Non-digital scholarship troubles

For the first time in ages, I went to the real, physical library to look some stuff up this morning.

It didn’t go well. The books I wanted were all out on loan to other people, and a problem with my account meant I got a not entirely helpful error message when I tried to recall them. The books that seemed like they might be related – shelved next to them, or matching in the same query to the catalogue – turned out not to be relevant.

My catalogue search suggested that there was a journal in the library that was very relevant. I thought a quick browse through the physical copies would be ideal for a general trawl. (I can’t shake a suspicion that it’s hard to skim stuff online.) But try as I might, I couldn’t find the journal.

I’d forgotten just how much time you waste physically searching for stuff, even in a well-shelved, well-signposted library that isn’t heavily used by students. And even once you find the thing you’re after, you have to pick it up, open it, and flick to the right page before you find the information you’re looking for – and then be sure to put it back in exactly the same place. It was nice to get the extra exercise I suppose, but as a search strategy it seemed silly. I’d never pursue a virtual search strategy that long with such poor results.

Back at my desk, and trying a more digital approach, things went much better, even using the most unrefined and simplistic search strategy. A quick query at Amazon not only offered to supply the books within 24 hours (if I’m prepared to pay for express delivery), but helpfully alerted me that a whole host of very relevant books are scheduled for publication in the next few months. And a quick Google yielded the journal’s home page as first hit – and it turned out to be open access so I could just browse the titles in the table of contents and click through to full text where it looked promising.

One thing that really struck me was that my failure to find the print journal in the physical library was because I had the title of the journal wrong: I was looking for a sort of sub-title rather than what it’s formally called. Online, that didn’t matter at all, but in a physical shelving system it was enough to preventing me finding it. Digital technology actually made it less important to get things precisely right.

I had an epiphany about journal articles some years ago. I wanted to check something in an article I knew fairly well. I knew the journal, the authors, and roughly when it came out. I had a well-organised shelf of the journal in question right behind me: all I’d have to do would be spin my chair round and reach out my hand to browse  … but it was much quicker and easier to just search for the article online. (I got rid of the journals.)

I think it might be time to go more digital with my books, too. Which means Amazon. (Other online book retailers are available.) For wide-circulation books I strongly suspect it’s less money to simply order copies of books I want from them than for the Library to get a copy, catalogue, shelve, issue, etc. Though of course it’s my personal cash rather than the University’s, and the pricing for more obscure scholarly books is rather too eye-watering for me to shell out on a regular basis and probably changes the cost calculation.

(cc) reidrac on Flickr

For balance I should relate a very positive physical bookshop experience I had recently: there was a book I was after for a potential research collaboration, but the last time I’d looked it up on Amazon it didn’t appear to have a UK publication date. I happened to be walking past Blackwell’s in Oxford, and on the off chance dived in to the subterranean cavern of academic and technical book-lovers’ delight that is the Norrington Room. An assistant quickly located a copy on the shelf and I was back out on Broad Street with a copy in my hands less than five minutes after I’d gone in. (I got away lightly because I had no time for browsing.) Online things are usually all about instant gratification, but this was one occasion where the physical world came up trumps. Alas, not all bookshops are like that.

How ever did anyone keep up with research when they had all that physical stuff to struggle with?


This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

3 thoughts on “Non-digital scholarship troubles”

  1. You could have mentioned not just the time _in_ the library searching. For many there is the problem of travel to, parking near and times open. I love libraries, but I get a lot out of the seredipitous opportunities they provide. I go in meaning to find one thing (often don’t) and then come back out with lots of stuff that I did not intend to loan, or did not know was there. A bit like being online, but a smaller scale, and less predictable. 🙂

    1. I used to love libraries for just this reason. But I find the Internet is so much faster and better. I don’t think it’s because libraries have got much worse. And my experience of the online world is not that it is at all lacking in unpredictability, serendipitous discoveries, and fascinating diversions.

      It’s like encyclopedias. As a kid I spent many happy hours jumping from article to article in my parents’ print encyclopedia, sometimes ending up with all my fingers jammed in different places to keep track of where I’d been. Wikipedia supports that sort of learning so much better.

      1. I agree re. online offering ‘unpredictability, serendipitous discoveries, and fascinating diversions’. It was just that libraries were somehow seen as more fixed and stable in contrast. Not sure that is the reality (any more).

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