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Author: Candace R. Benefiel
Title: Librarians on the World Wide Web and the Field of History: Changing Faces, Changing Places: Historical Research in the Academic Research Library in a Period of Transition
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2000

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Source: Librarians on the World Wide Web and the Field of History: Changing Faces, Changing Places: Historical Research in the Academic Research Library in a Period of Transition
Candace R. Benefiel

vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Article Type: Article

Changing Faces, Changing Places: Historical Research in the Academic Research Library in a Period of Transition

Candace R. Benefiel

The historian and the library have, historically, maintained a long and mutually beneficial relationship. Historians are in the business of creating and preserving a record of past events; libraries are in the business of preserving a record of past events, and of collecting materials vital to future creation of such records. The image of a library as a kind of static and sacrosanct repository of the world's knowledge, however, needs some updating. In the updating, two models seem to be emerging: the old-style notion of what is essentially a warehouse stuffed with books and journals, or the vision of the future, already partially realized through the Internet, of everyone with a terminal connected into some sort of Encyclopedia Galactica, where all information is available anywhere, anytime, at the touch of a finger, and one need never leave one's desk, or talk to another person, to retrieve it. As is usual in such cases, the reality falls somewhere in between. The trick is knowing what has changed about the academic library, as well as what has not, in order to make best use of resources and time.

Once upon a time, finding a book or a journal title in a library was a relatively simple matter. There was a card catalog, and with minor variations, every library's card catalog was pretty much the same, whether you were an elementary school student, a public library user, or at a university. Then several factors combined to make fundamental changes in library cataloging. Librarians realized early on that the computer had enormous potential for libraries in both storing and sharing data. In the early 1980s, many libraries began to move from the card catalog to the online catalog, and while those early electronic catalogs were far from perfect, they have continued to develop, adding features such as keyword, Boolean, and call number access-all features the public card catalog could not duplicate. While the online format limits browsing and the "serendipity factor" of the old cardfile system, this is more than compensated for by keyword searching which removes the artificial limits of a fixed subject vocabulary, and creates access points in many systems such as publisher name and ISBN or ISSN. Newer online catalog systems are now using a Web interface, which frequently add more options for easily refining searches, such as limits by language, type, location or date of materials, and direct links to full-text electronic resources.

Aside from the changeover to online library catalogs, one of the most visible and far-reaching changes to the library (at least from the user's point of view) is the conversion of many indexes, once produced solely in a print format, to electronic database form. Now many of the standard index and abstract sources are purchased by libraries in CD-ROM, on-line, or, more recently, Web-interface format. In some cases, the library will also retain a subscription to the paper version. To assess the appropriateness of a bibliographic source, whether in paper or electronic format, several points must be considered. What are the contents of the source? How is it being made available to library users? If electronic, can it be accessed from outside the library? CD-ROM databases are often linked to a LAN within the building, but are not remotely accessible, whereas Web-interface databases usually can be accessed elsewhere. Is the search engine understandable, and easily usable? One of the best things about Web-interface databases is that most use fairly similar search forms, which are familiar to Internet users. One critical factor is the scope, or dates covered by the database. Researchers, however enamored they may be of using electronic resources, have to be aware that in many cases, coverage of the journal literature goes back no more than a maximum of 20 years, and that pertinent writings on historical topics often require searching through far older materials.

While I do not intend to go through an exhaustive list of bibliographic sources now available electronically and of particular interest to historians, I do want to hit a few high points and recognize the breadth of materials that are out there awaiting the researcher. Among the more traditional of the indexes to scholarly journal literature, America: History and Life, Historical Abstracts, and Wilson's Humanities Abstracts have made successful transitions to a Web-based format. ISI's Web of Science offers Web access to the Social Sciences Citation Index and Arts and Humanities Citation Index, while providing a unique gateway to citation indexing enabling the researcher to more easily find all references in the past 18-20 years to pertinent resources in one step. Since the paper versions of these citation indexes, while representing a monumental achievement in scholarly bibliography, are characterized by tiny print and a cumbersome complexity of use, the ability to access multiple years of these indexes in one search cannot be overstressed as a leap forward in easing the burdens of research. Citation indexing also makes it easier for students to locate citations to promising primary source material by accessing articles on topics of interest and using the bibliographies to ascertain the existence of primary source materials.

