Trends in the Humanities: Periodical Studies

We’ve focused a lot on technology and administration so far in this blog, but ACRL is full of reference and subject librarians who also need to keep up on general trends in scholarship in the academic disciplines in order to perform liaison work, answer reference questions, and build rich, up-to-date collections.

The March issue of the Publications of the Modern Language Association includes an article about the emergence of a new field directly relevant to academic libraries: periodical studies. (Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies” 517-532.)

The idea behind periodical studies is that a scholar examines the complete contents of a periodical as a whole instead of viewing periodicals as containers for individual articles. A researcher in this field would look at what articles, essays, stories, letters, advertisments etc. were published in a periodical and why, and how the periodical and its readers shaped and were shaped by the broader culture of the time.

One force driving this new field is large-scale digitization projects. Digitization projects of runs of periodicals include both those that are freely available such as the Spectator Project and the Modernist Journals Project; and those by huge corporations such as Thomson Gale’s archive of the London Times, and ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers and British Periodicals.

The authors of the article point out some of the challenges of searching these digital archives (not enough metadata, errors in the full-text make for problematic full-text searches) and bring attention to “the hole in the archive” problem: the complete omission of advertisements, which for scholars in cultural studies are often more interesting than the articles. The authors offer these guidelines for digital archiving:

– Start with the original issues.
– Present images of all pages from cover to cover.
– Generate metadata for advertisements along with other features.
– Include the verbal parts of advertising as text for searching to the extent that typography allows.
– On the visible pages, highlight hits in searches.

The RLG-OCLC Merger: Research Library Perspective

When our blog team heard about the RLG-OCLC merger news last week we thought it deserved some commentary at ACRLog. Seeking a colleague with more RLG expertise, I asked Beth Picknally Camden, Director of the Goldstein Information Processing Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library, to share her thoughts about the merger, organizationally,from the perspective of the research library, and personally, as a longtime RLG constituent. Here is Beth’s reflection on the merger:

When I first heard about the RLG-OCLC merger on Wednesday, my reaction was a feeling of surprise, but not surprise. RLG holds a special place in the hearts of research libraries that may not be well understood by non-members. My perspective is from one who has worked in institutions on both sides of the fence. Unlike OCLC (which claims to be a member organization, but whose large size make it more accurately a vendor) RLG’s small size has allowed it to truly work for its membership on the very issues which make research libraries unique. RLG encouraged innovative developments and supported special-purpose cataloging for its members.

RLG was the leader in including non-Roman languages in its catalog. Starting with Chinese, Japanese and Korean scripts in the early 1980s, and adding Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic scripts by the early 1990s, RLG was well ahead of OCLC for many years (and light-years ahead of local system vendors). Later, RLG provided Z39.50 access to not only its bibliographic database, but also its authority files. For many years (perhaps still), the RLIN authority file was the only source of Z39.50-accessible authority records—an incredibly useful tool for members and non-members. More recently, RLG’s RedLightGreen project ( ) demonstrated the power and promise of FRBR as a user interface tool for library catalogs.

RLG’s support of archival and manuscript cataloging made it the preferred choice for institutions with this type of collection. Rather than limiting the record length, field length and number of total fields, RLIN allowed for the richness and complexity needed to fully describe unique archival and manuscript collections (while OCLC’s database rules forced unsatisfactory truncation of the same records).

The most distinct difference between OCLC’s WorldCat and the RLIN Union Catalog is the use of record-clusters. OCLC’s master record forces a one-size-fits-all approach to cataloging that works just fine for a good percentage of items, but falls short when the master record lacks call number or subject headings. For workflow reasons, many OCLC libraries choose not to enhance or enrich records, leaving each library to supply the missing data (the most costly part of cataloging). In contrast, RLIN record clusters show all member libraries’ records, allowing other libraries to quickly find one which includes the data which may be lacking from the initial record. Unlike OCLC, enriched records from RLG tape-loading libraries are also included in the cluster. So, record upgrades are not lost by choosing a more efficient workflow. (The downside of the record cluster can be the time spent picking and choosing the perfect record to meet your needs).

I began by saying that this announcement gave me a feeling of ‘surprise but not surprise’. This sense of not being surprised was echoed in many of the conversations that I had with other librarians last week. Colleagues commented that they had ‘predicted this’ or they had ‘just been discussing this possibility’. This comes from a growing sense of disenchantment with RLG, due to the frustrations of the RLIN21 upgrade. In my institution, and perhaps in others, staff have ‘voted with their fingers’ in using the utility which allows them to keep up with production levels.

In some ways, it’s the feeling you have when the mom-and-pop grocery or neighborhood pharmacy goes out of business due to competition with a new “big box” mega-store. You’ll miss the special services, and the sense of being known (or a part of the family), but you also know that you’ll spend less and have more variety. The RLG-OCLC merger gives me the same sense of loss, but as a business decision, it makes perfect sense.

