Forest, Trees, and Underbrush: Becoming the Arborist of Your Own Research

by Frank Winter, Librarian Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan

The phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees” is a common expression describing someone so sunk in minutiae that the big picture eludes them. I have, however, occasionally worked with colleagues who, to my way of thinking, cannot even see the trees for the underbrush. In the area of research, they are so mired in the details of producing that first published paper and then, somehow, the next, that the context in which they are researching eludes them. This leads to frustration, resentment, and resistance, often expressed in complaints such as, “Why do I do publish research? Because the Standards say I have to.” I have come to think of this as an issue of forest, trees, and underbrush. In this metaphor, the underbrush is the specific research project. The trees are how the specific studies are combined into a program of research. The forest is the broad area or field of interest at the highest level.

New faculty members or even prospective faculty members in the job market typically face the challenge of describing their research program, or research agenda, to hiring committees, granting bodies, and tenure committees. Librarians with tenure-track appointments face the same requirement. For example, the University of Saskatchewan’s Standards for Promotion and Tenure state that, for tenure or promotion, “there must also be evidence of the promise of future development as a scholar, including the presence of a defined program of research or scholarship.” The University of Saskatchewan’s Library Standards require that the candidate’s case file include, “a statement on the nature of the candidate’s research and future research plans.” In my experience, this requirement for a defined program of research causes some new librarians – often, but not exclusively, those who have not completed a subject level master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation – some anxiety. For an inexperienced researcher, as many librarians tend to be, struggling to find a researchable topic and publish that first article looms as a significant barrier to stepping back and thinking in broader terms of a program or an agenda. Typically, by the time a statement is necessary for a case file, colleagues are consulted and eventually something is cobbled together. But for some, even after this statement is written, uncertainty remains. It seems difficult to fit all the pieces together into a broadly coherent – and helpful – whole.

As noted above, this challenge is by no means unique to new university librarians as the sheer quantity of resources and programs aimed at helping new faculty members get started on an academic career suggests. Googling “research agenda” or similar phrases produces some helpful links, such as one entitled Developing Your Research Statement. Although this particular resource was developed to assist new geoscience faculty members in the development of their careers, its contents and links are broadly applicable to new researchers in all fields. Janet Brennan Croft at the University of Oklahoma has written a helpful paper entitled Library Faculty and the Research Agenda: A Building Block for the Successful Academic Career, including some interesting thoughts on pursuing a program of research in popular culture (JRR Tolkien in her case), not librarianship – a useful reminder that scholarship and research can be very broadly deployed by librarian researchers.

Another resource that I have felt to be underutilized when new librarians are struggling to find a topic are the research agendas that top level scholars in a field sometimes produce, such as those which appear from time to time in journals such as Library and Information Science Research. Professional associations are another source of research agendas. These documents are statements of the big questions and issues currently facing the field. They can be used to suggest how specific studies might be placed in context. Googling “research agenda for…” returns potentially helpful results as well. Examples specific to librarianship include suggested research agendas for leadership in library and information science, information literacy, law librarianship, and medical librarianship. Such high level research agendas are extraordinarily helpful in enabling a beginning researcher to see how a particular study can be part of a much larger set of questions or issues. Clarity with respect to an individual research agenda provides not only a sense of direction, but also a sense of why and how and where and who and what. This clarity enables the researcher to approach a topic from top down or bottom up and not lose track of where he or she is. This clarity also enables a researcher to participate in the ongoing and evolving conversation that is research.* It helps other researchers to understand where you are coming from and what you are trying to achieve.

And, finally, a research agenda is helpful in understanding when a particular program of research has reached an end. Research programs change for everyone over time and it is perfectly normal for one to end and another to open. A research program does not need to be a seamless whole – the parts can be loosely coupled as it evolves as a librarian’s interests and the environment evolve and as opportunities present themselves. There should, however, be some demonstrable underlying logic so that research projects do not appear to be random.

* To a degree this post was shaped by a conversation with my son, several years after he had completed a MSc in Computer Science. He said that he wished he had fully understood at the time he was a student that he was a participant in a broad field called, simply, “AI and Learning.” It would, he said, have provided some overall clarity and sense of direction that got lost in the day to day activities of working on his thesis, writing and delivering conference papers, participating in the activities of his advisor’s research group, TAing, and so on. That something so seemingly obvious eluded a bright graduate student seems unusual but this sort of after-the-fact insight into the big picture is, I believe, very common.,


American Association of Law Libraries. 2013. AALL Research Agenda 2013-2016.

Association of College and Research Libraries. IS Research and Scholarship Committee. Research Agenda for Library Instruction and Information Literacy.

Argow, Britt, and Beane, Rachel. 2009. Developing your Research Statement.

Croft, Janet. 2012. Library Faculty and the Research Agenda: A Building Block for the Successful Academic Career.

Harris, Martha “Molly” R., Homes, Heather N., Ascher, Marie T., and Eldredge Jonathan D. 2013. “Inventory of Research Questions Identified by the 2011
MLA Research Agenda Delphi Study.” Hypothesis 24 (2), 5 – 16.

Hernon, Peter, and Schwartz, Candy. 2008. “Leadership: Developing a research agenda for academic libraries.” Library & Information Science Research, 30, no. 4: 243-249. doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2008.08.001.

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

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