Turning Information Oceans into Streams
In his recent book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, James Gleick describes a familiar truth: technology has become so proficient in delivering information that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to find meaning in it all. The phrase “a flood of information” is more than just a metaphor but a daily experience for many of us in academe. Our academic training has helped to some extent by introducing us to strategies like relying on familiar publishers and journals or on the reputations of established scholars and researchers. We attend conferences and engage in conversations where our colleagues share their scholarship and research. But how do we get beyond the familiar sources to discover what else might be “out there”?
Fortunately, discovery tools are available which can serve as “scouts” for scholars venturing forth into unfamiliar territory. None are perfect, but they offer ways of learning about new and exciting developments in our fields. The library's web site has a page about signing up for alerting services, many of which will let you know via e-mail when articles, books, and other materials on the topics of interest have been published. You can specify which journals and databases can be set up to alert you, and target those you are familiar with. You can also use alerting services from interdisciplinary resources which have the potential of introducing you to unfamiliar journals and publishers. Examples of such resources are Web of Science (which does have an Arts & Humanities component), RefAware, and Google Scholar. This last tool has its flaws but shouldn't be dismissed outright; when used together with other tools, it can be quite useful. Like many other universities and colleges, Boston College has enabled Find It links in Google Scholar, making it possible for BC users to retrieve full text articles if they are available in the search results.
Academic libraries around the world are developing another resource which can connect scholars to new material: the institutional repository. Designed to make the research of an institution's scholars freely available on the web, a repository is becoming an important tool for sharing information outside the usual channels of traditional publishing. Just as researchers are familiar with what book publishers and journals are more highly regarded in their discipline, they are also aware of what institutions are producing the more significant work in their field. Periodically checking certain repositories may eventually become part of a scholar's regular workflow. An excellent starting point for exploring the repository world is this page created and maintained by SPARC, an international alliance of academic and research libraries.
Some subject areas also have repositories that were created and are being managed by scholars. Examples include RePec which contains about 1.2 million articles and working papers in economics and related sciences, and arXiv which contains nearly 750,000 electronic preprints in physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, and quantitative finance and statistics. While not a repository itself, PhilPapers provides a page listing the repositories it tracks for papers of possible interest to philosophers. Because it functions as a dynamic bibliography where authors can enter citations to their published works (as well as links to full text if available), PhilPapers also provides an alerting service that can keep scholars up to date about the site's bibliographic contents. Scholars in the social sciences will want to be familiar with Social Science Research Network and its eLibrary of abstracts and downloadable working papers. Given the broadness of its scope, it should be no surprise that an article on public policy titled “What Is Marriage?” is in its repository. It's actually the third most downloaded article (over 12,000 during May 2011 – April 2012).
Last but not least in this inventory of potential tools, RSS feeds can serve to provide updates from a variety of web sources including traditional publications (journals, newspapers, newsletters), blogs, and websites. Often identified by an orange icon appearing somewhere on a web page, this content delivery vehicle can be used with an RSS reader to display incoming information in a way which can be easily browsed. For an example of an RSS link, see the home page for the library's Faculty Publication Highlights series. For more details about RSS feeds, consult the library's page about this tool.
Still overwhelmed? If so, the best strategy would be to contact a Subject Librarian. A session with one of your librarian colleagues could help channel some of that ocean into more manageable streams. By the way, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood is available to the BC community both in print (O’Neill Stacks Z665. G547 2011) and as an e-book for computers, tablets, and e-readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.) via the library’s new OverDrive service.
Head of Collection Development, O'Neill Library