Two of my favorite bloggers (both of whom happen to be autistic and academics, like me), Clarissa and Voxcorvegis, have been having a discussion about the importance of libraries and journals for scholarly research. Clarissa is a professor in the humanities (Hispanic Literature and Studies, I believe), and Voxcorvegis is a physics graduate student. This is a topic I feel rather strongly about, and consequently, have decided to join their discussion, however briefly.
To catch you up (these are short posts, if this interests you, please just go read them), Clarissa wrote a post entitled “On Austerity” earlier today, discussing the fact that money is being funneled out of important scholarly resources at universities, such as journals, to pay for administrators and ridiculousness.
Voxcorvegis countered, saying “The point is this: as Clarissa has noted, Universities around the world are cutting back on their services in the name of “austerity.” One such budget frequently being slashed is the one for scholarly journal subscriptions. This, sadly, is every bit as true in the sciences as it is the Humanities, but what I can’t understand is why it is such a huge problem.” – in her field, physics, there’s a massive online database maintained by Cornell, that basically houses all mathematics and physics papers (among others), thus removing the need for print journals entirely. She also questions whether this is a fundamental difference between the sciences and humanities – science not needing print journals, humanities needing them.
Clarissa responded, “In Humanities, we are not looking for the most recent, cutting-edge research. The most recent sources are not necessarily superior to the ones published 20, 30, 40 years ago. If I don’t have access to articles from the 70s and the 80s, I’m in deep trouble in terms of my research. I need access to everything that has ever been published on a subject I’m researching.”
And I just wanted to weigh in, since I have a slightly different perspective entirely.
I’m just at the beginning of my academic career. While I am lucky in the sense that there exists some types of online databases for my field, they are by no means complete, and they are all paid subscriptions. Additionally, the thing I work on specifically hasn’t really been worked on since the 80s – not because its a dead end, but because the person to pioneer it passed away prematurely and suddenly, leaving a giant box of notes and not much else. They were just starting to get this field going, and no one else has tried in the past 20+ years – their great idea has just been sitting stagnant. Much of what I need for my research isn’t available online, it’s older than the internet. Additionally, as a scientist, I firmly believe that one must always know where those who walked before came from and how their experiments and thoughts worked. To be a really well-read scientist, and a good researcher, you have to not only be up to date on the most recent publications, but you must know the origination of the ideas. The so-called “classics” are super important. And for the most part, they’re not available online. Additionally, many of the “classics” aren’t the first mentions of the idea, and there’s a LOT of literature around that’s fundamental to our ideas that just doesn’t exist in electronic form. And for my classics class, I had to pull a book out of the library, to look at a paper from 1985, a veritable “classic” that isn’t available online. And the very next paper, was a different perspective, offering a similar conclusion with just a little fundamental difference. One paper ended on the right side of the theory and history. I never would’ve known of about the other one, without having picked up the physical book, and it turned out to be super important to my understanding of the field. Online databases can only take you so far – they’re great for specifics, but if you want to browse for anything, you’re basically out of luck.
Over the past year, I’ve found myself constantly running up to my school’s library to look up important, relevant papers that don’t exist in electronic form. I’ve used countless books and resources in print that just don’t exist in electronic form. Libraries are so incredibly important. Additionally, my school doesn’t have a lot of online subscriptions in my field – and they’re cutting more and more due to “lack of funding”. So for some of these papers, the only version available to me is the print version in the library, or, more often, a begging plea to my friend at a hugely well-funded university.
Finally, I subscribe to Science (the journal), and read it every week, because while it’s great to get exactly what I *need* for my research, I also really like to be able to look and see what’s going on outside of my immediate field, which is super important, because I like to know what’s going on in the rest of the scientific world. The best discoveries in science generally come from those who cross disciplines and think outside the box defined by their own field. When we lose the capability of browsing, we pigeonhole even more than we already are forced to in this day and age. Losing libraries and print journals makes it even worse. And so, I think it is an utter travesty that in this day and age, in academia, the first things to go when budgets are cut are print and online journals, followed by libraries. Sure, some of the stuff is available online, but you have to know EXACTLY what you’re looking for, and we lose every bit of potential expanding of our horizons and our minds, because we no longer have the chance to “stumble upon” anything.
In a field (academia), we are supposed to work to broaden our horizons and our minds, expanding the bounds of human knowledge and understanding. Shouldn’t we know where the boundaries are that we’re supposed to be pushing, where they came from, and not just the one pixel we’re working on ourselves? This is why I firmly believe that even if every single piece of scholarly literature was suddenly freely available online (wouldn’t that be something?), that libraries and print journals are still essential to academic research, regardless of field. Discoveries don’t come by searching for a particular keyword or paper in a database. They come when looking outside, exploring knowledge and ideas, and opening your thoughts. Libraries and print journals facilitate this in a way that is completely unparalleled in anything I’ve seen electronically.
OK, stepping down off of my soapbox now.