Researchers familiar with the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections should welcome the advent of Archives USA, produced by Chadwyck-Healey, a database that identifies archival and special collections by subject, keyword, and geographic location.

FirstSearch's WorldCat is another rich resource of information on both print and manuscript holdings of the nation's major research libraries. Shared cataloging through a computerized nationwide bibliographic utility meant that not only was monographic cataloging more standardized, but that catalogers, freed from the burden of having to create an original record for every book that came into the library, could turn their attention to cataloging of resources unique to their institutions, including archival and manuscript collections. This in turn created a database unparalleled in scope, now numbering over 40 million records, and which is updated daily. In the early 1990s, this database was provided with a more user-friendly search interface and made available to researchers in most research libraries.

Many of you may be familiar with RLIN, the Research Libraries Information Network, an electronic resource that has provided access to holdings (library and archival) of the Research Libraries Group for over 20 years. RLIN also includes an array of other databases, such as the English Short Title Catalog, the National Library of Australia Catalog, and the Deutsche Bibliothek database, as well as over 12 index databases (for example, Hispanic American Periodicals Index ).

Many of you may be familiar with RLIN, the Research Libraries Information Network, an electronic resource that has provided access to holdings (library and archival) of the Research Libraries Group for over 20 years. RLIN also includes an array of other databases, such as the English Short Title Catalog, the National Library of Australia Catalog, and the Deutsche Bibliothek database, as well as over 12 index databases (for example, Hispanic American Periodicals Index ).

Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, is a relatively new database which includes a bibliography of approximately 230,000 records from the complete runs of more than 400 scholarly journal titles pertaining to the Middle Ages and Renaissance (400-1700), as well as a bibliography, now in development, of approximately 46,000 records encompassing monographs, material published in monographs, and collected essays. For those previously accustomed to using the International Medieval Bibliography in print, this database fills a much-needed niche.

The International Medieval Bibliography is now also available on CD-ROM, and the publisher, Brepols, describes its database on their web page as "over 270,000 medieval entries from over 5000 miscellany volumes and drawn from the regular coverage of over 4000 periodicals" since 1967, making the databases of very comparable size, but with several significant differences. Iter indexes complete runs of journals, and picks up citations from well back into the 19th century, for which other indexing may not be easily found. On the other hand, the International Medieval Bibliography covers 4000 journals as opposed to Iter's 400+ titles. The question of Web access as opposed to networked CD-ROM is another issue for debate with these two sources. While the yearly subscription cost for Iter is well under $1000, the International Medieval Bibliography is 3 to 4 times as expensive (depending on the exchange rate), and the subscription cost does not include the equipment and labor costs associated with CD-ROMs. Both of these databases have very good points, and in an ideal world, a library, especially one used by many researchers in medieval history, subscriptions to both might be needed. For less intensive research use, Iter may be the database of choice.

Brepols, incidentally, also produces several full text CD-ROMs of considerable interest to the medieval historian, including the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (eMGH), a collection of texts in Latin on German history; the Papal Letters; and the Cetedoc Library of Christian Latin Texts.

Half the trick in using databases effectively lies in identifying the best databases to use in researching a specific topic, and this is an area where the reference librarian can be of invaluable assistance. Another help in identifying appropriate resources are library Web pages, which may contain links to a wide array of electronic sources, and other Internet sites, such as the Labyrinth, a Worldwide Web Server for Medieval Studies, or Perseus Project, an Evolving Digital Library on Ancient Greece A really interesting and eclectic, if disorganized, listing of history resources on the Web can be found at As a research tool, its disorganization limits its usefulness, but it does provide an overview of the types of history-related Web sites that have proliferated in recent years.

