Thursday, 14 March 2013

What is a Journal?

Philip Harvey
From the French ‘jour’ for day, a journal has traditionally been a diary, or a sequential magazine, or some record of events and thoughts through time. In library terms, journal has been a subset of the broad and not always precise term serial. Wynar and Taylor provide the conventional wisdom about a serial as close ago in time as 1992: “A serial is a publication in any medium issued in successive parts at regular or irregular intervals and intended to continue indefinitely. Serials include both periodicals and non-periodicals.” (p. 162)

The serial, or rather its bugbear companion term seriality, has been a permanent challenge to the composure of cataloguers, bibliographers  and others ever since rules had to be invented to describe serials. This is because seriality can include almost any kind of publication that is published in a manner that is judged seriatum, i.e. in some serial order, whether by date, number, letter, or by that imponderable of modern English usage, whatever. 

For if a serial can be a journal and a periodical and a monographic series and an encyclopedic set, what is an online journal, or a personal blog (like what you are reading this second), or an online newspaper blog, or any of the digital variants that appear hydra-like on our computer screens each day? Indeed, these all fit our standard definition of a serial. For academic and bibliographical purposes, they are already all serials anyway.

Recently on Atlantis, the list of the American Theological Library Association, Kevin Compton of Rolfing Library in Bannockburn, Illinois let fly with this unhappy emotion: “I wish print was dead and I wish we could cut our print subscriptions by 100%, just as I wish we could buy all of our books as ebooks, but we can't, because …  many theological journals and book publishers are very slowly moving into the digital world. We don't cut those subscriptions, some are just too important, but I'm convinced they get used much less than they would if they were available online.” This, it has to be said, is so two thousand and thirteen! That a librarian would wish print were dead only shows what a strange universe we are now living in. But Kevin’s outburst comes in the context of increasing online serials and  (so it is claimed) dwindling demand for print serials, a world in which two-stop shopping is seen as a waste of a librarian’s time.

Many libraries today are faced with decisions about which serials to subscribe to online and which print journals to delete. This has to be another reason for Kevin’s caustic outburst: surely if everything was online we wouldn’t have to worry about all these fiddly decisions. Then there is the question of whether we keep backruns of serials in print form even after we have started an online subscription, against the day when something might go astray, we are the only place in the free world with a set, or someone needs to check against the paper version. As if life wasn’t already complicated enough, there is then the realist’s conundrum which says that no matter how many serials go online, they will never all be online, and the ones that are may be out of our price range, or simply not within the serials budget for that year. They may vanish next year, or get superseded and their titles changed in the never-ending process of rebranding.
Then we have to factor in usage. If students are not interested in print and we cannot encourage that interest, then the print serials remain stationary and in fact could be converted into stationery.  Users accustomed to online searching and reading have to be educated anew in how to approach that daunting 70 page object on the display stand, open it, and read it. As with so much else in our world now, reading habits are driving usage and it is up to the librarians to gauge what those reading habits might be.

As William Badke of North Western University in Langley, British Columbia says in his email to Atlantis, “Browsing journals, indeed, is one of those academic luxuries that professors have long enjoyed.  The issue arrives in the mail, and you spend a leisurely hour or two dipping into articles and reading book reviews.  But I know of no seminary students who aspire to the same.  Nor do I hear any of them seeking RSS feeds of new journal issue contents, though we can help them with this if they ever wanted it.”

Opinion seems to be divided as to whether browsing still happens, or is a nostalgic memory. Something that shouldn’t be nostalgia is self-awareness, and it is for some librarians a constant call to make users aware of what is in a library in all forms, and of the need for users to become aware of being aware.

Meanwhile some see the advent of online open access as the inevitable result of impossible serial prices, inaccessibility on the internet, the abandonment of the print option, and the need to meet a serial’s primary goal, which is presentation of current thinking in the here and now of research. This introduces whole new worlds of seriality, even as we speak. Just as we thought a decade ago that online was a serial killer, we now know it has in fact allowed a thousand flowers to bloom and a million schools of thought to contend out there on the web. We bookmark our favourites, little thinking that this action is itself the start of a new way of cataloguing and listing serials. In fact, the cataloguer’s baleful glare at the Rules concerning Serials has just got a whole lot more glary. Compilers and editors of serial indexes must wonder if they have reached a complete impasse.


Badke, William. From his posting to Atlantis on Wed 20/02/2013 8:09 AM.

Compton, Kevin.  From his posting to Atlantis on Wed 20/02/2013 5:37 AM.

Wynar, Bohdan S. and Arlene G. Taylor. Introduction to cataloging and classification. 8th ed. Libraries Unlimited, 1992.

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