Thank you Beth for your contribution to ACRLog!

Censorship at the Department of Education?

For the past few years, many ACRL members have been concerned about changes to the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education and with the direction of federally-supported programs like the National Library of Education and ERIC. For those who have not followed these issues, let me recommend the EBSS ERIC News site and a brief story that appeared in Education Week (“Basement No Bargain for Agency Library,” January 29, 2003).

The March issue of Educational Researcher carries a disturbing essay by Alan H. Schoenfeld (UC-Berkeley) on the possibility that the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences may have been involved in an attempt to squelch the publication of essays critical of one its recent innovations, the What Works Clearinghouse.

From the abstract:

“An early version of this article . . . was written for the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), which funds WWC, instructed WWC not to publish it. An expanded version, written at WWC’s invitation for a special issue of an independent electronic journal and a book to be published by WWC, argued that methodological problems rendered some WWC mathematics reports potentially misleading and/or uninterpretable. IES instructed WWC staff not to publish their chapters – thus canceling the publication of the special issue and the book. Those actions, chronicled here, raise important questions concerning the role of federal agencies and their contracting organizations in suppressing scientific research that casts doubt on current or intended federal policy.”

Talk about an “open access” problem!

For those following the direct link above, please note that there are additional materials (including a response from WWC staff) available from the home page for the March 2006 issue.

I-Schools Bring Us A “Credibility Commons”

This morning’s CHE announces the launch of the newest collaboration between Syracuse’s Dave Lankes and Washington’s Mike Eisenberg – the Credibility Commons – a research project aimed at helping people to understand the many issues related to the credibility of information found on the Internet and to develop tools aimed at helping people to locate credible information on a range of topics.

I haven’t had time to read all the materials now available through the site, so I don’t know how Dave and Mike have linked this project to their long-time support for information literacy instruction (which strikes me as the most basic “practical approach” to helping people to find credible information on the Internet, i.e., the ability to articulate why something is credible according to standards other than appearance, consonance with one’s own views, etc.). I am sure the link is there and that it is strong. There aren’t too many LIS faculty members in whom I have more trust than these two.

Still, I would have liked to have seen a library listed among the project partners. As the CC partners write “There are few professions better suited to the world of credibility on the Internet than librarians.” I look forward to hearing how we’ll be able to contribute to this project and brings its results home to our daily practice.

Do Academic Librarians On The T-Track Blog

How blogging impacts on the academician’s career continues to be debated and discussed in the blogosphere. We’ve discussed academia’s conflicted reaction to blogging here previously. A worthwhile list of the pros and cons of blogging for those with and working for tenure appeared in a post by Christopher Sessums titled “Academic Research and Blogging.” He writes:

Recently a professor/mentor of mine noted that I seem to spend more time writing on my blog rather than writing for academic journals. She noted that I will not get tenure or be promoted for my blog posts but that I will for publishing in peer-reviewed journals. I’ll admit, she made a good point. I use my blog space to reflect on ideas for “proper” articles. In many cases I receive useful feedback that helps me tighten my argument or consider alternate or opposing viewpoints. In this light, my blog serves as a handy testbed and sandbox which allows me room to play.

What are some of the pros and cons? The blog allows freedom to explore, the ability to get ideas out there more quickly, the benefits of feedback provided in comments, and regular blogging may help with writing skills. Of course blog posts can also be poorly written, offer little in the way of cited sources, contribute to sloppy research methods,and fail to reach the intended audience.

Academic librarians are doing a fair amount of blogging, and I wonder who these folks are. According to data collected by Michael Stephens for his blogger survey 41% of the 283 respondents claimed an academic affiliation. That is nearly double the number of bloggers from the next largest group, public librarians. So who are all these academic librarian bloggers? I wonder how many are on the tenure track? I ask this because it is my guess that librarians on the tenure track are not blogging. Why? Probably because some senior librarian or mentor, not unlike Sessums reports, warned against blogging because it counts for tenure status about as much as cleaning out the library staff room frig once a week.

If that’s the case it could be unfortunate. While a blog has all the potential in the world for being a pointless time sink, a thoughtful, well designed and maintained blog can be far more helpful to academic colleagues than a stack of academic journal articles. There’s a place for the scholarly publication of course, and it shouldn’t be a case for anyone of all of one and none of the other. If you’re an academic blogger, tenure track or not, you ought to be able to show you’ve got what it takes by publishing a credible scholarly article or two. Otherwise, all that talk about your academic library blog helping you to write better, to get your thoughts out, to test new, radical ideas, to gather feedback from colleagues, may not amount to a hill of beans if you can’t demonstrate the ability to go beyond blogging as a means of professional communication.