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Why the Love for "Print" Sources?

Last week one of my co-workers and I met with this year’s new writing tutors over the course of 5 small-group sessions. These sessions always present the unique challenge of building the students’ confidence and facility as tutors while at the same time covering library basics. We need to assume they don’t know these basics, but we also want to treat them as credible professionals.

In amongst all of this, we wanted to introduce them to the strategy of using Ulrich’s to determine if an article found online counts as a “print” source. And we thought we’d explain to them why professors continue to include this now-outdated terminology in their assignments even though they know that the vast majority of the library’s journal collection is online, and even though they will usually agree that even online-only journals count as print sources, and even though students have no context by which to distinguish online-but-count-print materials from unacceptably-online materials. As my co-worker and I thought about it, we realized that “print” is really short-hand for a whole set of assumptions about the publication, most of which have nothing to do with it’s actual format.

“Print” implies editorial oversight at the very least, if not peer-review. There’s a whole structure to the process of printing a journal that exists to protect the publication’s reputation by ensuring the quality of the publication’s contents as much as possible. This process also ensures that authors’ work is distributed by someone other than the author. This history, this structure, this process bestows a beautiful halo of enhanced credibility around those articles that make it through the vetting process and finally appear in print.

I’ve found, as I talk with professors who continue to require print sources, that what they’re really asking for is scholarship that has been inoculated by this process. Every professor I’ve talked to has agreed that even journals that were born-digital would count as legitimate sources for their assignments. “Print” simply stands in for all the layered assumptions.

Clearly we need new terminology because I wholeheartedly support the current assumptions.

Published inLibraries and LibrariansTeaching and Learning


  1. Hazel Hazel

    I think that the word “print” has now become so ingrained into academic thinking that it would, perhaps, be better to be clear as to what it is that is meant by the word – in an academic sense – rather than trying to come up with a new word or phrase.
    There’s an awful lot of trash in hard copy (think of some of the less readable daily newspapers) that no professor in his/her right mind would accept as a reputable reference but it is “print”.
    Have I, entirely accidentally, come up with a possible answer? RR = Reputable Reference.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    But sometimes the professors scarily enough DO mean print sources… They don’t want them using database articles because then they “don’t have to come into the library”…

  3. Iris Iris

    I’d been so focused on the scholarly literature that I hadn’t even thought of that analogy, Hazel. But you’re absolutely right. The mere existence of an editor does not mean that the output will be good.

    And yes, Anonymous. That is sometimes the case, I’ve heard. Thankfully, I haven’t had to deal with that in my own work (yet). And frankly, I can come up with a dozen ideas that would get students into the library that wouldn’t artificially restrict their sources to the 20-or-so percent of articles we actually have in paper.

  4. Steve Lawson Steve Lawson

    We tend to say “scholarly sources” if what we mean is “the kind of stuff that would count for tenure and that professors want to see in the bibliographies of student research papers.”

  5. Iris Iris

    The problem with “scholarly sources” is that, at least with the professors I’ve talked to, they would accept newspaper articles as “print” sources, too. It really seemed to boil down to “somebody other than the author thought this should be spread around the world” rather than any more sophisticated judgment.

    ‘Tis a puzzle.

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