Helping Students Use Bibliographic Tools

Term papers and projects remain among the most effective ways of getting students to do history. The first step, after choosing a topic, is preparing a preliminary bibliography. It is a big step, one many students are unprepared to take. Worse, if not done well, it can prove fatal to the final product. The web provides tools that can make a real difference. Here are some of the most useful along with some suggestions about how to help students use them.

1. JSTOR is a “scholarly journal archive” of fifteen history periodicals including the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, Reviews in American History, and the Journal of Modern History. Researchers select the discipline(s) they wish to examine and then specify keyword(s), and/or a title, and/or an author. Researchers can limit the search to articles or can expand it to include reviews, opinion pieces, and “other” materials like bibliographies. They can define the dates they wish to search. They can specify how they want the results listed. There are also advanced search features that require the use of Boolean commands. Students do not need these, and many do not take to Boolean logic the way fish take to water. Stick with the basic search. I tell my students to look for review essays first. Most are unfamiliar with them, so I explain how much work they can save. And I emphasize that review essays provide invaluable entry points into historiographical debates. It is the rare student who has much of a grip on historiography. But an authentic paper or project enters an ongoing conversation among historians. Review essays can provide a helpful introduction to what others are saying. If JSTOR is not available through your library, you need to have a chat with the librarian.

2. History Cooperative is a project of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. It puts current journal editions online and thus supplements JSTOR, which waits five years before archiving its journals. Any subscriber to the either the American Historical Review or the Journal of American History can use the cooperative. It also provides useful special features.

3. Project MUSE, available through Johns Hopkins University Press, currently has over forty history journals online. These include many of the major periodicals in the field. It too should be available through your school library. Project MUSE’s advanced search features resemble JSTOR’s simple search. Since the two journal archives do not overlap, students can do very thorough journal searches in very brief amounts of time. The reviews and review essays also provide them with a list of recent and influential monographs. Students are often unfamiliar with reviews, even though we often ask them to write reviews themselves. They nonetheless quickly grasp that reviews provide guides to their own reading, not only by informing them of what to read but also by suggesting what to read for.

4. America: History and Life and Historical Abstracts may be the most familiar bibliographic tools and remain among the most useful. Historical Abstracts covers world history except for the United States. Both predate the Internet. Their online versions permit the user to search for keywords, titles, and authors. Results include publishing information and abstracts but not links to the actual texts of the articles and reviews. The abstracts are especially helpful since titles often do not describe articles’ contents clearly.

5. WorldCat, a product of FirstSearch, allows the user to search thousands of online library catalogues for books, videos, CDs, and other materials. The student can enter a keyword, title, or author; limit the search by date of publication or by language; or request books only. If the home institution’s library possesses the title, WorldCat indicates that and provides a link to the catalog. It also lists other libraries with the item, beginning with those in the same state. It expedites inter-library loans by providing a link to a request form. Most browsers will remember how the student filled in the blanks and will complete the form automatically.

As is so often the case with the web, there are many other tools. Some of the most powerful are produced by FirstSearch. One, AHSearch, permits the user to search over 1,300 journals from 1980 to the present. The results do not contain links to the actual articles but they do tell the user which libraries worldwide have the periodicals in question and provide a link to expedite interlibrary loan. Students rarely need to move beyond the first five resources listed here. But a good college or university library will have a wealth of resources like AHSearch as well as the researcher’s best friend, the reference librarian.

Tools enable students to locate materials very rapidly. They do not show them how to make the best use of what they find. This is where we come in and where using new media once again becomes labor intensive. It is feasible to provide some of the instruction students need in class. We can demonstrate how to do a simple search on JSTOR, for example. Students are familiar with similar software and most do not need much coaching. But what is a keyword? We can demonstrate in class that entering Joseph McCarthy yields somewhat different results than typing in McCarthyism and very different results than anti-communism + 1950s produces. This does not help students figure out the keywords to try for their own projects. My experience is that students tend to try too few, sometimes only one. If a class is small enough, and you are fortunate enough to be in a “smart” classroom, you can coach students then and there. If there are not enough computers in the room, you will have to set up appointments and spend time with each student doing searches. Or you can use e-mail. You can tell students who are having trouble finding materials to send you a message detailing what they have done. Often you can spot a problem and make a quick and helpful suggestion.

Students in pursuit of bibliographies resemble dogs chasing sports cars. A dog might actually catch up to the car but cannot drive. And students usually do not know what to do with all these titles, once they have located them. As noted above, you can provide useful tips in class. And you can circle the articles or books they ought to consult first before you return their bibliographies. But I can testify, based upon long experience, that lecturing on historiography is largely a waste of time. Undergraduates often become interested in history. They rarely care much about arguments among historians. They routinely skip prefaces in which the author carefully locates the work in the larger literature. They do not read the long first footnotes in articles. They do not care how historians have discussed the government’s prosecution of Ethel Rosenberg. They want to know if she was guilty. They are, in short, historiography-resistant. Nonetheless, they need to become knowledgeable about how historians have approached their topic. This too is a labor-intensive process. You have to review the reviews and review essays with them. Who are the three or four scholars whose names you are starting to encounter most frequently? is one reasonably quick and productive follow-up assignment, and one to which e-mail readily lends itself. It only takes moments to note obvious omissions or to recommend who to read first and who not to read at all.

I used to dread assigning bibliographies. In the bad old days, students went to the card catalogue with no more sense of keywords than they currently possess. So they would look up the French and Indian War, for example, under that heading. They would not look up the Seven Years War. They would find a handful of titles and type them up. They rarely ventured into journals, so I had to recommend titles. If I wanted to get them to do a real bibliographic search, I would have to go to the library with them and show them the various relevant abstracts. It was enormously time-consuming. And the results were pretty awful. Web-based tools make it possible to help students do good searches. They can scour fifty or more journals in a few minutes. They can link directly to relevant materials. They can find review essays to guide their further reading. They still require assistance, but not as much. And what they produce is actually pretty good.