Thursday, March 27, 2008


Your average, sensible person, when faced with a title such as "Library Research and Its Infrastructure in the Twentieth Century," will probably do the wise thing and just slo-o-wly ba-a-ck awa-ay. But this address from Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago was actually pretty interesting. Okay, it was interesting to me, since I have a professional interest in the organization of information.

Abbott was wondering when and why it came about that researchers rarely use librarians' bibliographic tools as heavily as we think they should. By now we are well aware of the glut of information that the internet provides to us; Google's huge failing is that it finds too much stuff, very little of which is relevant to my search. Likewise with card catalogues and other indexes. Researchers had to devise strategies to make sure they were tracking only quality sources, not everything that touched on the topic. Abbott guessed that this development took place in the 1970s, when the number of graduate students exploded. Instead, he traced it back to the interwar period, when centralized libraries began to replace the dedicated departmental libraries.

What happened in the 1920s was that the professors had lost control of the books to the librarians. More important, unlike the scientists whose laboratories were subject to all the same arguments for centralization, the humanists and humanistic social scientists had their research and instructional worlds broken apart. No longer would faculty and graduate students rub shoulders daily in departmental offices and seminar rooms immediately adjacent to a departmental research library with both basic and specialized reference tools as well as a substantial monographic collection. From henceforth, for the faculty, doing research meant going to another building, in which they might or might not have an office or research space; it meant working with general and specialized reference tools now mixed in with all the other reference collections; it meant seeking monographic material interspersed throughout an immense main stack. The days of running down the hall and quickly bringing an important reference tool to one's desk were over.

This then is the crashingly obvious discovery I promised you twenty minutes ago: academics developed new research practices to deal with the centralized, massified libraries forced on them in the 1920s.

1 comment:

James Hanley said...

Very interesting. In Thomas Cronin's Nature's Metropolis (which you bought for me years ago, and I've finally started reading), he mentions using the several science libraries at Yale.

I never thought about it, but maybe centralized libraries are a bad thing. At least at my college, I'm the one who gets to select the books for my discipline.