Finding your materials, part 3:
Approach books efficiently

Before reading a promising-looking book:

  • Find the name of the publisher. A book by a major or small but reputable publisher, or one published by a university press is probably pretty reliable.
  • Check the back of the title page to find the date of publication. A book written in 1975, for example, may have much value, but it will be out of date in some things.
  • Figure that the information in most books will be current about 10 years before the date of publication--for more recent books this time will be less. For example, a book published in 1975 will probably be current for information that was cutting edge in 1965. Reason: It takes time to write and publish a book. This is where recent journal articles can be very helpful: as your project solidifies, you can use a focused database search with a limited date range to check out the most recent info on various topics.
  • Read the table of contents. Some books have detailed tables of contents that will help you decide to reject the book or lead you to examine it more carefully.
  • If the table of contents is promising, read / skim the index in the back of the book. Sometimes a book will have just a few pages with info you need. So long as you're careful not to pull information out of context there's often no need to read a book cover to cover.
  • Check out the bibliography (more on that soon). If the bibliography looks solid, this is promising. If there's no bibliography, you may want to reject the book, as a scholarly book will tend have a bibliography. When in doubt, go back and consider the publisher of the book, the target audience, and also the reputation of the author. You might also want to read some reviews of the book. If there's no bibliography, but the book is written by a reputable scholar, has a major or reputable publisher, but directed to a popular audience, then using it will probably be fine.
  • If everything looks good, THEN it's time to read the book.
  • Remember that you don't need to read every book cover to cover. Sometimes one chapter is all you need, or just a few pages.

© Jan Mainzer