Modern scholarship is a race against its own obsolescence

Library card catalog shared CC by John Kannenberg

I got my first experience of this reality when I was a graduate student of literature in the mid-1990’s. Back then [cue nostalgic music], if someone needed to assemble a list of references to research a given topic, at least part of the process worked something like this:

* Consult the print index of the Modern Language Association (MLA) International Bibliography, a massive multi-volume reference work that purported to index all scholarship in the field over the previous decade or so. Most major research university libraries could afford an updated set every couple of years. There was a separate set that indexed older works, nearly as large. Because of the sheer size and value of the reference books, they could not be taken out of the library. Scholarly publications were indexed by keywords, authors, and broader subjects such as literary themes. But obviously, due to the limitations of print, the number of entries and the number of places an item could be indexed in the volumes were limited. You were not likely to find entries published in non-traditional sources, and you had to know almost exactly what subjects and keywords you were looking for before you began looking.

* As you wade through the volumes of the MLA International Bibliography, carefully write down by hand the citation information for articles that might prove to be useful.

* With your list of possible sources in-hand, consult a library card catalog — a rack of small wooden drawers containing index cards listing the contents of that particular library. One by one, you would hunt through these cards to see if the research journals or books you were looking for were available at your library. If they were not, you could either strike that option off your list, or if it looked particularly important you might initiate the lengthy and occasionally costly processes involved with an inter-library loan. (Assuming of course you were not beginning your research two or three days before the deadline.) If the item was available, you wrote down the location in the library stacks where it might be found.

* Wander the stacks of the library, gathering large volumes (when they were indeed on the shelves, when they were not checking the shelving point and the carts and hoping for the best), each one containing a 15-20 page article that may or may not prove relevant.

* Since periodicals usually could not be taken out of the library, set up with a photocopier and copy each article by hand, one page at a time. Copies not cheap, especially when your income comes from student loans and part-time minimum wage jobs.

* Take home your stack of articles and finally get the chance to read them properly. Realize that at least half of them are not as relevant as they once seemed, and that many others are devoid of anything like useful information or insight.

* Plan another trip to the library.

This cumbersome process actually involved something resembling skill, some people were better at it than others. We took orientation classes in “research methods” to learn the basics. Because I worked part-time at the library while a student, I was something of a savant at gathering research — I could usually get most of what I needed for a short paper in only four or five hours! My ability to work the stacks was something that gave me an edge as a student, and I assumed this ability would serve me well as a scholar for many years.

Just before I finished my Masters, I was walking through the library and noticed tables loaded with shiny new computer terminals, and that one of them was set up with a CD-ROM version of the MLA International Bibliography. Out of curiosity I sat down and entered a few queries. I realized that my hard-earned foundational skills as a scholar could be easily surpassed by any newcomer with the ability to type a few words into a search box. What had once taken long hours of careful process could now be done in a few minutes, and with tools far more forgiving of error. I had spent years developing abilities that were rendered obsolete in an instant. As I recall, this realization left me with a sense of euphoria.

And of course the context of searching, identifying, gathering and reproducing information has only continued to evolve with dizzying speed. With so much changed about how research is now performed, what amazes me most is how little has changed with scholarship itself. Literary studies incorporate references exactly as they did back when I gathered them by hand. Articles are evaluated the same way. They are published in more or less the same places, in many cases more expensive for libraries to acquire than they were fifteen years ago. And if you do not belong to an authenticated university computer network, these works are effectively inaccessible to you.

Some things do not change so easily. It’s a race against obsolescence.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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