Get Thee To A Library

Benson Community CenterReading online is great. It’s fast. It’s convenient. It’s accessible but there’s still a lot of important information that you can’t get from the web. I’m not writing against e-books, even though they still have weaknesses (e.g., footnotes don’t work and reading endnotes electronically is about as frustrating with e-books as it is in hardcopy). I read e-books frequently and three or four books in which I’ve been involved have been published as e-books. Rather, my concern is that younger readers increasingly seem almost unaware of books as a medium. When I say, “Get thee to a library” I’m not really saying, “Go to a building where books are housed” (although that would be a very good thing to do) but I am saying, “please realize that there is a great lot of important information, which you need to know, that is contained in books that haven’t yet been digitized.”

It’s fine to check the web to get oriented but, if you’re going to make significant decisions about what is true, if you’re really going to access the vast sea of learning (information and analysis) represented by all the books in a given library, you need to add hardcopy books to your learning and studying strategy. By omitting hardcopy books from your learning strategy you are handicapping your ability to learn and you are harmfully limiting the sources that inform your study.

The web creates the illusion that it is comprehensive, that on it one can find anything and everything. It’s not true. There is an immense amount of good stuff on the web but it’s still the case that a lot of what one finds is just dreck. It’s one thing to sort through that dreck with some background. It’s quite another thing to begin your study with and limit your study to the web. If you’re just starting your study of a field, how, without beginning with trusted, vetted sources, will you be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is thoughtful and carefully done and what is not? There is still a lot of professional scholarship that isn’t available on the web. A good bit of the best scholarship is found only between the covers of books. It’s not online.

There are three rooms in any (decent) library: the reference room, the stacks, and the periodical room. The reference room contains encyclopedias, dictionaries and the like. This is where research begins. The function of a good reference work is to get you started on a new topic. A good entry tells you what you need to know and gives you direction where to go next (primary and secondary sources). In my field most reference works are not found online. They’re found almost exclusively in the library. Eventually that may not be true but, for now, it is still true. If you start your study without the reference room, then you begin with one hand tied behind your back. You will have to do for yourself what a couple of good entries in a reference work has already done for you.

The second room in any library is the stacks. The stacks are the heart and soul of the library insofar as the stacks constitute the great collection of books on the rows of shelves, which you might see through the window as you drive to the coffee shop. The stacks contain a collection of both older and newer volumes of two kinds: the actual stuff you’re trying to learn (e.g., let’s say you’re studying Augustine. In that case it would be Augustine’s works) and books about the stuff you’re trying to learn (i.e., books about Augustine). This is known as primary and secondary literature. There are primary sources on the web but typically those primary sources are older texts that are out of copyright. They may be fine or they may be dated and the translation may have been revised. Without recourse to a printed edition or various editions you may not know what you have on your screen. You may get a peek at or even a chapter from the relevant secondary literature online via Google Books but you’re probably not going to be able to see the whole book. Again, the web only takes you so far. You must get hold of a book (which is found in a library) in order to make progress.

After you’ve visited the reference room to get oriented, the stacks to collect your primary and secondary sources, the periodical room is your last stop. This is where journals and magazines are kept. Journals are collections of articles usually limited by discipline (e.g., history) or a sub-discipline (e.g., a given period in or approach to history). In my field there is a Sixteenth Century Journal. It is one of the places that scholars publish their research, oddly, on the 16th century. Increasingly it also contains research on the 17th century and it has become a repository for a lot of “early modern studies” but it still relatively specialized. There are journals that specialize in medieval studies and New Testament, Old Testament, and hundreds of other fields and topics. The advantage of journals is that they are where  you find out what has happened in a field since the most recent books were published. In academic writing, most books are collections of previously published journal articles (and more). So, a good journal article may be a synopsis of a lot of research that will appear later in expanded form in a book. Typically it might take less than a year to get a journal article published but it might take a year or two or five to get a book published. So, what you see in a journal might not appear in a book for some time.

