The Compleat Philosophy Librarian

By Bivens-Tatum, Wayne | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Compleat Philosophy Librarian

Bivens-Tatum, Wayne, Reference & User Services Quarterly

Philosophy can be considered one of the "key" subjects, unlocking as is does much of the theoretical conversations that take place in other fields. It can also be a daunting proposition for librarians trying to develop a collection that is broad enough to capture the subject, yet deep enough to take users beyond a rudimentary level. Wayne Bivens-Tatum, the philosophy and religion librarian at Princeton University, offers a guided tour through the possibilities and must-have's of a basic collection with advice for public librarians and advanced graduate subject specialists. With an expert voice and comforting reassurance, Bivens-Tatum examines the resources and explains not just what to collect but what makes each title useful. Readers who enjoy his clear insight can read more of his ruminations on libraries, reference, and the humanities on his Academic Librarian blog available at academiclibrarian .net. He can be reached at

Philosophy as an area of study is both circumscribed and limitless. As studied in American colleges and universities, philosophy is a very focused field. However, every subject has a philosophical aspect, and some use the term philosophy to mean an entire worldview. In this review, I am limiting myself to philosophy as it is studied in the majority of philosophy departments at Anglo-American universities, that is, the Western philosophical tradition beginning with the ancient Greeks and developing as a more or less coherent body of thought revolving around a family of common questions.

Philosophers, like most scholars in the humanities, rarely seek research help from librarians. There are several reasons for this. First, rather than gather immense amounts of data or read large numbers of books and articles for their research, philosophers tend to analyze a few sources and arguments in great depth. Except for historians of philosophy, philosophers rarely need to do exhaustive searches for information or esoteric archival work because most of what they study is contained in a few books and journals with which they are already familiar. Students of philosophy are usually trained in philosophical analysis and are guided by their professors to both methods and sources of analysis.

Another possible reason that philosophers and philosophy students need less research help is because, for a relatively compact discipline, philosophy has a remarkably robust bibliographic and reference apparatus, and sources are easy to find. The major index to the field is quite good and has competition. There are three major encyclopedias vying for attention, as well as a host of excellent reference tools developed by Oxford, Cambridge, and Blackwell presses among others.

In this column, I will address some maj or tools in philosophy reference, focusing on English-language resources. A librarian with access to all these resources should be able to address almost any research need in philosophy, as well as be able to identify philosophy titles necessary for purchase to build a comprehensive collection. I am including all the sources I consider necessary for a basic, solid philosophy reference collection, but I will note throughout what are essential for different levels of philosophy support.


Philosopher's Index (

The Philosopher's Index bills itself as the "world's most current and comprehensive bibliography of scholarly research in philosophy," and that is undoubtedly true. It has been the standard index for philosophy literature for decades. It indexes over 680 journals and claims to have over 450,000 records. Though it began in 1970, retrospective indexing goes back to 1940. It is published by the Philosophy Information Center and is available by subscription online through Ebsco, OCLC, Ovid, and proQuest. If your library supports a philosophy department, this is a necessary index.

Philosophy Research Index (www.

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The Compleat Philosophy Librarian


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