Browsing the tables of contents


This is going to make me sound not young, but here it goes.

Library Stacks from Purchase College Library

Library Stacks from Purchase College Library

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 SociobiologyBiotropica, 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.

4 thoughts on “Browsing the tables of contents

  1. There’s definitely something to this. I am trying to figure out how to block off time exclusively to reading papers, browsing. I peruse table’s of contents online occasionally, but it is still hard to find that time and focus on writing alone and reading alone. Another problem now too is that you’ll never get to the bottom of the literature now. No way, no how. Not possible. There’s just too much out there. I guess I rely a lot on social media to bring new ideas to my attention, from other fields as I try to learn new things, but that’s not ideal. Also, I love spending time in libraries. The more I think about it, the more I hate how fast the world has become. It’s amazing, but leaves little time for processing, thinking, being careful.

  2. I’m with you on this. I spent every Friday afternoon of grad school in the library hunting down volumes and photocopying articles to read throughout the coming week. I seem to recall the graduate student society put out a t-shirt about “you know you’re a graduate student when… ” and one of the five clues was knowing the Library of Congress number for your favorite journal. I could easily rattle off a dozen (although I could also tell you what color they were bound in and where on the shelf they were). I wonder how many graduate students even know how to use a library of congress number any more!?

    I really miss something about this in the age of PDFs too. I think the two tangible things I can name are:
    1) Serendipity – I can of course still get serendipitous findings in a current eTOC but only within the same month.
    2) A larger sense of history. Even flipping past titles to get to the one I was looking for gave me a sense of what was going on in a particular year and era. And stopping to read a few abstracts on the way to my target gave me more. And standing in front of AmNat that goes back well over 100 years and not being able to resist seeing what they were doing in 1893 or 1917 occasionally added to that. And flipping through AmNat in the late 1960s or early 1970s and really that half the papers in those years were classic papers made you realize not all eras were the same. I wonder if the declining culture of citing historical papers isn’t unrelated to this loss.

    Of course the thing I miss the most is that if I checked out the table of contents of the the new issues of 5 or so journals every month I was “on top of my field”. Good luck with that today!

  3. Yes I agree – I always used to read current issues and when you were in the paper stacks photocopying an old paper it was amazing how many other papers you came across and ended up copying

  4. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of a large number of journals through feedly. I make sure to stay on top of new articles that way. I’m not sure if this is the same as browsing tables of contents, but for me it fills that need to keep up with what’s coming out every week in a convenient way!

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