It’s true that print magazines are dying and certainly going online (for a price, of course). Some journals in some fields are accessible online (for a price) but there are still academic journals that are not easily or cheaply accessed online. This means that in order to fill-in your study, you need to move beyond the web to a library.

This post is really a plea to younger readers to recognize the limits of the web. There are important and even essential reference works, books, and journals that cannot yet be easily or inexpensively accessed via the web. That learning is still found only in print media. That might be a source of frustration but it shouldn’t be. There are some things that can be done quickly without harm. A text message can be short, quick, and helpful. True learning, however, is not usually done quickly or easily. It takes time and reflection. If you really want to learn, you will find a library a really useful place to visit.

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  1. Don’t forget the old card catalogue systems as well. The advantage due them over the electronic versions is like the stacks you find related material easily.

    Back when I could still physically read, I do not know how many times I uncovered some gem I would never have found had I simply been using an electronic database because it was there and I grabbed it off the shelf or the card was near the card I was looking for and I jotted down the number. With a database you often cannot find something unless you already know it exists. With a physical connection you may have to see/touch another volume while finding what you originally were searching for.

  2. I’m all on board with everything you say here, but I’d like to speak up for one advantage of digital reading, and that is searching.

    I’m not talking about searching from scratch, because as noted, too often that yields snippets that are all one reads instead of whole articles or books, and that also loses out on fortuitous connections (although perhaps it also adds some new fortuitous connections sometimes).

    I’m talking about a posteriori searching, as a means to better and more efficiently exploit material that has already been read (not as a shortcut to avoid reading). I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a book, and days or years later I want to look something up again and cannot find it, because I have nothing more to go on than “I have the impression it was 2/3 down a left-hand page”. If I had a pdf or other digital format, I could search for kewords or phrases and recover what I was looking for much more quickly, and reinforce what I didn’t quite learn the first read.

  3. Regarding primary and secondary sources, I remember something C. S. Lewis once said (although I have forgotten where in his works I read it). He advised ordinary folks that, if you want to find out about, say, Plato, then read Plato’s works themselves rather than modern secondary literature about Plato. Lewis said this because he believes that most reasonably intelligent people can read Plato for themselves and understand (at least the basics of) what he says, whereas too many books about Plato are crammed with scholarly jargon and high-flown language, making them difficult to understand for the average layman. Even ordinary folks can go to the original source material (in translation, of course) and profit by it.

  4. For general research, it is best to start online and move to a library for specific works if needed (usually the unavailable for borrowing reference works). However, knowing how to conduct effective research is how one avoids “dreck” both online and in print. One of the first principles of online research is to determine which sites are credible.

    Much of the discussion about older sources is dependent on what field one works in. For example I know someone who has a medical text from the 1850s–this thing is pre-pasteur. If I were studying history of medical discovery it’s useful. But if I were studying medicine, it’s a relic. It would do me no good to seek this work out. Most sciences have to rely on the newest work–we weren’t even allowed to use any reference more than five or six years old unless there was a good reason for us to do so. It turns out that which is still relevant still gets used, quoted and republished. This is in part what literature reviews contribute.

    As to finding related material, besides lit reviews and reference lists, ESBCOhost engines usually include links to related material (JSTOR may also, can’t remember). Works that cite the article in question are also usually linked. The reference list often includes links to cited articles. Knowing how to use the academic engines turns up many unknown works. Not all of this is online but those articles that are offline can often be obtained by a librarian via fax or scan from the publisher, once the researcher sends an auto-request for them (similar to an auto loan request). The physical library doesn’t really offer an advantage here except in the specific related works that are included.

    Also my libraries (both academic and public) no longer use physical card catalogues. And because the library’s online search function includes all books in the province, my resource pool isn’t limited to the books in the physical library I’m in. I’ve found many cool books by simply wandering in the stacks, but also by conducting online searches.

    What all this does is streamline the research process for those who know what they’re doing. It’s really about facilitating the same process, not replacing it with something else. As we say, “work smarter not harder”. Good research is still about the researcher rather than the tools he uses.

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