Thursday, 17 July 2014

An oldie but a goodie

Several months ago I came across a reference that I wanted to read:

Price, D. J. de S. (1956) 'The exponential curve of science'. Discovery, 17(1), pp.240–243.

The subject matter of the paper is of little concern for this post but the journey I had in locating it is noteworthy for those reliant on inter library loans or resource discovery services (RDS).

When I refer to RDSs I am meaning new technologies within the library profession that facilitate a single search approach to finding academic materials. Gone are the days of having to look through three or four databases relevant for your subject/topic as the RDS does it all for you in one place. The University of Bedfordshire has an RDS in DISCOVER (

Going back to Price’s (1956) paper, the University of Bedfordshire library did not have a copy so I did what all good researchers do and requested it via inter library loan (UoB call it document supply and it is a great service (

Unfortunately I got a reply from the British Library stating that they could not find the article even though the information I provided was accurate. The British Library provide an excellent (but automated) service so I started thinking about why this has happened?

I decided to check on the British Library catalogue convinced they should have the paper.

A title search gave me nothing.

But remembering a colleague of mine facetiously rambling “it’s the quality of the metadata” what dawned on me was that the age of the paper (1956) may be too old for there to be metadata about the paper I want. Database providers may not have the resource to provide metadata for old papers, in effect meaning that the only way to know about Price (1956) is by the old ways (checking references lists of papers and browsing through catalogues) but not the new ways (relying on RDS’).

So if I can’t search the article title, I was hoping for some luck searching by publication.

My first thought was that the title of the journal (Discovery) was too generic a word. According to the British Library records there are 35 journal titles beginning with “Discovery”. My solution at this point would be for a visit to the British Library itself and look one by one until I get lucky. This may sound like too much effort for some. The new ways in searching for words and phrases in databases is much of what librarians teach. My solution at this point would be for a visit to the British Library itself and look one by one until I get lucky.

The RDS the British Library has is good but for this particular information request it was the remnants of the British Library catalogue that helped me for an article from 1956. I also looked for the catalogue of a top university library and noticed that the library catalogue had disappeared and had been replaced by an RDS. A researcher may become conditioned (due to the successes of RDS’) that a metadata search will be sufficient (let us call this Plan A) when the Plan B of relying on browsing, looking at references and spending more time for the search process can lead to success.

An accompanying argument can be made that old articles are old and should not be used when compared to more recent articles. Academic librarians work in a system that supports that type of thinking but a more sensible thought could be that it depends on the circumstances. Price’s (1956) paper is perfect for me but it has been buried due to the popularity of new methods getting in the way of old methods.

Ask yourself how reliant you are on Resource Discovery Services dictating your information world and how old journal articles may only be located via the references of papers.