Wednesday, November 16, 2005

How People Use Books

There cannot be many of you who have not read or heard of Michael Gorman's latest statements on the foolishness of "reducing scholarly texts to paragraphs" published in the Wall Street Journal on November 1, 2005, in an article about Google Print (I won't provide a link because this content is behind a wall). If you were perhaps in Mongolia with the Bushes, there are summaries here and here. The particular sentence that raised my hackles (again) was this: "The point of a scholarly text is they are written to be read sequentially from beginning to end, making an argument and engaging you in dialogue.” [I wonder if Dr. Gorman actually said this sentence in which there is the grammatical error of lack of agreement..."a scholarly text" and "they are written."]

Gorman has made similar assertions in the past. In "Google and God's Mind," [pdf] Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2004 and then reprised in his now infamous LJ article "Revenge of the Blog People." My very own personal opinion is that this is arrant nonsense. And based on...on...what? Is there any research, any data to support his assertions about how scholars are supposed to read? Or is it how ordinary people are supposed to read scholarly texts? Is there a difference?

Well, as luck has it, I have been spending time rummaging around looking at surveys and reports of surveys and bibliographies of surveys because of our report I keep mentioning as being almost ready to publish. (It really is almost ready to release....we have been rather bogged down in editing by committee) I discovered that in 1985 Gordon Sabine and Patricia Sabine conducted a survey of how people use books and journals, in particular technical and professional material.

I should have already known about this because the study was conducted with the aid of a grant from OCLC, and OCLC founder Fred Kilgour wrote a letter to 50 librarians asking them to nominate people to participate, but we don't have the book here. The resulting report was published as an 18 page book called How People Use Books. This may be hard to find. But, Sabine and Sabine also published a report of the study in Library Quarterly, v56, no.4 1986, pp. 399-408.

As the authors point out themselves, the sample size is small (613) and the participants are not "typical patrons" but are heavy users of scientific-technical volumes. Sixty-nine percent of the interviewees had occupations in the hard sciences and 21 percent were social scientists and "persons in the arts and the professions." So, I'd guess there 'd be a scholarly type or two among the group.

Here's the question asked that is germane to this posting:

"When you use a volume from the library these days, do you generally find yourself using the entire volume or just parts of it?"

The data are presented in the article but here's the summaries for the question.

"These interviewees read very small portions of the books and journals they most recently examined; six out of ten read 10 percent or less."

"Most interviewees--eight out of ten--reported they generally read only small parts of the books and journals they use these days rather than using entire volumes."

"A higher proportion of hard scientists read only 10 percent or less of the cited volume."

Here's some of the verbatim comments the authors report: "I read only what I need"; "I used to be a whole book person, but more and more I'm going for narrower and narrower portions of books"; "If it's completely in my field, I read the whole book. If it's not, I read just the parts in my specialty, be that a chapter or a page or even just one paragraph."

One scientist commented on "a real problem" with searching for the information one needs: "Books still are organized as books [...] These data are not organized necessarily for easy browsing, and one cannot get at just that information one wants. A complicated organization like a knowledge base is going to be required for finding technical information."

Hmmm, a knowledge base like Google Print perhaps?

So, slight as this research is, I can at least point you to empirical evidence that some scholarly people in 1985 did not read scholarly texts from beginning to end.

I can't say this with any certainty, but the way Gorman suggests reader and text should engage one another is reminiscent of the ideas of New Criticism, the literary criticism movement that flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, and whose members included F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards, William Empson and John Crowe Ransom. It was brilliant stuff in its day but has little to say anymore about the way real people interact with real texts, digital and print.

But lots of people are writing. Check out this, and this and this and this. And no doubt there's articles galore and a few dissertations.

If Gorman is aware of recent research that supports his assertion about how texts are to be read, I'd be most interested in hearing from him, and I'll be happy to point people to data supporting his opinion. Otherwise, he could do the profession a favour, and just not say this ever again.


Anonymous said...

The Open WorldCat record for "How People Use Books" is

Jack Stephens said...

The WSJ article is not behind a wall: it is here.

Dan said...

Gorman quote.

"The point of a scholarly text is they are written to be read sequentially from beginning to end, making an argument and engaging you in dialogue."

Hasn't this man ever done research? A close-minded arguement I will argue, but this is really the stupidest statement I have ever read from a librarian.