Library Weeks (4-8 Jan 2010)

This past week, the first week in the winter term, had me digging for clues to a puzzle. Some faculty members at the university have a unique criminology research question and are pulling out all the stops to collect data and analysis. To help them locate literature on the subject, I had to consult abstracts that our library holds only in bound volumes.  For a number of reasons (most of which are financial), we still subscribe to Criminal Justice Abstracts in print only; it is only one of a few bound indexes which the library still holds, and it remains vital to the school’s scholarship in criminology and sociology.  Although the beginning of my work was psychologically draining – the thought of looking up CJA‘s cumulative subject index volume-by-volume was not good for the soul – I eventually caught on to a rhythm and was breezing through the years in no time at all.  I may be a big proponent for electronic resources in the library, but for a moment I appreciated being able to physically handle the volumes again: there was almost a meditative quality to flipping the pages to find what I was looking for.

What made this work so poignant wasn’t the physical work of moving from one volume to another, however, but the fact that I was forced to rely on abstracts to determine an article’s value to the subject matter.  Although I always emphasize to students the convenience and effectiveness of abstracts when working with electronic resources, like so many others I’ll sooner or later open a PDF and hope that an article’s full-text will help me quickly consider its worth to the subject.  But more often than not this slows us down and can lead us away from literature useful to the subject.  Perhaps when we’re at the reference desk and we’re helping a student, a part of us feels compelled to open the file and find a potential reward, as if the article contained in that PDF will speak to the student’s specific subject.  But speed and gratification can’t be our main concern when helping our patrons. I’m not suggesting that we ignore these issues entirely, because gratification is part of the human condition so we must be prepared to deal with people who want results if not soon, then immediately.  But we need to remember (if not reinforce the fact) that opening every single PDF we find can send a patron down many different rabbit holes, most of which would be peripheral to their work.  Locating scholarly literature by considering abstracts, making value-judgments and marking items, and then moving toward analysis and synthesis (i.e. first search, then read), is likely a more efficient and effective way to research a topic.

Part of me wonders if we should keep bound volumes of CJA close by the reference desk, or bring them along in our information literacy training sessions just to help students understand not only the massive amount of information available on the internet, but also the massive amount of organization that has been lost (or is regularly side-stepped) with the move to electronic access.  Yes, the internet can make data location and retrieval a fairly simply and routine task – I am not suggesting at all that we return to the days of print volumes, I promise.  But by putting all of eggs into one basket, or at least making it look that way to the end-user, we’re making it appear that the information is now easier to not only find, but also evaluate when it necessarily isn’t so.  Too often our students see abstracts in Academic Search Premier or in JSTOR as one extra screen to click through to get to the goods – the article’s full-text.  We need to spend more time helping students understand that the abstract screens aren’t an impediment to the end result but rather a useful tool to improve their searches by helping them separate what’s useful from what’s not in a timely manner.