Full-Text Collections and Class Assignments: A Librarian’s Perspective

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Among the greatest advantages offered by full-text databases are their indexing and search capabilities. I see many historians of science using these features to good effect in their research. But when it comes to teaching, most of the student assignments I see (and as a librarian, I see a lot of them) just use these new resources in old ways—typically just as a source for known items. I’d like to suggest that many of the full-text collections now available can be used to design interesting assignments that were not feasible before—especially for undergraduates. The trick is to start by looking at the databases available to you and determining what they are best at—that is, how do they index their content; what kinds of search and retrieval mechanisms do they use, how do they organize and display their results. Then you can develop assignments that are shaped as much by the features of the digital resources as by subject material.In general, commercial, licensed products have more potential for this kind of thing because sophisticated searching is one of the features libraries expect for their money when they license a database. But there are several free online collections with potential as well. Here are some examples of what I mean, first using JSTOR a widely-held, licensed product, and then using the freely available Making of America Project.JSTOR is a licensed collection of full runs of back issues (not the most recent 3-5 years, usually) of core journals in a number of academic disciplines. Many titles go back to the Nineteenth Century, and in the case of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London back to the 1600s. It doesn’t use any controlled vocabulary (pre-determined lists of indexing terms, e.g. Library of Congress subject headings), but it does allow you to limit your search by year, academic discipline and in various other ways. Here’s an example of how you might take advantage of these features to craft an assignment on the history of eugenics. A simple keyword search on eugenics gives over 11,000 results. Sorted by date, students would have a quick overview of the emergence and development of the idea in the United States. The results show that it first appears (in the database) in a few early book reviews published in science and philosophy journals, but that it takes off with the 1904 publication of Francis Galton’s, “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope and Aims,” in the American Journal of Sociology. Scanning the results list would allow students to see that it was initially used by social scientists much more than by natural scientists. Then, students could construct (or you could provide) a new search to address a variety of more specific questions. Here are two of several possibilities I can imagine. A search limited to articles with eugenics in the title, sorted oldest to most recent, returns a list of 88 articles from 1904-2003 that would allow students to trace how the concept and attitudes towards it have changed over the course of a century. Alternatively, students could organize searches by discipline in order to compare how botanists and anthropologists, for example used the term. My next example highlights different features of JSTOR’s search structure. If you were teaching about colonial science, students could search for “Virginia” (or any other place) in the General Science subset of JSTOR, limiting the results to articles published between 1600-1775. Students doing this search would very quickly have generated a set of sources that could be the basis for an analysis of how that colony was represented in the pages of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. If students did the same search for several different colonies they should be able to draw some conclusions about science in the colonies generally, and specifically, how it differed from colony to colony.Making of America Project—If you’ve never looked at it, the MOA is a huge, free, full-text collection of nineteenth-century American monographs and journals produced by the University of Michigan and Cornell University. As is true with many free collections, the indexing and retrieval options are not as sophisticated as they are in JSTOR. However, you can sort search results according to the frequency with which your search terms appear in the text. This is a good way to bring the most relevant results to the top. An interesting sample search in the journal collection for the words “scripture” and “geolog*” (that is words that begin this way, including geology, geologist and geological) returns 129 results which, when sorted by frequency brings to the top a rich collection of articles on the relationship between geology and revealed religion from a diverse set of magazines including The Princeton Review, The Southern Quarterly Review, Catholic World, and the Ladies Repository. As set of primary sources like this, drawn from diverse magazines would previously have been available only as an edited collection. But in this case, students could choose from any number of relevant topics and, by carefully selecting search terms, pull together distinctive document sets to write about.

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