Monday, November 12, 2007

Library Tricks

One of the 'challenges' of my current institution comes from the library. Basically, our library is not very good, especially with respect to journal publications in my research areas. This can make certain tasks more difficult than they would be in a place with better facilities.

Just recently, I had a paper accepted by a rather good journal. This paper is the result of a project that I started a long time ago. The final product is nothing like I had originally imagined. When the paper was accepted, there were no major editorial revisions. This was thrilling, as I was a little uncertain about the final results of this project. However, the referees did request that I add some updated citations. With a poor library, satisfying such a request requires some ingenuity.

My initial strategy was to check the various indices, looking for relevant recent publications. Fortunately, there were not many. Less fortunately, only one of these publications was included in our collection. As this is a circumstance I have met before, I have developed a few tricks to get around this kind of problem. I will share them here. Although most of these are pretty obvious, a collection of these tricks may be useful to some.

1. E-mail the author(s) of a paper you need and see if they will send you a .pdf file, or an off-print. It is a pretty good rule that the majority of people who are working in an academic area will have some kind of university (or equivalent) affiliation. This being the case, most people will have an institutional e-mail address. Of course, not all e-mail addresses are listed on web pages. However, by learning about the standard format of e-mail at the institution, it is often possible to guess even unlisted e-mail addresses. Most people like to have their work cited (I certainly do!). For this reason, they are often more than willing to share their .pdf versions of papers, or off-prints.

2. Have friends and/or former graduate students who are at institutions with better libraries. There are many advantages to having a network of academic contacts. Getting papers you need is one of them. Former doctoral students in particular are usually more than willing to help out with access to a paper. They can send a few .pdf files, that can save a great deal of driving to better libraries. This too is a very useful mechanism for getting access to otherwise hard to access papers. Of course, one has to be prepared to return the favour, if asked. However, a mutual self-help network like this can be very helpful indeed.

3. Get library access at a your closest 'good' library and know people who also live in the same city. Sometimes, there are no choices but to take a road trip in order to get access to research materials. If one can do this, while also seeing friends, then this can make the chore more enjoyable. Should the trip be a long one, then having a place to stay can also be helpful. This is one method of making what would otherwise be a bit of a bore into a fun trip.

4. Get to be friends with your local Interlibrary Loans people. Most academics know the value of good librarians, especially reference librarians. The people who run the Interlibrary Loans (ILL) office though can be an amazing breed. If you have good ILL people and they like you, then they can perform miracles! I once wanted to read a Doctoral dissertation that was only available for personal inspection at the degree granting institution, which was also in another country. I could neither afford the time, nor the cost to make that trip. However, an especially astute ILL librarian remembered that another institution had, for a while, had a policy of copying all dissertations that they borrowed from overseas. Lo and behold, it turned out that there was a copy of the dissertation hidden away in the library of this second institution. So, I was able to get access to the material that I needed.

5. Do not be afraid to ask! Sometimes, one will run across a paper, or a book that steadfastly remains inaccessible, despite the deployment of all the best tricks. Once all other avenues have been exhausted, one can make use of one of the many professional mailing lists that serve most academic disciplines. Posting a request to such lists often has yielded good results for me in the past. It is worth noting though that this should be done cautiously. It is not a substitute for going though all the other options first -- it is really a method of last resort. However, this method too can mitigate against the horrors of a bad library.

It would be nice if we all had access to good libraries. We do not. By using these tricks though, the worst privations of a deficient library can be overcome. Many of these strategies are predicated upon people being willing to help others out. I always feel a need to do this, due to the huge debt that I owe others, in this respect. A little bit of mutual help can make scholarship move forward more efficiently. This method has certainly been helpful to me in updating the bibliography of the paper I am currently finishing the changes on.

The CP


Anonymous G Bitch said...

I have been lucky enough to have a spouse with faculty-level library privileges at a university here with a damn good library. Even when I worked at the U. (and it had a library), I used "his." And I'm not writing peer-reviewed articles. Access to books, bound periodicals, interlibrary loan and databases...pardon my drool.

6:47 PM  

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