Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Oxford Guide to Library Research by Thomas Mann

A world of information is your oyster
I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in library and information science. The introduction to The Oxford Guide to Library Research was assigned as a supplemental reading for one of my courses. I liked what author Charles Mann had to say and decided to read the entire book, both for my own benefit as a student and for the benefit of my future library patrons. It should be clarified up front that the libraries being discussed here are research libraries. Usually this means an academic library at a college or university, but also includes private institutions and governmental libraries such as the Library of Congress, where Mann works. I purchased the 2015 ebook edition. Not only was it far less expensive than the required textbook for my course, it also proved to be vastly more beneficial.

Mann’s approach to this research guide is unique. Instead of categorizing his research lessons by topic area or type of information resource, he has organized the chapters by search method. For example, he covers searching by Library of Congress subject headings, by database descriptors, by keywords, by citations, and by browsing bookshelves. Mann covers many online resources, but few of them are free and open to the general public. Most are only available to users who log in through their library’s website. In addition to what’s on the web, there’s plenty of research material that’s not available online at all, and Mann recommends print resources when applicable, such as reliable print bibliographies or archival materials. Mann tells you what resources are the best, where to find them, and how to find what you’re looking for within them. He even reminds us of one source of information we often forget: actually talking to knowledgeable people.

At first I wasn’t crazy about Mann’s presentation. At the front of the book there are lengthy lists and descriptions of academic databases. I think I would be better off just exploring the list on my university’s website. The farther I got into the book, however, the more impressed I was by Mann’s recommendations. I learned a lot from his chapter on crafting search queries, which goes way beyond the typical Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT. He opened my eyes to a wealth of available information resources of which I was previously unaware and can’t wait to dig into.

This book is packed with useful information, but the writing can wear on you with its redundancy. Mann argues that brick-and-mortar libraries have an immensely greater breadth and depth of information to offer researchers than what’s available on the internet. He also asserts that the search methods he describes yield much more targeted results than simply entering a keyword into the search box on Google. I wholeheartedly agree with Mann on both these points, but I didn’t need them hammered home four or five times each chapter. Another unfortunate mark against this book is that it is riddled with typographical errors. Apparently Oxford is using spell check for its proofreading, because countless instances of subject-verb disagreements and missing or duplicated two- and three-letter words went unnoticed. These errors don’t hamper the reader’s understanding, but they do annoy.

Despite my complaints, this book really has a lot to offer. It will prove extremely valuable for incoming undergraduate students who are clueless about what academic libraries have to offer. It will also greatly benefit doctoral and professional researchers looking to track down every last source on a given subject. I wish this book had been a required text for my reference services class in library school. It’s a must-read for any academic librarian or any student serious about research.
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