How library research is really done

David Bade pointed me to this very interesting talk (in transcript form) by Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago, given as the Windsor Lecture at the University of Illinois this month: Library Research and Its Infrastructure in the Twentieth Century. This paper is the author’s own ethnography of library research by scholars in the humanities and social sciences. I think it has a lot of value for academic librarians at research libraries. Here is a brief excerpt from pages 3 and 4:

…We do use librarians’ bibliographies and indexes as temporary starting points when we’re desperate, as I did in this case. But almost none of us ever does exhaustive bibliography and certainly none of us starts a project with a broad pass through the general bibliographical tools produced by librarians and their house publishers. The question – my third research opportunity – is why and how this happened.

Now like everything else about real library research, this question is not what it seems. It seems like a great starting question for a library research project. But of course it wasn’t my starting question. That this was the right focal question for a paper loosely aimed at understanding American library research practice in the twentieth century became clear only after I had done much of the research. More broadly, that library researchers have projects with clear designs is a myth. A few library researchers may actually have such clear designs. And the rest of us pretend to have had them after the fact. And we all force dissertation students to pretend to have them before the fact. But it’s all a myth. We don’t have clear questions ahead of time. The logical sequence of our articles is unrelated to the chronological sequence of our investigations. Our graduate students’ pretended questions in their proposals are not the ones their dissertations will end up answering. Not only is known item searching a relatively minor part of expert library research, precisely structured research questions are also a relatively minor part of expert library research. They are its result, not its beginning.

One comment on “How library research is really done

  1. This is an interesting talk, but I am not so sure about his conclusions. For example, Mr. Abbot talks about how things changed so much (apparently getting worse) with the demise of departmental libraries. It would be interesting to find out if the departmental librarians who exist in other parts of the world find that their scholars use their libraries more often or better. I doubt if they would.

    I have had another thought: I am not sure if he is discussing research as such, or he is discussing his preparation for doing research. Before you do research, you must first figure out what your topic is. This is much harder to do than it would seem, and Mr. Abbot’s lecture demonstrates this very clearly. So, while he shows that browsing is important as a means to help someone think, I don’t believe he says that it should be considered as a substitute for more structured, systematic work, which is the very essence of research. And for this systematic work, the more traditional tools are needed.

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