Thinking about Library Literature

By Crawford, Walt | Online, November-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Thinking about Library Literature


Crawford, Walt, Online


I believe that gray literature--blogs, ejournals, and some lists--represents the most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today. To a great extent, the formal literature now serves as history, explication, formal results of formal research studies, and background. The action is in the informal literature.

I don't think I would have said that a decade ago, and maybe not 5 years ago. If I had aspirations to be a respected scholar, I might not say it today.

"Compelling and worthwhile" doesn't necessarily imply scholarly or authoritative. Are blogs either scholarly or authoritative? A good question, one I may not be qualified to answer.

CONTROVERSIAL?

The four paragraphs above (with slight changes) began "Perspective: On the Literature," the lead essay in the August 2007 Cites & Insights. At the time, I thought it was a controversial lead for a controversial issue. It was also what I believed.

I was wrong on one count: The essay raised little controversy, although it did generate feedback. The essay was well read, with more than 5,000 downloads through June 2008, so it isn't that people didn't see it--it's that, by and large, they agreed.

I believe I was right in my conclusion: The gray literature of librarianship is the most compelling, worthwhile, and--I'll add--important literature in the field at this point. I doubt that librarianship is the only field where this is true--where the gray literature has become more compelling, worthwhile, and important than the formal literature. Think of fields where practice may count for more than formal research, where changes in real-world conditions tend to outrun the review-and-publish cycle of scholarly literature, and where academic recognition of change may lag behind the realities of the field.

MORE THAN A DICHOTOMY

It's not as simple as gray literature on one side and refereed scholarly journals on the other. Consider the magazine you're holding. It's part of the literature of librarianship, but, as with American Libraries and Library Journal, it's neither gray literature nor scholarly literature.

Articles here aren't refereed and don't generally follow scholarly patterns, but they are more likely to be edited carefully (maybe even fact-checked) than most of the gray literature. You'd expect the tone here to be less formal than journals but more formal than typical gray literature. ONLINE and similar trade magazines also typically have shorter lead times than most scholarly journals--but much longer lead times than most gray literature.

What about books? Books within the field can have even longer lead times than scholarly journals--it's rare to see a book emerge less than a year after the writer completes the manuscript. But books make statements that articles and posts don't.

Situations can change, to be sure:

* It's possible to reduce the publication lag for scholarly articles to zero, by changing from a traditional issueoriented print journal to an overlay electronic model, where articles appear online as soon as they're fully reviewed and edited. That doesn't eliminate the time needed for proper peer review, revision, editing, and markup--and it doesn't eliminate the extra time involved in preparing a traditional scholarly article.

* Some gray literature isn't immediate. Some bloggers report spending days or weeks on a post to get it just the way they want. Some articles in Cites & Insights are delayed for months, and other articles deliberately cover material gathered over a period of a year or more. It's possible that some people prepare list posts offline and edit them for a long period, although that seems rare.

* There have been instabooks for many years--books published within a few days of the events they cover--and, given print-on-demand/publish-on-demand technology, self-publishers can have a book ready to sell within a day of completing the manuscript, if they've been adding index entries as they go and writing within a book template. …

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