Becoming a Linguistics Librarian

When I started here I had degrees in English and a degree in Library and Information Science. But I was also the librarian for languages, music, linguistics, and American Studies. A while ago I wrote about important things I learned about being a music librarian (part 1 and part 2), and about being a librarian for language departments. Well, for the last week or so, I’ve been sitting in on a linguistics class, and over the last year or so I’ve been working more closely with their upper division classes, and here are a few things I’ve learned in the process.

The Field

From the perspective of the interested outsider and the helper of undergraduates, the field is easiest for me to think of if I liken each branch of it to other fields. So there are the neuroscience-linguists, and the psychologist-linguists, and the sociologist-linguists. And lo and behold, that helps when picking databases and search terms. Happy librarian! PsycINFO and Sociological Abstracts can come in really handy to flesh out the Primary Duo (i.e. Linguistics & Language Behavior Abstracts and the MLA International Bibliography).

Linguistic Data

Linguists talk all the time about data and about datasets. When they do this, they mean “example sentences” or “example sounds.” So a grammar of Turkish is full of data on the Turkish language (which is distinct from a book on the grammar of Turkish, which may or may not be all that full of data). So if students want data on Turkish, I’d look for a grammar, I’d look for articles on a particular construction or sound in Turkish, and I’d look for researcher websites (using the “” limiter in google, usually) where researchers put up their linguistic datasets.

If I were going after a much lesser known/studied language, SIL and researcher websites are probably the best bet. I find SIL’s website hard to navigate, so I search it using Google.

If there’s “nothing on my topic” I’d use Ethnologue and find related languages and see if they can be useful by analogy.

Currency Oddity

Linguistics is odd in that some of the sources need to be very current indeed, particularly the parts having to do with brain science. Meanwhile, other parts of the field rely heavily on books that are 50, 60, or 80 years old. Typically, complete descriptions of languages are only done once and then amended in the literature, so it shouldn’t be very surprising if the primary source of primary data comes from a well worn book written by some African explorer in the 1920s.

Navigating the Jargon (with undergrads)

Linguistics is jargon-heavy. I often can’t even make out the wikipedia articles on the topics I’m supporting. But just like being a librarian for foreign languages, this is a good reminder for me to keep my consultations highly collaborative with the student. They supply the terms, I suggest ways to come up with terms (“what kind of a thing is a genitive? a Case? Ok, so what if we look for Russian cases if we’re not finding what we want when searching for Russian Genitives?”). They interpret the results while I give them pointers about categories of things to watch for in the results.

Jargon is also your friend because it makes keyword searching so much easier than in the humanities. “Ergative-Absolutive” is far more likely to return accurate results than “performance of self” regardless of my level of understanding.

My next steps

I’ve been pretty happy with my research guide for Linguistics, and they’ve said that it’s very useful. But now that I’ve sat in on a couple of class sessions I think I’ll add a tab on gathering linguistic data. And if I can, I’ll try to sit in on some different classes next term.

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