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An Intelligent Guide to Intelligent Research
The Oxford Guide to Library Research
Reviewed by Ulli Diemer
Although the Oxford Guide to Library Research contains much detailed advice about where to find information, it far more than a how-to book. What Thomas Mann has written is a first-rate guide to how to think about research and how to formulate strategies for answering research questions.
Mann draws on his experience as a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, as an academic and freelance researcher, and as a private detective, to identify patterns in research behaviour, patterns in the types of questions that are asked, in the unconscious assumptions that are made about what can be done and what is available, patterns in bad advice researchers receive, and patterns in the mistakes and omissions that researchers make that reduce the efficiency of their research.
He stresses the importance of being versatile and systematic in pursing research questions, of making sure that you have considered all the possible avenues. He considers the strengths and weaknesses of both "real" and "virtual" libraries, and while he is clear about the value of the Internet for doing research, he is nonetheless at pains to debunk the notion that everything can now be found online. Not only is "everything" not available online, but it never will be. He points out that the Library of Congress alone has some 20 million volumes on its shelves, with more than 1,000 being added every working day, and that virtually none of this collection is available electronically or ever will be.
The Guide's primary focus is research methods, with nine different methods being considered. Each method: controlled vocabulary searching, keyword searching, citation searching, searching through published bibliographies, Boolean combination searching, using the subject expertise of people sources, browsing and scanning subject-classified bookstacks, related-record searching, and types of literature searching, is considered at length, with attention paid to pitfalls to avoid as well as what strategies are likely to be successful. Each chapter is clear, informative, and full of wisdom.
This is far from being a dry tome about academic drudgery: Mann combines common sense and a dry wit to make this an enjoyable book to read or to dip into at random. Where else would one learn what Neils Horrebow's Natural History of Iceland has to say in its entry "Concerning Owls", which reads, in full, "There are no owls of any kind in the whole island" or find the introduction to Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words (new and expanded edition), by Mrs. Byrne's ex-husband: "Working alone and without government support (or even comprehension) she managed to assemble the six thousand weirdest words in the English language. Nobody asked her to do it because nobody thought such a thing was possible. In fact, I asked her not to do it."
As bibliophiles are glad that Mrs. Byrne completed her self-assigned
task, so researchers can be glad that Thomas Mann completed his.
Published in the Summer 2000 issue Sources, (Issue #46).