Access To-And Impact Of-Book Reviews
Henige, David, African Research & Documentation
The authors of the set of essays on various aspects of reviewing recently published in ARD (no. 102 :13-35) argue en ensemble that reviews continue to fill a function in scholarly communications-an unofficial system of checks and balances that can and often does set limits on how cases are presented to the public. I am less convinced of this than the authors, at least as to their value in the library acquisitions process. At any rate, the greater their value, the greater the need to optimize the production and reception by launching a number of reforms that would have the effect of providing this argument with grounds that could make it even stronger.
Book reviews have long been touted as a means to influence institutional purchasing, not only of scholarly books but of all books. Focusing on the former, it strikes me that this could never have been much the case. In the days of print monopoly, substantive reviews appeared long after the books being reviewed did-anything less than a year could be considered almost miraculous. Sure, there were a few prominent organs (Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, etc.) designed to do nothing other than publish reviews, sometimes even before the books appeared in the marketplace. These still exist and still serve the same purpose, but then and even more so now, only a tiny fraction of published works could be attended to, and there was and is no reason to assume that this tiny fraction contained a disproportionate number of especially significant books, although being reviewed in these organs might have made them significant after the fact.
Nowadays, of course, rather than holding a monopoly, print seems barely to be hanging on, derided by many as inadequate in the face of competing electronic formats. These have the capacity to offer book reviews more quickly than before and at whatever length a reviewer expounds but, like the TLS and others, the electronic review tools seem satisfied to publish only a few reviews, and very few works get multiple reviews across the band of electronic resources.
So, while it is probably incorrect to argue that no research libraries depend on reviews to decide what to buy and what not to, it is surely the case that most such libraries, even those with qualified subject specialists, have accepted the obvious-and the expedient-and handed the task of supplying materials, especially university press publications, over to megaproviders such as Blackwell and YBP, under the hardly unreasonable assumption that these titles have already been vetted extensively enough to accept a priori that they belong in research library collections. By the time reviews of these imprints do appear, they have long since been acquired by libraries working under the assumption that they were fair grist for their mills. As to trade publications, expectations are lower, but materials are often ordered on the basis of prepublication announcements and the like, in which the only 'reviews' are the blurbs by friends of the authors that can often be found on die book jacket flap or back cover.1
In the circumstances it strikes me as highly inadvisable for libraries to wait on several reviews of a work before deciding whether to buy it, as apparently is the case at Rhodes House Library. Even with high-speed review organs such as Choice, it should be many months, and could be many years, before this occurs. Indeed, it is known to be the case that many, maybe most, academic tomes never receive as many as three reviews.2 This fact of life has little relationship to their quality, their price, or their promotion, but rather to the vagaries of the review process, not the least of which is available space and interest.3 Thus waiting for multiple reviews of any book could also be a case of waiting for Godot. And then what to do if the balance of the reviews is neither positive nor negative?
On the other hand, that reviews provide "a significant amount of intellectual capital" that can prime librarians to meet the after-purchase needs of their users is less exceptionable, although it is worth distinguishing in this between reviews in library journals (usually terse and intended for librarians) and journals within the relevant disciplines. …