Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

How we used to find things: The Oxford Guide to Library Research

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The Oxford Guide to Library Research, first published in 1987, is now in its fourth edition (2015), and was described by Aaron Tay in his Musings on Librarianship as “classic”. It sounded like just what I wanted – at first glance it appears to be the definitive guide to finding things out for academic study, and yet there are warning sounds from the very first words of the preface:  

This book is intended to fill a particular niche. It will answer three questions: First, what is the extent of the significant research resources you will you miss if you confine your research entirely, or even primarily, to sources available on the open Internet?

In other words, this book isn’t going to tell you how to find things, but how to use the library to find things rather than using the Internet. The tone of the book is already established: it appears to be fighting a rear-guard battle. The goal of the book seems to be not to tell people how to user the biggest resource, the Internet, better.  Surely a better way to start would be to say:

How to find things

This can include the Internet. It can include libraries …

So don’t expect this book to tell you how best to make use of Google; all it does is tell you the limitations of Google. It does tell you how to use Library of Congress Subject Headings. In other words, it’s a book by a librarian from the eighties who dislikes the way things have moved online. It contains sections on “Problems with shelving books by accession number or by height” (p65), and “Combinations with computers” (p208), on how to do searches for combinations of terms without using a computer.

Much of the book reads like a pleasant (but ultimately useless for current purposes) overview of the printed resources that underpinned academic research for most of the 20th century. Names like the H. W. Wilson company used to be central for searching –  but not any longer.

And, if you are already convinced of the supremacy of non-computer resources, there is a stern final appendix, “Wisdom and Information Science”, which lists several kinds of knowledge framework, and concludes: “Quite obviously no computer “relevance ranking” can bring to bear any of these concerns in patterning which configuration of information is preferable to the alternatives.” That puts computers in their place.

The book concludes with a further hammer blow against “information scientists”:

Emerson once wrote, “it is not observed …that librarians are wiser men than others.” If I may paraphrase the sage of Concord, “it is not observed that either librarians or information scientists are wiser people than others.” This is particularly true if we regard the goal of our profession as achievable by providing “one-stop” access to “all” information at once—i.e., by breaking down the boundaries of carefully crafted disciplinary “silos” and asserting that “a single search” box backed by algorithmic relevance ranking of keywords is all that we need to provide … We have to provide real alternatives … Real librarians staffed by knowledgeable librarians and curators are that alternative. [p338]

Wouldn’t it be great to have an Oxford Guide to Research, without the word “Library”? One that didn’t ignore the library, but placed it in its current context, alongside online searching, without any defensive tirades? I’d use that book.  


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1 Comment

  1. Aaron Tay

    It’s a different way of looking at doing research for sure….

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