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Scholars Index Their Own Literature

This year I’ve been shamelessly cribbing off one of my co-workers who’s mantra is “scholars index their own literature.” At first, I didn’t know what she meant, but the more I work with the idea, the more I absolutely love it, especially for the “softer” areas of study where traditional indexing falls short (yes, I’m thinking of the MLA International Bibliography, here).

Here’s the idea, indexers can give a general sense of the primary topics of a given article. Scholars, however, make use of other scholars’ work as it relates to their own work. The web of citations that builds as each area cites relevant works is often a much richer, much more crafted set of interrelations than any result set is. (Incidentally, this is where dissertations are a great help, since part of a dissertator’s project is to map his field and place himself within that field… jackpot for those looking for a starting place in the web of interconnections.)

The problem is that tracing this web of interrelations also takes a whole lot longer than plunking keywords into a bibliographic database and clicking “Search.” Still… if there’s time, and especially if direct searching isn’t working, this is one of those other options that can, sometimes, pay off.

Now I just need to figure out how to explain this succinctly to freshmen. “Scholars index their own literature” doesn’t make much sense when “index” and “literature” are jargon within the scholarly community.

Published inIn My Classroom


  1. Mark Mark

    Iris, I really, really want to argue you with you about the following: “when “index” and “literature” are jargon within the scholarly community.”

    But I cannot because in the end you are by default correct. In a more technical sense, though, I vehemently disagree. The “fact” that they are jargon in the scholarly community is due to an utter failure of our K-12 educational community.

    Both of these terms should be well understood by any child once they have reached somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade. In fact, I’m not sure I’m even going to agree with my agreeing with you regarding indexing. Children use books in school (and elsewhere) every day that have indexes. Now the indexes you are talking about are of a different sort but they are direct siblings, far closer than first cousins, if you will.

    In the end, you face the same task as you do now. In my opinion, that task is to educate ill-prepared, and in effect illiterate, students into the tools and concepts required of them to succeed in an institution of higher education and in life.

    Librarians are educators in some sense, but we should not be required to provide the education that students should have received years previously (neither should profs be required to).

    So, while these two terms are jargon, in a strict definitional sense, I disagree that they are (or at least should be) jargon of academe alone.

    Sorry. This is mighty close to a recent thread on AUTOCAT over terminology and “our” ways of doing things that are foreign to our users. Not because we do something foreign but because many [most?] of our users are uneducated in basic ideas in the organization of, well, pretty much anything.

  2. Steve Lawson Steve Lawson

    I like bibliotecaria’s suggestion, but I’d like to take up Mark’s ideas for a moment.

    I think I agree with Mark when I say that “index” and “literature” aren’t so much jargon–i.e., overly technical or obscure language that is used as a sign of belonging to a group–as they are useful and precise words that should be understood by any educated people. The fact that they are not so shouldn’t stop us from using them, and I think that a pithy and useful statement like “scholars index their own literature” might be just the way to get students to understand and own those words.

    You wanna talk jargon? How about “database,” a word that only librarians use with quite that meaning and those associations. I’d like to give a big raspberry to the generation of librarians who threw away the perfectly good word “index” and replaced it with “database.”

  3. Esha Esha

    Hey Iris,

    Here’s more food for thought:

    From their website: “ThoughtMesh is an unusual model for publishing and discovering scholarly papers online. It gives readers a tag-based navigation system that uses keywords to connect excerpts of essays published on different Web sites.”

    Not spamming…as you know…I have no affiliation with them. We’re looking into it as potential for some of our own projects here.

    To trot out the old 2.0 idea…indexing 2.0??


  4. Iris Iris

    Mark, I don’t think “index” and “literature” are on the same jargon level as “OPAC” or “database” (are there 9 levels of jargon just like hell? Is OPAC on the 9th level?). But just like the word “information” can be used to mean many things but means something rather more specific in library land, so also words like “literature” are deceptively easy to understand. Student’s THINK they know what “literature” means… it means that great fiction writing stuff that their teachers go on and on about, right? But scholars (especially in, ahem, Literary Studies and the like) slip in and out of using it to mean that and to mean “the body of work that scholars produce in a given field.” So while I’m certainly not opposed to using the term with my students, I’m also wary because it’s one of those words that students may think they know and therefore won’t interrogate when I use it slightly out of it’s accustomed context. They won’t think to wonder what I might mean. (And yes, I’m thinking more of underclassmen, but that’s my primary population in these departments.) The same goes for “index.” Students will have been very accustomed to it meaning “the thing at the back of the book.” It’s too familiar of a word for my purposes.

    Thanks, bibliotecaria and Esha!

    And yes, Steve. I squirm a little bit inside every time I use “database.” I don’t use it with my students when I can help it, but I’ve given myself free license to use it here, just cuz. But man… talk about a term that has somewhat competing jargon definitions AND no connection to students’ understanding of research.

  5. Mark Mark

    Iris, I fully agree that there is an issue with these 2 senses of both of these terms.

    My point–perhaps where I begin to get elitist [I don’t think so though]–is that not a single student should be in college/university, esp. one like Carelton, without knowing the difference and being able to code switch, if you will, in context, or ask.

