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The Value of Book Reviews

Yesterday I taught a class on finding book reviews. The professor had specifically asked for this topic, and I was happy to comply, but I was a little at a loss to figure out what I could do other than pointing out the “document type” limiters in different databases, and show the differences between book reviews published in scholarly journals as opposed to trade publications and newspapers. Luckily, one of my colleagues has thought more about this than I have and taught several classes on book reviews, so I shamelessly cribbed her materials and even mooched some of her examples. And although I can take very little credit, the class we built together seemed to go over very well with the students and this faculty member.

Warning: Extreme examples of my inexperience as a librarian and researcher are about to be revealed. Read on at your own risk. I cannot be held responsible for injuries to eyes that have rolled too far back into your head and can no longer be retrieved, or for bruises to heads that have been beaten against computers. Nor can I be held responsible for damage to hardware or software of said computers.

. . .

I learned a whole heck of a lot teaching this class. First of all, I’d never taught for American Studies before, so I spent quite a bit of time simply familiarizing myself with the publications in that field and where their journals get indexed (Academic Search Premier and ProQuest each index the major American Studies journals, in case you’re interested). But the real breakthrough for me came when my colleague and I were working to answer the question: so what? Why would you spend time looking for book reviews given the fact that the vast majority are positive, a good percentage are neutral, and only a tiny fraction are negative? What use could writing governed by such a ritualized style and publication process be other than to give a summary of the work?

Well, it turns, book reviews can be extraordinarily useful. So useful, in fact, that I will be incorporating them into as many classes as possible in the future.

  • These short essays can give clues about where a particular book fits into the field and niches of that field because it’s one of the reviewer’s tasks to say how well or poorly the book works for people in that field.
  • Reviews can also provide clues about the major players in that field. It’s not uncommon for reviewers to compare the author or book to other authors or books in the field or having similar theoretical perspectives. You can find valuable primary and secondary sources this way. You can also look for other things written by the reviewer, since he or she might also be a player in the field.
  • Reviews may highlight was evidence counts as good evidence in the field. Does the reviewer wish so-and-so had consulted census data? Bingo, you know that statistical information holds cache with this group of scholars. Does the reviewer applaud the use of images, or hint that the author should have explored the intersections between this topic and, say, cinematic history? That’s more information for you to consider as you think about your own topic.
  • And you can also find out what disciplines might be interested in a topic by seeing where reviews for the book appear. Mary C Waters’ book Black Identities was reviewed in the year 2000 by Black Issues Book Review (Vickerman 2000) and by the Journal of Economic Literature (McKinnish 2000), just as an example.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Book reviews are chock full of the important buzz words in the field. In my class yesterday we looked at reviews for Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. We found one from the Journal of American Culture (Kay 1999), one from Publisher’s Weekly (“Forecasts” 1998), and one from Entertainment Weekly (Jacobs 1998). Reading from those reviews, we not only came up with lists of disciplines, related topics, and related concepts, but we also came up with a substantial list of search terms which yield really beautiful results about the social history of the beauty culture in America. What fun!

References:

Forecasts: Nonfiction. Publishers Weekly. 245.16 (1998): 57.

Jacobs, Alexandra. “Hope In a Jar.” Entertainment Weekly. 440 (1998): 68.

Kay, Gwen. “Hope in a Jar (Book Review).” Journal of American Culture (01911813). 22.2 (1999): 106.

McKinnish, Terra G. “The New Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals (Book).” Journal of Economic Literature. 42.1 (2004): 201-202.

Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a jar : the making of America’s beauty culture . 1st ed., New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Waters, Mary. Black identities : West Indian immigrant dreams and American realities . New York ;Cambridge Mass.: Russell Sage Foundation ;Harvard University Press, 1999.

Vickerman, Milton. “nonfiction reviews.” Black Issues Book Review. 2.4 (2000): 54.

8 thoughts on “The Value of Book Reviews

  1. I am very happy to report that my eyes, head, and computer are all in excellent shape. I couldn’t find any inexperience.

    The first time I was in library school, I took a course at the university’s School of Music on music bibliography. All the music grad students are required to take the course. The two major assignments for the course were a bibliography on a specific subject and a book review. I had read book reviews before, but I had never really used them. In my Information Access (basic reference) course one semester earlier, I don’t think that book reviews got much mention, if any. Writing a book review was much more valuable to me than just learning what they are, and where to find them. Learning the process of writing a book review, including the proper structure of a book review, is an experience I would want to have the first time I have to write a “real” book review for a journal.

    The one word that ties your post together is context. If I remember correctly, the basic three steps for answering a reference question go something like: 1) Does an appropriate resource possibly exist? 2) Where might the resource be found? 3) What is the likelihood of gaining access to the resource? The use of context fits into most of this process, and context can even create information that is not in a summarized written form. The use of book reviews in one’s research also has a serendipitous effect (one of the nine or so information seeking techniques, according to another course), as you pointed out in points two through four.

  2. Hey, how did you know I was looking for book reviews lately? For many of these reasons … but most specifically to know what others (more qualified?) than I said before I write a very negative critique of a book.

    My problem is that our online resources were acting stupid yesterday morning and I haven’t had a chance to try again, yet.

    Nice job, and thanks for reminding of the various ways I’ll be able to use what I find in my critique.

  3. You’re right, Julian. It’s all about helping students figure out the context, and not just any context but an appropriate and useful context.

    And Mark, I don’t know what the scope of your project is, but the reviews that I found the most interesting were the ones (like the Journal of American Culture review) that fairly situate the book in its theoretical and disciplinary context, and yet point out its shortcomings in terms of important connections not made or evidence not consulted. That author clearly thought the book could have been improved, but was able to also point out it’s merits.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think innovation comes from seeing what other people are doing and learning from their experiences (that whole concept of best practices) I have not been asked to cover book reviews during instruction, but I feel better informed after reading your post.

  5. Hi Andrew. Nice to meet you. And you’re absolutely right. We don’t all have to re-invent the wheel, and isn’t that a good thing! I can’t imagine having to build everything I do from scratch.

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  7. Dag Iris.
    I offered to write a book review for META, the journal of the VVBAD (Flemish Federation of Libraries, Archives and Documentation). Since that will be my first book review I am looking for examples/tutorials/opinions on writing good reviews.
    I subscripted to your blog a few weeks ago and I’m already rewarded with this blogpost. Thanks for that.
    The blogpost and the comments are a big help, but I wonder if one of you knows a good source on writing book reviews?

  8. Hi Tijl,
    Thanks for telling me! I’m glad the post was useful to you. I’ve never written a book review myself, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. Are you a member of the Library Society of the World Friendfeed room? http://friendfeed.com/lsw If not, I’d recommend signing up there and asking your question. There are hundreds of librarians there and it’s a great community. Surely someone will have a good suggestion for you.
    Best,
    Iris

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