Reflective practice

snail perched on a full glass of water, drinking, reflected in the water. Her shell is slightly translucent and you can see some of her circulatory system through it.
Photo. A snail drinks from a glass. One eye stalk is reflected on the water’s still surface. The sun behind the snail illuminates the snail’s shell, revealing her circulatory system. Reflection requires that I bring my heart to what matters.

Reflection is an attitude which makes the difference between 20 years of experience or only 1 year of experience repeated 20 times.

Gillie Bolton, 2009.

Is reflective practice for everyone in the library?

I am a committed reflective practitioner. Empirical literature suggests I might be on the right track. I present a very brief literature review, followed by my reflections on the how and why of my reflective practices.

Maria Grant published the first systematic literature review of reflections on library activities in 2007. Grant described a category of reflection: analytical that was beneficial for the reflectors. An analytical reflection (a) focuses on a single event (b) after the event has occurred and (c) relates learning gleaned from the event to future practice.

More recently, Judith Greenhill and Barbara Sen (2014) conducted a survey of 424 library workers in the UK. Greenhill and Sen’s study confirmed that reflective practice has many personal, professional, and institutional benefits. These benefits included ‘learning from significant events’ and ‘improved planning of future actions’ (p.142). However identified barriers in the personal (lack of skill or experience) and institutional (lack of time and training) realms prevented library workers from making the most of a regular reflective practice. Jolene Miller (2020) repeated the study on 106 US health librarians and found a similar pattern of benefits and barriers. Greenhill, Sen, and Miller recommend professional development opportunities on reflective practices be provided by libraries or professional organisations, and time allocated for reflection.

Further, recent empirical literature demonstrates the value of reflective practice across a number of domains. Close to my heart, reflective practice and library instruction is well documented. Mary Delaney and colleagues describe ‘reflective inquiry’ (2020); Steven Milewski and Jeanine Williamson refine a reflective template to suit library instruction (2019); and Sarah Wagner and Erika Mann reflect on student evaluations and develop reflective prompts (2021). Further examples can be found to support the benefits of reflective practice for other library services and practices.

The literature speaks of many reflective practices, my personal preference is to write my reflections.

Writing: a method of [self] inquiry

found poem in Laurel Richardson’s (2000) Writing: a method of inquiry.

Writing is also a way of "knowing" –
a method of discovery 
and analysis. 

In the spirit of affectionate irreverence
I consider writing as a method of inquiry, 
a way of finding out about yourself –
and your topic. 

writing is not just a mopping-up activity, 
 a mode of "telling." 

Writing in different ways, 
we discover new aspects of our topic – 
and our relationship to it.

Form and content are inseparable. 

"Reword" the world, 
erase the computer screen, 
check the thesaurus, 
move a paragraph, 
again, and again!

Writing as a method of inquiry
honours and encourages the trying –
nurtures the writer.

Reflective writing & me

I read Laurel Richardson’s words while struggling with what had become a dry thesis: HDR students writing for publication. Richardson’s words were a welcome contrast to what I had known and supported for years: Writing as a performance of expertise, writing as research quantum, and writing as a justification for a place at whatever table a discipline might have to share. I nearly cried with relief and joy at Richardson’s humanising description of scholarship. In my capacity as senior research project officer, I took Richardson’s words to the HDR students I worked with, applying liberally to those seeking to reignite their passion for writing their topic, their project, or their discipline. And the only thing I ever insisted on with my research supervisor – and boss of five years – was to include Richardson’s ideas in my Masters thesis.

Inspired by Richardson’s words, I started to use what I now call ‘reflective writing’ to clarify and embody something that I have learned. The learning might be something from a course, a book, or a video on a topic. However, it usually comes from an experience, a time when things did not go as planned, or when an action created unintended consequences. A strong emotional response – mine or someone else’s – to something seemingly benign is also a potential site for me to reflect and learn.

How my reflective writing works

Once I have distinguished a topic to reflect on, my reflective writing maps well to Grants (2007) ‘analytical’ reflection. My writing occurs as phases: messy, repeated, overlapping, and often informing or re-informing each other. In these phases, I write to:

  • Describe the experience accurately, respectfully, and in as little detail as needed. I aim to discover the heart of the matter.
  • Consider what this learning might mean for me, my clients, my colleagues, and my librarianship. I am searching for whom the learning matters – and why?
  • Create an action to make the most of the learning. I might change the way I deliver a service, add to an existing conversation, or share what I have learned with others.