Librarians, accustomed to assisting researchers onsite with print and electronic databases, have been concerned that the level of help available to users of electronic resources through remote access should be as high. To that end, the help sheets that most libraries produce to assist users are frequently put online and made available through the library's Web page.

Another change in the field of electronic sources recently has been the expansion of options for retention of citations. The old days of taking notes manually or photocopying references from print indexes are largely past, and while printing or downloading to disk from cd-rom or online databases has been available for some years, many databases now offer the option of e-mailing citation sets, and increasingly we are seeing the ability to click through to electronic full text of journal articles. Another attractive feature becoming more common is what librarians refer to as a "hook to holdings," where a database, which may contain citations to many materials not held by a particular library, will indicate if a given journal is available at that library. This is a feature much loved by students, who are often working against tight deadlines (or have procrastinated on doing the research for their projects), and do not have the time that interlibrary loans may require for delivery of materials.

Many scholars have seized with glee upon the electronic journals that have recently made an appearance over the academic horizon. E-journals provide full text, frequently including tables and illustrations, directly on the researcher's desktop, and eliminate the tedious chore of running down a print copy and photocopying articles. They are never at the bindery, checked out, locked up in the Interlibrary Loan Office, missing the one article you need, or just plain not on the shelf. They are available on holidays and weekends, and in the wee small hours of the night. What's not to like?

Libraries over the past few years have been struggling with several issues regarding electronic serials. While most feel that the concept is laudable, librarians and others have worried about long-term availability of e-journals, particularly those that appear only in electronic format. We like to feel that someone will always have that material in a lasting form, and we hesitate to cancel print subscriptions to our journals, lest we someday find that the electronic version has vanished, leaving us with an irreplaceable gap in our collections. This is seen as particularly important in the liberal arts, where journal articles tend to have a much longer useful life that those in the sciences.

Variants of the electronic journal can be problematic. The majority of electronic journals made available through libraries are essentially digital copies of print publications, but there exist a growing number of electronic-only journals, which again raise the issue of archival copies. Libraries are reluctant to purchase subscriptions to journals that may evaporate without a trace. Even more than with electronic copies of print journals (where librarians can be certain that some library, somewhere, has a paper copy) these cyberjournals seem potentially ephemeral.

Technical questions regarding cataloging of electronic journals have also arisen. While many libraries have maintained a list of available electronic journals on the library Web page, in many cases the sheer size of the list has made its utility limited. No one wants to scroll through a list of 500 journals all beginning "Journal of....", yet there has also been a reluctance to provide full cataloging records for resources that may prove ephemeral.

The cost to libraries of electronic journals has also been at issue, since in many cases, the availability of the electronic version of a journal is tied to continuation of a subscription to the print version, which saves the library neither money nor space. Also, many electronic journals are not available as separate subscriptions, but come as part of a package, where all journals produced by a publisher are included, or a set of journals from different publishers, but with a common focus, are available.

As with so many other electronic resources, the majority of the electronic journals first made available were focussed on the science, engineering and business subject areas. Electronic journal packages in the Humanities are proliferating, but at this time still have serious drawbacks for the scholar, due to limitations in both title coverage and date ranges. For example, JSTOR, which covers the journals in its database from their earliest issues forward, is great, but is very limited in number of journals it covers, and misses current issues. Project MUSE, on the other hand, covers a similarly limited number of journals, but only for the last several years, missing many early volumes in most titles. Use of either of these electronic journal packages will not substitute for an exhaustive search of the journal literature.

