Staying Alert

One of the most established metaphors, both among writing instructors and librarians, is the image of scholarship as “parlor” conversation. Here is Kenneth Burke’s famous description:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.*

On Thursday, Liv will be talking about how to use the library’s resources to keep up with this “interminable” conversation. One good strategy is to let the literature databases “alert” you when something that is likely to constitute a contribution you are interested in is published. In addition to letting you know when something that fits a very specific set of search criteria is published (i.e., something that would have turned up in a search of the literature you’ve previously conducted if only it had been published back then), you can set it up to cast a somewhat wider net.

One of the things you should learn early on in your research career is who contributes to the conversations you’re interested in. Knowing this, you can ask the databases to alert you whenever one of those people (try to keep the list of names manageable, of course) publishes something, and even whenever something that cites one of those people is published. Now, this won’t always be of interest, but a quick look at the reference that you’ve been alerted to will easily settle that question. (The good thing about modern technology is that you’ll be provided with a quick and easy link to the source in question, and that source will then itself often be searchable.)

You will also have a good sense of the range of topics you are interested in. You can have the database alert you to anything that has been published by anyone on a particular subject. Do remember that you’re asking a machine to do this for you, so all you’ll be alerted to is articles that happen to use the subject terms you’re looking for (or whatever other search criteria you specify). Here again, you’ll want to inspect the sources that are brought to your attention, and don’t let a lack of alerts tell you that the conversation has stopped. Maybe its “terms” have just changed a little.

Finally, in addition to learning who is talking and what they are talking about, you will get an increasingly accurate sense of where the “parlor” is. Using this information, you can ask the databases to alert you every time something is published in a particular journal. This, however, is a very broad net. Most journals are devoted to countless conversations, and not all of them will be of interest to you.

In any case, if you’re interested in hearing more about how to use the library to keep abreast of the conversation, just show up on Thursday.


*The Philosophy of Literary Form, pp. 110-111.

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