This might happen quickly. However, my reflective writing often means writing and rewriting over days and weeks, thinking deeply, sometimes applying specific reflective tools and practices to a learning experience. Yes, like my Dad’s baking, reflective writing is a slow process, however once completed, the results will ideally be enjoyed and applied easily. I have found this form of reflection to be worth the effort. To encourage myself, and others wanting to develop some reflective practices, I have divided reflective writing into ‘private’ and ‘public’ and listed some benefits of each, I have also provided links to examples, and to some of the tools I use to support my processes.

Why do I engage in private reflective writing?

Private reflective writing allows me to complete some initial processing on a topic, and it is often enough to do the work, take the learning and keep this work private. Private writing gives me the benefits of reflection, and allows me to:

  • Protect the identities of people (often myself) who I feel should have known better, done better, and achieved a better outcome.
  • Process stigmatised emotions: shame, guilt, envy, fear, and anger. Thom Bond’s Exercise allows me to acknowledge the emotion, remove any blame, and increase compassion for all involved when I am ‘feeling some feelings.’
  • Critically reflect on my complicity with institutional power. This helps me to develop a considered response to an issue in line with my values. Katrina Fyers and Sallie Greenwood provide an example of such a reflection using the What, so what, now what model.  John Dabell’s Borton’s model of reflection further explicate the questions used in Fyers and Greenwood’s example.

Private writing may be reworked into public writing.

Why do I engage in public reflective writing?

My public writing – including this blog post – allows me to

  • Bring myself to librarianship. Librarianship becomes a creative act. My experiences, expectations, beliefs, skills, education, aptitudes, vulnerabilities and (many of) my failings can all be included.
  • Create joy. I love writing, and feel happy and satisfied during the writing process, and when seeing a finished post.
  • Replicate an executive function. Writing and rewriting over time helps me develop a deep understanding of a topic and to remember. When it becomes unclear again, I have a record that is contextualised, personalised, and meaningful to me. It is easy to read a blog post and catch myself up.
  • Embody theory and wisdom found elsewhere – often by writing a found poem.
  • Explore what I know, what sense I am making of a topic and plot out where I think I need to head.
  • Participate in a conversation while further developing my ideas. Unclear writing usually indicates underdeveloped thinking and will be revealed in the process of revision, or via feedback from peers.
  • Share my expertise with others, to be helpful, to make a positive difference. I received a much-appreciated thank you all the way from Canada for What I know about. I have also shared links to relevant posts during conference presentations, in response to requests for further details about a specific project.
  • Demonstrate my experience, interest, engagement, investment, and contribution to resolving an issue of wider interest in a format and time that suits me and my schedule.


Bolton, Gillie. 2009. Write to learn: Reflective practice writing. InnoVait. 2(12), 752-754.

Bond, Thom. n.d. The exercise: Shifting towards compassion.

Borton, Terry. 1970. Reach, touch and teach. McGraw-Hill.

Dabell, John. 2018. Borton’s model of reflection.

Delaney, Mary, Ann Cleary, Philip Cohen and Brendan Devlin. 2020. Library staff learning to support learners learning: Reflections from a two-year professional development project, New Review of Academic Librarianship, 26:1, 56-78

Grant, Maria. 2007. The role of reflection in the library and information sector: a systematic review. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 24(3), 155-166.

Greenall, Judith and Barbara Sen. 2014. Reflective practice in the library and information sector. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 48(2), 137-150.

Fyers, Katrina and Sallie Greenwood. 2016. Cultural safety: developing self-awareness through reflective practice

Milewski, Steven and Jeanine Williamson. 2019. Refining a reflective practice template using a survey of citation management instructors. Public Services Quarterly 14(3), 197-213.

Miller, Jolene. 2020. Reflective practice and health sciences librarians: engagement, benefits, and barriers. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 108(1), 17-28.

Richardson, Laurel. 2001. Getting personal: Writing-stories. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(1), 33-38.

Richardson, Laurel. 2000. Writing: A method of inquiry. In Y. S. Lincon  & N. K. Denzin (Eds.), Turning points in qualitative research: Tying knots in a handkerchief (pp. 923-948). AltaMira.

Wagner, Sarah, Erika Mann and Ann Marshall. 2021. Toward a thoughtful assessment practice: Using reflection to guide library instruction assessment. The Reference Librarian 62(1), 23-33.

Photo credit

Irina_kukuts. Snail. PIxabay license.