When e-journals appeared, could e-books be far behind? Apparently not, as netLibrary now demonstrates, offering a collection of books which members can "check out" electronically to read from their own terminals. While most of these are digitized copies of print works, soon we will be seeing books published only electronically. Is this a sign that Western civilization is now coming to an end? Is the printed book dying? Once again, probably not for a while. It does mean that bibliographers will have to find means to cite e-books and e-journals intelligibly, and it also means that libraries will be devoting yet more of their materials budget to books and journals that are not actually housed on campus.

Digitizing texts, however, can prove a great boon to students. Undergraduates are being empowered to access materials once available only to scholars willing to make journeys to libraries across the country, or across the world. An offshoot of this is the rise in popularity of electronic reserve. Those of you who can recall sitting in college library reserve rooms, waiting for the one copy of an assigned reading to be turned in, or plowing through readings at inconvenient times, in uncongenial settings, should be heartened that today's students do not necessarily have to suffer through the same fate. In many cases, assigned readings can be digitized and made available through a library's Web site, so students can print their own copies or read at terminals whenever they find it convenient. While this does not work for entire books, it is very suitable for articles or chapters, and requires no more effort on the part of the faculty than traditional reserve, since the library is generally responsible for scanning the material and mounting it on their electronic reserves Web page. The one caveat with a system of this type is that the quality of digitized readings is not always as high as one might hope, and in some cases this makes the material difficult to read or reproduce.

In terms of optimizing research, both for faculty and students, it is obvious that the academic library has far more to offer now than was previously the case. The problem, in fact, may be a surfeit of information in print and electronic formats. This makes it all the more crucial to teach students some of the basics, such as the difference between primary and secondary sources. It is also important to differentiate for students between using Web interface library resources, such as the bibliographic databases, and Internet sites that may not be authoritative. Too many instructors, fearing what erroneous information their students may turn up using Yahoo or other general Web search engines, forbid students from using the Internet, which can lead students to be reluctant to use perfectly legitimate library resources. This is frustrating for the students, who find themselves unable to locate adequate information, to the librarians, who are trying to assist the students, and, I would imagine, to the instructors who receive poorly researched papers as an unintended result. Your library may already have handouts on evaluating Web sites, on scholarly vs. popular periodicals, and so on.

One of the best resources to be found in the library is your librarian. As academic libraries focus increasingly on liaison to departments, librarians are becoming more specialized and focussed on providing service to faculty in a closer relationship than ever before. There is a good chance that someone in the library is assigned as a subject specialist for the history department; there may be more than one history specialist. As a resource, this librarian is usually responsible for such things as ordering books in an assigned subject area, providing bibliographic instruction as requested by an assigned department, and serving as a resource for specialized questions in the field that may arise, whether through the reference desk or directly from faculty and students in the department. Some of the ways you can best utilize this resource are: find out who your librarian is; bring your classes in for specialized instructional sessions on using library resources for specific class assignments; request books or other materials you would like to see the library purchase; be proactive in asking about services you would like to see, or reporting problems or questions; work on assignment development with the librarian prior to sending your class over to use the library.

The library today is changing constantly, and it is unrealistic to expect that as a faculty member you have time to keep up with every change that may affect your research or that of your students. Your librarian, however, is supposed to know what has changed, and can be an essential source of information on current availability of sources and services.

It seems unlikely that the library as we now know it, with its eclectic mixture of traditional print, archival, and electronic resources, will vanish in our lifetimes, but it is almost as certain that the changes of the past decade will continue to characterize the library environment. Certainly the trend is toward making more and more materials available to the researcher via the Internet.

As a reference librarian, the tendency I see from the students and faculty I deal with, however, is to place too much reliance on electronic resources. For a researcher to do as thorough a job as possible, it is now necessary to use both electronic and more traditional resources in combination. In other words, do what you can from your desktop, but don't stop there. As a researcher, staying current means retaining a flexibility of outlook. Make use of the skills of your librarians to guide you through the changing landscape of available sources.

Candace R. Benefiel
Senior Humanities Reference Librarian
Sterling C. Evans Library
Texas A&M University