Women's Studies Information Seeking: New Reference Titles

by Sara Brownmiller

Kristin H. Gerhard, ed., Women's Studies Serials: A Quarter-Century of Development. New York: Haworth Press, 1998. 263p. bibl. index. $49.95, ISBN 0-7890-0541-7.

Lynn Westbrook, Interdisciplinary Information Seeking in Women's Studies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999. 256p. $39.95, ISBN 0-7864-0568-6.

Women's studies librarians, take note! Two recent publications, Interdisciplinary Information Seeking in Women's Studies and Women's Studies Serials, provide strong contributions to the field of women's studies librarianship and complement each other nicely in several ways. Lynn Westbrook's Interdisciplinary Information Seeking in Women's Studies, well-grounded in theory and methodology, is a study of the information-seeking behavior of women's studies scholars for a variety of information formats - books, journals, electronic communication, and colleagues. Women's Studies Serials, an anthology edited by Kristin Gerhard, reports the findings of projects undertaken by practicing librarians on a variety of issues related specifically to women's studies serials.

Interdisciplinary Information Seeking appears to be based upon Westbrook's doctoral dissertation, which looked at the information-seeking experiences of women's studies faculty. Her book adds an interesting discussion of interdisciplinarity, "the purposeful weaving together of two or more disciplines that are usually considered to be quite unconnected in order to reach a new understanding, create a new academic end product, or advance research on a particular question" (p.26), and the unique problems encountered by researchers in interdisciplinary fields. Westbrook argues that interdisciplinary scholars - in women's studies or ethnic studies, for example - are confronted with identifying relevant citations scattered across many sources as there is no "central source containing a significant proportion of the available resources" (p.39). This review of interdisciplinary research and the attendant problems with such research provides a good theoretical base for the analysis of the data, but the perspective is not new to women's studies librarians, who encounter these problems daily working with both faculty and students.

Westbrook's work, however, invigorates the discussion of interdisciplinary research by advocating for increased use of electronic communication and electronic resources as an aid in the exchange of scholarly infor-mation. Her framing of the problem and solution clearly describes how "the ideal information technology" (p.60) could facilitate women's studies research by giving scholars portable, customizable tools (images of Palm Pilots come to mind) to piece together the broad array of conceptual and nonlinear information essential to research on women and women's issues.

From this more theoretical discussion, Westbrook turns to an analysis of the data collected for this work: interviews and observations of the information-seeking behavior of thirty-three women's studies scholars at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas, plus logs of postings to the WMST-L email list for six months. Postings to WMST-L may be reflective of the breadth of scholars and programs in women's studies across the United States, but restricting the more in-depth data collection to two well-funded, comprehensive research institutions raises questions about the transferability of conclusions to women's studies scholars in other types of institutions and programs.

Westbrook does an admirable job of bringing order to the comments, observations, frustrations, and reflections obtained in the interviews and electronic postings. Data was reviewed for recurrent keywords, which reflected similar types of information-seeking behaviors. These keywords were then used to develop a set of codes for this behavior, which could be "grouped naturally into twenty-one themes, such as 'browsing' and 'people'" (pp.77-78). Further analysis is described for the categories: what information is sought by scholars, the means of seeking that information, and the factors, both internal and external, involved in seeking the information.

The conclusions in Interdisciplinary Information Seeking contain no surprises. To assist women's studies scholars in their information seeking, libraries need to insure careful selection of materials, maintain adequate funding levels for materials and services, and strive to enhance reference and instructional services, policies that women's studies librarians have long advocated. Westbrook strongly believes that technology should be harnessed to serve the information needs of interdisciplinary scholars, with women's studies a solid candidate for developing "genuinely interdisciplinary electronic information systems" (p.150). Such systems should incorporate traditional information retrieval techniques; the ability to link disciplines by following conceptual variables rather than field of study, publication format, or broad topic; and an easy, intuitive interface for sharing electronic representations of people and text.

The articles in Gerhard's anthology, Women's Studies Serials: A Quarter-Century of Development, take a much more practical approach when analyzing the current state of publishing - both print and electronic - in women's studies serials. Gerhard divides the fourteen articles into four sections: usage of women's studies serials, women's studies reference sources, content and access issues for women's studies serials, and international views of women's studies serials. The fourteen articles are written primarily by librarians, many of whom appear to work regularly with women's studies materials and/or interdisciplinary materials. However, two of the articles fail to make a clear connection between women's studies serials and the topic of the article.

The chapters on usage of women's studies serials focus primarily on faculty and graduate student use of periodical literature. Westbook's article, "Using Periodicals in Women's Studies: The Faculty Experience," is very similar to her book (reviewed here). Marinko's article, "Citations to Women's Studies Journals in Dissertations, 1989 and 1994," reports on a study of citations in doctoral dissertations completed in 1989 and 1994 and coded by UMI for women's studies. Many of these, however, were probably completed for degrees other than women's studies. It would be interesting to know if usage patterns were the same for women's studies dissertations, compared to dissertations in other academic disciplines focusing on women. The number of women's studies dissertations may be too low for valid comparison.

