Monday, December 11, 2006

Article Note: On the value of scholarly book reviews

Citation for the article:

Dilevko, Juris,, "Investigating the Value of Scholarly Book Reviews for the Work of Scholarly Book Reviews for the Work of Academic Reference Librarians." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32.5 (September 2006): 452-466.

I read this via ScienceDirect.

This blog's readers probably know that I read a good number of academic articles (along with a lot of other things). I also read and/or scan a lot of book reviews. Much of is for collection development, but I also like reading some of the review essays where they discuss four to six books on a topic. I often find such review essays helpful in getting a better sense of scholarship in a particular field. For me then, this article provided a little validation for that.

  • The authors cite Lynn Westbrook on what faculty members expect of librarians. I liked the statement, so here it goes: "'I need a librarians to ask questions to get me to see my research focus in a different light' or a librarian who can help find 'a way to conceptualize my problem. . .[by] talking through the idea and getting her response and knowledge.' In short, faculty members want librarians who can make significant intellectual contributions to their projects, not just undertake print or electronic searches--whether simple or complex-- for needed materials" (452).
The article considers whether reading and analyzing scholarly book reviews can help librarians acquire better subject knowledge. The study began with an assignment for LIS Humanities and Social Science students to find a number of substantive scholarly book reviews. They would then make notes of any trends and scholarly issues learned from the reviews to write overviews on their particular field of interest. Their overviews on popular music and southern literature, two of their various topics, were then sent to experts for evaluation.

So, what did the authors find?

  • "Despite the many and varied ways in which each student chose his or her 20 scholarly book reviews, all groups produced work that demonstrated that a careful reading of scholarly book reviews within a selected field can provide a thorough understanding of the parameters of and current issues in that particular academic field" (454).
  • Note that the proof-of-concept questionnaire they refer to is the tool given to the professors evaluating the overviews. "The results of the proof-of-concept questionnaire demonstrate that systematic and careful reading of scholarly book reviews can result in a detailed knowledge of the contours of a given academic subject area, allowing librarians to grasp important issues in a subject area, giving them insights into new ways of thinking about that subject area, and providing them with material with which they can generate new ideas and concepts that may ultimately be useful to researchers" (460).
  • There is a catch: "To be sure, the depth of knowledge that can result from reading scholarly book reviews depends on the degree of commitment and seriousness with which academic librarians approach the reading of these reviews" (460).
  • However, there is also the quality of the review. Keep in mind that for most professors, book reviewing is pretty much a low priority endeavor. It lacks the prestige of a well placed peer reviewed article or publishing a book in terms of reputation and tenure. Therefore, the authors are able to say the following: "The quality of the review also depends on the seriousness with which the scholar approaches the writing of the review, and the amount of time that the scholar devotes to crafting the review" (461). The authors also mention that often these reviews come out months and years long after the book is out and circulating. Again, it is a low priority for professors, so getting them to review, let alone do it in a timely fashion can be challenge.
So, which academic librarians would get the most benefit from reading scholarly reviews? Well, it turns out it is librarians like me.

  • "This activity would be especially helpful to librarians in small and mid-size colleges and universities where there are typically few professional librarians, each of whom has a wide array of diverse responsibilities, including collection development, liaison, and reference work, for many areas and fields" (461).
Finally, the article does include the list of the examined book reviews and the questionnaire tool.

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