Thomas Mann, author of the Oxford Guide to Library Research (2015, 4th ed.). Picture from here.

Thomas Mann, author of the Oxford Guide to Library Research (2015, 4th ed.). Picture from here.


Recently, I read a document put out by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) that stated:

“An engagement model in which library liaisons and functional specialists collaborate to understand and address the wide range of processes in instruction and scholarship is replacing the traditional tripartite models of collections, reference, and instruction” (16).”

In the same document, at one point, we are told that “scholars already collaborate; libraries need to make it easier for them to do so” (5).

To the first point, “yes,” librarians should be willing to adopt new technologies. At the same time, it is arguable that many new technologies do not enhance the library’s traditional strengths (which, as we see above, are to be “replaced”).

And to the second point, “yes,” librarians should help scholars collaborate. At the same time, libraries have always helped persons “collaborate”. That is what libraries—even non-academic libraries really—are.

Libraries are about facilitating conversations so that collaboration can occur. Joan Bechtel says that libraries are “centers for conversation,” featuring mediators who “introduce students to the world of scholarly dialogue that spans both space and time.” They “provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to tap into conversations on an infinite variety of topics and to participate in the critical inquiry and debate on those issues” (Fister 2015, p. 96, Not Just Where to Click). Furthermore, Michelle Holschuh Simmons reminds us that since librarians “occupy a position that is both inside and outside scholarly discourses,” they are “uniquely positioned to serve as discourse mediators”. She goes on:

Faculty assume their discourse conventions are normative, and they forget that they once learned them. Librarians occupy a position that is both inside and outside scholarly discourses and can play an important role in helping faculty understand that tacit knowledge and assumptions they have (which students lack)… (Fister 2015, p. 96)

Therefore, I confess I get a little bit irritated when I read articles like the one above.

In Thomas Mann’s 2015 edition of his book The Oxford Guide to Library Research, he makes some statements about libraries that, for the moment, continue to be true – but that I think are likely, barring a miraculous turnaround, to become less true in the future.

What can you do if you want to see “’the shape of the elephant’[i] of the overall range of literature relevant to a topic?”

“[Libraries] offer multiple methods of searching that are not accessible on the open Internet; that enable researchers to recognize, in systematic ways, the range of relevant sources whose keywords cannot be specified in advance; and that enable such recognition within conceptually focused contexts that eliminate the excessive clutter of tens of thousands of “noise” or “junk” retrieval” (xxii).

-Why isn’t keyword searching on the open web a sufficient way to discover needed information?

For some quests, it certainly is sufficient. That said, in Mann’s experience he has been taught that “most people unconsciously work within a framework of very limited assumptions about the extent of information that is easily and freely available to them” (xxv). When it is critical to get the best information possible, he says that “serious research cannot be accomplished by ‘one-stop searching’ via any single source or any single search box,” (xxiv) and that any of the following different methods may be needed (these are unpacked in much concrete detail in the book):

  • Controlled vocabulary searching
  • Use of subject-classified book stacks for general or focused browsing
  • Citation searching
  • Related record searching
  • Use of published subject bibliographies
  • Use of truncations, Boolean combinations, and other search limitations
  • Tapping into the subject expertise of people sources
  • Type of literature searching (xxiv).

-Why should I consider the possibility that librarians and libraries might be some of the most important research guides?

“It was only when I started working as a reference librarian in university libraries that I began to see two things clearly: how vast is the range of subjects people are interested in that I would never have had any questions about myself, and how little I knew about finding anything beyond my own academic subject area” (xxvi). Although this may be surprising, “…in most cases you do not need prior subject expertise to do good research in unfamiliar areas if you simply know the techniques of searching (with their trade-offs) that can be used in any field” (xxvii).



-Are you saying that all university librarians are going to be such good guides?

No. In order to consider what a good one might look like though, consider the following imaginative story (from a forthcoming paper to be published in and upcoming issue of Reference Services Review):

Saladin and Afsa are newlywed, American-born and educated, middle-class Muslims – the kinds of impressive people the author grew up around. They are seriously considering moving to a more cosmopolitan part of Pakistan, where Saladin has been offered a job. He is truly excited about their living in the country his parents came from years ago, but his wife, while happy for her husband and eager for a change, is a bit more hesitant. She is looking for resources in English about the status of women’s rights in the Muslim world (first this in general, before looking at Pakistan in particular), and so she goes to her local library. From her past experiences with librarians, she has come to see them as valuable guides and is confident that they will know how to put her in touch with the best productions of the academic world – those she assumes will begin to help her ascertain the truth of the matter.

Afsa goes right to a reference librarian at her large, local library and explains to her the information need she has. The librarian, fresh off having read Thomas Mann’s 4th edition of The Oxford Guide to Library Research (2015), knows exactly what to do. Temporarily putting aside the new Framework’s advice to question “traditional notions of granting authority” (ACRL, 2015), she consults three relevant reference books pertaining to the matter…

-The 5-volume 2009 Encyclopedia of Human Rights (with a 13-page article on “Islam”)

-The 2-volume Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States (4-page article on “Human Rights”)

-The 3-volume 2001 Human Rights Encyclopedia (2-page article on “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam”)

…and is able to figure out that the concise bibliographies of these reference books converge on, A.E. Mayer’s Islam and Human Rights (2006). (Mann points out that two other major reference works relevant to the question also point to the same book!) (2015). Even better: the book now exists in an updated, fifth edition and a local academic library has it! The librarian confidently recommends this book, thinking that it will not only be representative of the state of the issue in academia – the best that scholarship has to offer – but also will in fact give a nuanced, well-mannered, and truthful account of the actual state of affairs as it concerns human rights and the Muslim world.

The implied claim to reasonable objectivity in offering this work as likely being the best starting point for further research comes from the overlapping recommendations of it from multiple independent sources, each of which is itself a scholarly attempt to provide an overview perspective on the whole of same issue. Throughout his Oxford Guide book, Mann shows search methods that promote the retrieval of sources sufficient to enable researchers to see, in his words, “the whole elephant” of their topic – as opposed to those methods that simply turn up “something quickly” with no guarantee of scholarly consensus to back up their objectivity, completeness, or quality. The unstated message is that in many cases it is librarians who are in the best position to get researchers beyond any single socially constructed “framework” by enabling them to see a full range of alternative views – alternatives that the librarian him/herself may not have been previously aware of. Note that all of this librarianship “works” as it does because everyone is assuming both that this is something that can begin to be known, and that, importantly, seeking and sharing the truth is important to these scholars.

This is not in Mann's book. But I like it and think it belongs here.


[i] Again, here Mann is alluding back to an illustration provided earlier in the book of six blind men who are each touching one part of an elephant and think, mistakenly, that they are experiencing the whole thing.