Of databases, directories, and despair

November 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m sort of obsessed with scholarly databases. I casually drop their names in conversations with students and colleagues the way people at cocktail parties make offhand references to short-lived bands of genius, NYRB  Classics, and character actors from the 1930s.*

“You should check out SSRN,” I’ll tell some student researching prostitution in Hong Kong.

“The what?”

“Oh, just the Social Science Research Network,” I say breezily, “and it even publishes working papers.”

“Publishes what papers?”

With the right dash of nonchalance, I tell the undergraduate that working papers are scholarly articles not quite ripe for journal submission. Their authors share the research in hopes that peers in the field will point out the fatal statistical error on page 26 or say things like “You really must read Eric Hobsbaum on social banditry.” Then, voice lowered to gossip range, I aim to shock and thrill. By the time most journal articles see the light of day, I say, their research and sources could be, well, a little on the stale side. If you want freshness, I nod knowingly, try working papers.

By the way, my relationship with SSRN is entirely superficial. As is my relationship with most online databases, excepting really important ones in my field: Early English Books Online (EEBO), the English Short-Title Catalog (ESTC), and British History Online (BHO), which I visit regularly for dissertation purposes. (Even so, deep in my soul I know my old friends have unseen depths–undreamed of keywords, unknown search combinations, untried delimiters.)

But even though I’m not as chummy with databases like British Humanities Index (BHI) or Archive Grid as I’d like to pretend, I sure like knowing something about them. In truth, passing familiarity with databases is all we can hope for these days, even the reference librarians among us.**

That’s why I was drawn to Henrietta Thornton-Verma’s review, in Library Journal, of the year’s best databases. And was absurdly happy, after scrolling down, to discover its sidebar–the “Database Cheat Sheet”–by reference librarian Michael F. Bemis, of Woodbury, Minnesota, who writes,

It’s a given that librarians are adept at database navigation, but with the number of digital information storehouses proliferating at an exponential rate, just finding the appropriate source to search can be a daunting task. Herewith, then, are a few tools I’ve found to be helpful in this regard.

Why might Mr. Bemis’s cheat sheet be helpful for scholars of early modern British history? Through no fault of their own, sometimes your old friends just can’t deliver the information you need. I don’t know about you, but when that happens I feel like a deserted Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind weeping “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” into her hanky.

That’s why Mr. Bemis’s brief sidebar might be helpful, if only a reminder that you needn’t weep. What you may need is a good directory of databases, the kind of resource you find in the reference section of your library, the one with all the fat, boring-looking volumes. “Some of the most useful but underused tools in a researcher’s repertoire,” says Jenny L. Presnell, in The Information-Literate Historian, “saving time as well as opening up new avenues of knowledge” (19). Besides their “dry as dust” reputation, another reason for the underuse of directories and other reference resources is format. Though reference e-books are on the rise, most works exist only in print or CD-ROM, which necessitates your physical presence in a library, seems like an awful expenditure of time, and means that you can’t wear your pajamas all day.

I’m awfully partial to my pajamas, too. But a brief acquaintance with a directory of databases might just save you from walking away from your article, research paper, thesis, or dissertation, muttering, “Frankly, I don’t give a damn.” Plus, if you’re a know-it-all, you’ll have picked up a few other names to drop.

*E.g., Rockpile, John William’s Stoner, and Wallace Beery. I’m afraid I’m those other tiresome people, too.

**A book recommendation for those who admire or aspire to be reference librarians: This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cyrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. I thank Irina Rogova, historian and aspiring librarian and historian, for giving it to me.

Work Cited

Presnell, Jenny L. The Information-Literate Historian (New York. Oxford U P, 2012). Print.


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