In my program (UNC SILS), all master’s students are required to complete a capstone paper or project prior to graduation. Both options require students to approach a “problem” in information or library science in a “substantial and scholarly way.” No small feat, right? I bet a bunch of you out there are facing similar tasks within the next year and I’m hoping that we can begin to face them together. First up: how to get started? I’ve called on my friend and classmate, Robbin Zirkle, to add her insights. Robbin is working on her project this fall and is (hopefully!) graduating in December.
Robbin: I went into the planning stages of INLS 992 with the intention of writing a master’s paper, likely involving content analysis of collection development policies. When I was considering how to go about completing my paper, though, I realized that I wanted it to be a true deliverable that could help an institution. Thus, my simple master’s paper has morphed into a master’s project; I will have a concrete, practical deliverable at the end of my experience that will impact an institution.
Julia: As Robbin points out, a project has the potential benefit of yielding an institution-specific deliverable (for example, an evaluation of existing programs or policy). On the other hand, a paper or thesis is an opportunity to delve into research of a more traditionally academic nature. I agree with many of Rebecca Halpern’s points about the benefits of writing a master’s paper; among other things, this kind of writing provides a leg up for those hoping to publish or hoping to enter positions that require publishing. I plan to write a master’s paper, but I’ll have to see where my ideas lead. For those of you in programs with a portfolio capstone option, see also Madeleine’s advice.
Robbin: My first encounter with brainstorming for this capstone project actually began last fall, when I met with an adjunct instructor to discuss my goals and objectives. She asked me, quite simply, to think about my interests. Once I had identified collection management as an interest, we ventured into the stacks to look at the master’s papers my predecessors at SILS had already produced. Over a period of about four months, I mulled and spoke with practicing librarians and professors about any crazy idea I came up with. I half-formed and discussed at least half a dozen ideas during that time, and I got a lot of great feedback.
Julia: To summarize: start thinking early, talk to instructors and mentors about your ideas, browse papers from previous years, and allow your ideas to change. I would add that taking some time to familiarize yourself with the requirements for the capstone can be helpful as you think about the scope of what you’ll eventually need to produce.
Picking a Topic
Robbin: Eventually, I contacted a library where I interned before library school. After speaking with the Director about one of the “crazy ideas” I’d come up with, she made some suggestions for projects that the library was working on that were similar. I realized that I could take this paper further than content analysis, and that I could help to create a collection use and management policy for a special library with an incredibly specific niche.
Julia: I’m still very much in the general “crazy idea” phase of topic selection. As I reflect on my interests and experience, I keep circling back to information literacy and library instruction. Some of my next steps include looking to connected disciplines like education and cognitive psychology for inspiration and talking to librarians and faculty members.
Finding a Mentor
Robbin: Fortunately, I found my mentor very early on. I trolled our faculty page until I realized that the same adjunct professor who pointed me toward old master’s papers was a perfect fit for my prospective project. My (now) project advisor is the librarian for a special library at UNC, and graciously signed on to oversee my master’s project. I have a pseudo-second advisor as well: because I have elected to complete a project for an external institution, its Director is overseeing a great deal of my project.
Julia: Yes, remember internship and work supervisors!
Additional Tools and Resources
If your library school requires a capstone paper or project, chances are they have a repository of past work. Check it out!
Most library schools offer (and probably require) some sort of research course. While somewhat vexing for those who are not completing experimental research, these courses are valuable for completing many types of master’s-level research, especially in assessment.
We both use Evernote to collect and organize information. Robbin is a fan of the plugin Clearly, which pulls an article off of an HTML page and reformats it before importing the plaintext into Evernote.
If you plan on involving human research subjects (interviews, questionnaires, tests) you’ll need to complete ethics training and an IRB proposal for your project. Make sure to look for further information through your university.
Don’t forget that your campus writing center can be a very useful resource for guidance on brainstorming, writing abstracts, lit reviews, and more.
Are you preparing for a master’s paper or project? Just finished one? What helped you through?
Robbin Zirkle is a second-year SILS student planning to complete her MSLS in December 2013. She’s interested in both academic and research libraries, and is currently a library intern at the United State Environmental Protection Agency Research Triangle Park Library (US EPA-RTP Library — what an acronym!). Check out her posts, background, and connection information on her blog: http://robbinzirkle.wordpress.com/.