This is going to make me sound not young, but here it goes.
When I was in grad school, if you wanted an article, you had to go over to photocopy it at the library. (Uphill, both ways, in the snow.)
Every time I went to the stacks to get the article I needed, I’d walk by the current periodicals section. That’s where the new issues accumulated before they were sent off to be bound for the stacks. There were typically several months’ worth of issues for every journal.
I usually paused to look through the new issues of some of my favorite journals, including American Naturalist, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Biotropica, Ecology, Insectes Sociaux, Oecologia, Oikos, and a upstart journal called Ecography. And many others. (The journal landscape has really evolved over the past couple decades, of course.)
I’d stand there, pull issues off the shelf, and browse tables of contents. I’d read some abstracts. I’d photocopy an article if I thought I might want a copy.
When I got to the stacks to copy the article I came for, I also flipped through the bound volume, which could have been from the previous year, or maybe more than fifty years old. And I’d browse the tables of contents of the issues in that volume.
I often found something different and very cool that I did not expect to find, which informed my work in ways that could not have anticipated. I gained a lot from browsing.
The era of the pdf hit pretty much as I left grad school. Now, it’s been a good while since all of those photocopies hit the recycle bin (though I had accumulated fewer linear meters than May Berenbaum).
I don’t browse tables of contents like I used to. I do get some tables of contents through RSS and email. But it’s not quite the same, there is an intangible difference that I can’t pin down clearly. The act of physically being in the library and intentionally browsing through the literature somehow allowed me the freedom to be more excited about what I’d find, and the mental space to focus exclusively on getting and processing new ideas.
There’s an intentionality about going over to the library and making the acquisition of new information as a sole task for a certain period of time. Now, I get articles when I need them, more spontaneously, and I’m usually in a hurry to deal with a series of other tasks that also sit on my computer. Going to the library used to be necessary, especially when in a hurry to get a grant out or a manuscript done. Nowadays, that kind of incidental exposure to tables of contents is no longer a necessary by-product of scholarship. It’s just as important, but it’s no longer an integral part of the workflow. Now, it almost feels like a selfish consumption of time on a non-urgent matter.
When I do get around to tables of contents, it’s sandwiched among other obligations, all of which are on the same machine that delivers the tables of contents.
I have a notion that the benefit I gained from browsing journals isn’t just a figment of my nostalgia. I seems like a useful experience in a way that I’m not getting while reading a device. I also can’t proofread worth a darn, compared to proofreading from a printout.
I can’t get over to the library to browse paper issues anymore. We subscribe by print to almost none of the journals that I care about.
I’m going to start blocking off half an hour in my schedule every few weeks, just to browse new issues. In a few months, maybe you can ask me if this is working out.
Here is a related piece of advice I got in my first year in grad school: “Having a copy of an article is not the same as having read it.” It’s still great advice, that I still need to follow better.