy to move around and harder to obtain).

During this first part of my leave, I’ve lived and worked from four Canadian provinces, three US states, and three Costa Rican provinces (one of which I had to leave fairly quickly to avoid the country’s first hurricane in many years). These locations have been workshop and conference sites, homes of friends and family, and destinations for travel and exploration. The transitions between locations have become my new ‘weekends,’ and I’ve been happily surprised at how much easier the transitions became with repetition and practice. I’ve redefined ‘office’ as ‘wherever I am sitting with my laptop,’ and that’s been public libraries, kitchen tables, coffee shops, cabin patios, grassy hills, beaches, and hammocks. It’s now natural (and enjoyable!) to work on my research from any location.

I’ve also been really happy that a flexible schedule has worked well for me. The number of hours, days of the week, and times of the day that I’ve worked have varied enormously, to fit deadlines for papers, conferences, and abstracts; match my own personal preferences; adapt to schedules of family and friends; and to accommodate travel time. Creating schedules has helped with focus on a daily level, and with feeling confident about meeting deadlines more broadly. In terms of my digital environment, I’ve learned to tolerate (but not quite love) marking up PDFs of articles digitally. I’ve also bought and accessed e-books (somewhat begrudgingly), and I’ve appreciated being able to easily search the contents.

What will I take back post-sabbatical?
– I will change environments/scenery more often, particularly for working on research (home, the public library, different locations on campus)
– I will create a schedule for research, with goals and timelines clearly identified, and with clearly defined research time blocked off
– I will seek out digital strategies to complement my previous print-focused reading and note-taking preferences

The freedom and time available for research during a sabbatical can provide for unique forms of inspiration. I’ve spent time in familiar and new physical locations, including the beautiful University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor; the Maritime provinces as the autumn leaves changed around me; in beach, jungle, mountain, and city environments in Costa Rica; and at public and university libraries with lovely design, artwork, and views. I’ve been so grateful for the many travel experiences made possible by this sabbatical – it’s helped provide inspiration and increased my commitment to my research and study.

I’ve also been fortunate to have conversations and chance encounters that have provided motivation and interesting directions to consider. While at the University of Michigan, I talked to Jeff, a doctoral student in higher education, about some issues around strategic planning and assessment in libraries; he immediately responded with ‘Isomorphism.’ We discussed this sociological concept and he provided me with a long reading list. It’s a fascinating topic that I’ll be able to use to help explain some aspects of libraries’ behaviours as organizations.

While on a shuttle between locations in Costa Rica, I met Susanna, a doctoral student of aquaculture in Finland. She was taking her own ‘mini’ research leave – one month in Costa Rica to inspire and push her through the dissertation-writing process. She asked me insightful questions that helped me reflect on my research topics and processes, and inspired me with her own writing goals and discipline.

I’ve taken a number of guided hikes in Costa Rica from local and American naturalists, and learning about life strategies and life histories of different plants and animals from Sarah has inspired further thinking and reading about libraries as sociological organizations and their ‘life strategies.’ I’m not sure yet where this will lead research-wise, but I’m excited about it, and thinking about how biological and organizational behaviours are related has been fascinating.

What will I take back post-sabbatical?
– I will spend more time appreciating my local environment – I’ll go for walks, work outside when possible, and enjoy Western’s beautiful campus
– I will seek out lectures and events on campus and in my community, knowing that these will inspire and help me develop research and professional ideas
– I will read more broadly, and make connections between other disciplines and librarianship

I highly recommend that librarians consider a sabbatical as an opportunity to travel and explore – you’ll learn a lot about yourself, and be inspired by the change in scenery and people you meet.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.