Monday, March 31, 2008

Generic View from Nowhere

I stumbled upon this article written by Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago at Library Juice. So, as is my wont, I will share some of the passages that resonated with me. Again this isn't an exhaustive critique of the paper, just some of the passages that struck me as important to the Resource Discovery Task Force. Note that Abbott speaks only of humanist and social science researchers not scientific researchers. Quotes from the paper are italicized.

Central to that investigation [Future of the Library Task Force] was a study of digital versus physical use of library materials, an analysis which showed clearly what we should have guessed ahead of time -that students who are heavy physical users of the library are also heavy electronic users and vice versa. The idea that electronic research was actually replacing physical research - at least at the expert end of the scale- proved wrong.

I think that this is something to bear in mind. I often fall into the trap of digital versus physical, but perhaps I should really think about heavy versus light users of libraries. Is format even an issue? Will tools librarians' build help?

More broadly, that library researchers have projects with clear designs is a myth. A few library researchers may actually have such clear designs. And the rest of us pretend to have had them after the fact.

Abbott underlines the fact that humanistic research in libraries is a very organic endeavor. There is no clear path through the literature. Browsing and reading are part of the process. A part that librarians, for the most part, are not privy to.

Not only is known item searching a relatively minor part of expert library research, precisely structured research questions are also a relatively minor part of expert library research.

Again, Abbott points to the importance of the practice of browsing for any tools librarians provide.

Everything I could find out about stack behavior in the 1950s indicated that faculty and graduate students weren't using catalogs, even for known-item searches. Nor were they using most of the wonderful apparatus I had written about, built for them by Wilson and ALA and the library profession. They were just wandering into the stacks and trolling. They were indeed standing in the stacks and reading whole chapters, then pulling something else off the shelf and reading that.

Is there any chance researchers will use tools librarians build? If Abbott's research is any indication scholars disengaged from librarians in the 1920s for a variety of reasons. In a large part because librarians represent what Abbott calls a universalist approach as opposed to scholars inclination for a partial or specialty approach to subject access.

But the message was everywhere the same. Faculty and graduate students got their references either from hearsay or from other people's footnotes or reference lists, just as - in fact - I was doing myself.

Now if faculty and graduate students were getting their research bibliography via hearsay or other professionals' published work, why were they doing this? The answer, at least theoretically, seemed obvious. What these sources had that the general bibliographical tools lacked was selectivity.

In my opinion, this is a major problem with bibliographic tools. Quality isn't addressed in any but a cursory fashion. Catalogs don't tell a researcher what the best book on Joyce is. And that in many instances is exactly the information library researchers need.

Finding something is easy. It's knowing you ought to be looking for it that is hard.

It was the librarians' contention that there ought to be one master index, but the research scholars always want partial indexes, indexes slanted their way, organized by their way of seeing the world, not by a generic view from nowhere.

library researchers started withdrawing from this universalist project in the 1920s and gradually erected a system of specialty tools and a set of research practices that enabled them to bypass the hugely inefficient searches that were the only possibility under the universal bibliographical system.

That's all for now. Back to building the master index.

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