Lent provides the most interesting chapter in this section, "Women's Studies Journals: Getting the Collection Right!" Lent and two colleagues surveyed University of New Hampshire faculty to determine what journals they were actually using. From the data, Lent was able to identify the responses of women's studies faculty and, based upon these responses, calls into question the feasibility of developing a core list of journals for a discipline - a list much desired by women's studies librarians trying to evaluate their collections and make selection decisions. Lent argues that "the core list actually becomes self-fulfilling" (p.52), with librarians subscribing first to titles on the core list and indexes working first on those journals as well. Such practice ignores the idiosyncrasies of research interests on a specific campus and challenges the viability of new journals, which may not receive the subscriptions necessary for survival because they are not indexed.

The second section of Women's Studies Serials focuses on reference sources. The Dickstein et al. article, "From Zero to Four: A Review of Four New Women's Studies CD-ROM Products," on electronic databases, compares to each other the two databases that are primarily indexing/abstracting services and the two databases that provide fulltext. Faries' article, "Preserving the Value of Tables of Contents Online: A Critique of Women's Studies/Feminist Periodicals," is a commendable effort to evaluate the thoroughness of electronic databases, which claim to allow retrieval of the full tables of contents of journals. A single list of all of the women's studies periodicals covered by these three databases would have been nice. Faries' research should be noted by librarians working in other disciplines, who have concerns about the comprehensiveness and accuracy of these types of databases.

The Stacy-Bates and Shonrock article, "Women's Studies as Represented in Twentieth Century Reference Books," is problematic. It is not clear exactly how their research relates to women's studies serials. The article looks at the number of women's studies reference books included in each edition of Guide to Reference Books, speculating on the relationship between the increase in the number of titles in women's studies and the emergence of women's issues and women's studies as research topics. Since many librarians rely on such sources as the Guide to Reference Books for selection, a more useful study would identify major reference works on women and see if they were selected for inclusion or excluded, rather than relying solely on numbers of titles.

The section on content and access contains five articles, most of which further understanding about women's studies serials. With the advent of the World Wide Web, Boydston's article, "Academic Women's Studies Serials on the Web: A Pilot Study," provides an interesting snapshot of electronic publishing of women's studies journals. "Education for Cataloging Is/As Women's Studies," by Olson, was disappointing. Although well-written by someone with a great deal of expertise in this area, it does not provide any new information or insights for women's studies librarians. Nor does it address in any way serial or journal literature. Do these formats pose any problems not found in monographs when describing the intellectual content? Down's article, "Women's Magazines in the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University," presents a brief, informative description of how one library provides access to a variety of serial publications rarely found in research collections.

The two remaining articles in this section provide new information about women's studies serials. Vega Garcia, in "Indexing Patterns of Periodical Literature on African American Women and U.S. Latinas," confirms the difficulty of identifying journal literature on these two ethnic groups. Vega Garcia conducted her research in racial/ethnic studies indexes, subject-oriented indexes, and women's studies indexes, concluding "no one index provides wide and reliable coverage" (p.183) of minority women's literature. Zanish-Belcher's article, "Still Unheard by the Mainstream: Locating Serial Articles on Women in Science," exam-ines the coverage of women in science by looking at the number of articles published in history/history of science journals, women's studies journals, and gender studies journals. The most disappointing fact noted in her analysis is that four women's studies titles published no articles on women in science in the period from 1970 to 1995.

The final section in Gerhard's anthology covers international women's serials, specifically in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Southeast Asia. The articles for each of these geographic areas provide interesting information, but it is unclear why these specific countries were selected for study. Women's studies librarians in the United States may be less familiar with the content of and access to international women's studies serials. A more theoretical article drawing upon brief examples from numerous countries would have strengthened this section.

Both Interdisciplinary Information Seeking in Women's Studies and Women's Studies Serials will be of interest to women's studies librarians and librarians serving other interdisciplinary fields. The more practical nature of Women's Studies Serials may be of more immediate benefit as women's studies librarians must continually evaluate and re-evaluate the journals and electronic services they select to offer their patrons. Interdisciplinary Information Seeking in Women's Studies, on the other hand, provides useful information about the research habits of women's studies faculty and suggests improvements in information tools and services that can facilitate these habits.

[Sara Brownmiller is Women's Studies Librarian at the University of Oregon Library. She is the co-author of Index to Women's Studies Anthologies: Research Across the Disciplines, 1980-1984 & 1985-1989 and contributes indexing of women's studies anthologies to Women's Resources International.]

[Editor's Note Jan. 5, 2004: name change Women's Resources International became Women's Studies International.]

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