    The other half of the point is that it is our educational system which has failed them and not that they are stupid/failures/etc.

    I realize that it makes your job harder but someone has to educate them as to what these terms mean. And I do not think that it is only academia that uses these two in this way. Are we saying students in K-12 never ever use Readers Guide to Periodical Literature anymore? [Adds another jargon word to the mix.]

    IMNSHO, there is NO excuse for this state of affairs. But I am sorry that the difficulty falls to you. :(

  6. Iris Iris

    Well… I know my siblings never used Readers Guide. In fact they still haven’t, and the youngest is now a rising senior in college. So yes, I think that the vast, vast majority of K-12 students do not use print indexes any more. In fact, I haven’t used it myself since we got the online version. And nowhere on the interfaces of these online versions of print indexes do they use the word “index.” The only place my students have seen that word is at the top of a books’ index, which leads them to associate it with a very narrow definition of the word.

    And I should say that I believe part of my job is to help students learn these terms. I don’t want to shield them from jargon entirely. I just want a way of explaining myself in those situations when I don’t have the time to teach vocabulary. Every class I prioritize out 99% of the content that could be useful to my students. Sometimes, depending on the students’ level and their assignment, vocabulary makes the cut. Much of the time, though, it’s left standing in the rain along with a whole host of other important research concepts ranging from Attribution to Catalog Searching. My best hope is that, as I work more and more closely with professors departments, I can vary the critical competencies from assignment to assignment or class to class in the hopes that, over the course of a program or major, my students arrive at their senior thesis with at least some familiarity with the full complement of critical research practices.

    I guess what I’m saying is that regardless of who “should” be teaching these things (never a discussion that ends well, in my experience), I find myself perfectly positioned to do it now. I therefore want to do a good job of it, and part of doing a good job is knowing when and how to present students with unfamiliar terms or unfamiliar uses of familiar terms. I don’t claim to have figured that process out. Not by a long stretch. But the last thing I want is to derail an already overwhelming session by using terms that will cause more confusion (and complacency, stemming from a false sense of understanding) than clarity.

  7. librarygoon librarygoon

    Great discussion! Only one thought… all language is “elitist” at some level and removal of all jargon is impossible. When the jargon is used to limit access or justify a sense of superiority, then everyone begins to suffer.

  8. Mark Mark

    Iris, I hope I haven’t given the impression that I disagree with anything in your last comment regarding what or how you do your job. I even like the concept that is your title, even if others also index scholarly literature.

    And you are probably right about discussions of whose responsibility it is to teach these things–all of us, esp. as the situation is –not ending well. But as you know me, that “truth” is irrelevant in the larger picture. It is certainly relevant to how the discussion is approached and handled. But, nonetheless, the provision of the education of our young is all of our responsibility, whether or not we are directly involved in that education, parents or not, etc.

    As you might guess, for me these are ethical issues. In fact, critical ones. And whether or not the word “index” is used on or in the Reader’s Guide seems quite irrelevant to me, as does paper vs. online use. How (or even why) are people teaching its use (if they are) without pointing out that it is an index?

    I do trust that you know far more about the educational and reference needs of current undergraduate students than do I. But I will not cede my right to my views on what I believe to be (some of the) proper education of the young in our society. But it is the failures of much earlier in the system that leads you to the situation in which you find yourself and your students. As it stands, I am overjoyed that they have you and others like you to do whatever triage and remedial education as you can as you attempt to influence the larger goal(s).

    Be well, my friend. :)

  9. Iris Iris

    You’re absolutely right, Goon. Getting rid of all jargon is impossible. Sometimes I find that comforting and sometimes frustrating.

    And of course, Mark, I know you’re not questioning my teaching. I’m just thinking through two issues you’ve brought up that I’d never thought about before: whether or not I think kids should get this education primarily in K-12 (I, myself, didn’t learn the broader meaning of “index” until well into college), and whether or not I should re-think my current reluctance to make this a teaching point in my classes.

    Currently, I do not usually explain that many of our databases are indexes. This may be a failure on my part. I’ll have to think about it. It’s complicated by things like Google and JSTOR, which index terms but are not indexes, and which students have often used much more extensively than they’ve used indexes such as the MLA International Bibliography. It gets so tangled, this web of familiar back-of-the-book indexes, familiar search tools that index terms in full text, and unfamiliar Indexes (with a capital I) where keywords in title and author and publisher/source are indexed like Google indexes things but which also include special terms which we think of as Indexing but which are labeled “subjects” or “descriptors.” I talk about these terms as “consistent vocabulary” within a given search tool, and once they’ve seen the power of “consistent vocabulary” students really love indexing. …

    But now I’m just rambling. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that many interconnected decisions about how to teach individual tools from among all the various tools (which look the same to students but function differently) have all ganged up on students to make this a much less simple lesson than I had originally thought it to be.

  10. […] of the things she can do with her information literacy instruction: she can explain to students how scholars index their own literature, and how to use that internal indexing to the students’ advantage in searching efficiently and […]

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