The Disappearing Periodical Room

Author's Note: I wrote this piece sometime last year and never got around to publishing it. It does not deal directly with religion and American history, but I hope it still might be useful to our readers. --JF

The Disappearing Periodical Room

By John Fea

Recently I was doing some research in the library at the college where I teach. It is a small library that is much in need of a facelift and a bigger budget; but what it lacks in physical and monetary resources it makes up for with a dedicated and gifted staff.

On this day I was in search of a recently published journal article. I headed straight to the new periodical room where I was sure I would find it on display, but as I scanned the titles on the shelves it was apparent that the library did not subscribe to the journal I needed. This did not surprise me since I know the library is operating with limited funds and as a result subscriptions to a few academic journals have been canceled.

What did surprise me, however, was the response I received from a librarian after she processed my interlibrary loan request. “We subscribe to this journal electronically,” she wrote in longhand on my form. And then she directed me to the database where I could access it.

I was thrilled, in a nerdy sort of academic way, by the fact that all it would take was a click of the print button to get the article into my hands. This meant that I would avoid having to take the journal to the copy room, opening it on the copier screen to the point of breaking the spine, and adjusting the reduction feature on the copier so that two pages of the journal would fit on one page of letter-sized paper.

I learned that day just how many on-line journals were available through my campus library. I could even access articles from home—an option that I knew would come in handy during my upcoming sabbatical. Sure I would push my printing budget to the limit (I prefer to read journal articles in hard copy form so I can mark them up), but it was worth it.

At this point I should probably pause to confess that I am a journal junkie. It all started when I wrote a divinity school paper on the history of American fundamentalism that my professor encouraged me to publish. When I asked him to suggest a few journals that might be interested in the piece, he told me to go to the library, peruse the new periodical shelves, and find a publication that was suitable.

That was all the incentive I needed. I spent the rest of the day familiarizing myself with dozens of journals, mostly in theology and religious studies. I had been in the periodical room before, to research a paper or read the sports page between classes, but now I started to look at this place with the eyes of a potential author.

From that point forward the periodical room became my favorite place on campus. Whenever I visited a new college or university I went straight to this section of the library. I found myself judging the quality of an institution by the size and scope of their journal collection. It would not be too far fetched to say that I learned the profession—in my case American history—in the periodical room of the university where I did my graduate work. I rarely left this place without a stack of journals carefully bookmarked with a slip of scrap paper, ready to be copied.

But most of the articles I looked at during these trips to the periodical room were not copied. They were merely perused. Over the years I turned journal browsing into an art form. In the process I was immersing myself in the field. I learned what kind of scholarship was hot by looking at tables of contents. I identified new scholarship by skimming book reviews. I gleaned the basics of how to submit an essay by reading submission guidelines. There were always new journals to explore and new articles appearing quarterly.

As I began to develop professional contacts, I could see what my friends and colleagues were publishing. I sometimes left the periodical room deflated because someone had already published the essay I had someday hoped to write. At other times I left excited about an article that gave me some new perspective on my dissertation topic. And, of course, I would be spurred on, as I still am today, about one my article ideas that seemed to meet the editorial needs of this or that journal.

Every now and then I receive an e-mail from one of my college’s librarians informing me that he would like to cancel a subscription to a hard copy journal because it is available at a reduced cost through an on-line service. I am sympathetic to these requests and usually tell him to go ahead and cancel. Journals are getting more and more expensive. (Did I mention yet that we do not have Harvard’s library budget?) It also seems to make sense environmentally to go this way. And think of the space on-line journals will save.

Yet I also wonder what might be lost in the decision to have the bulk of a college’s academic journals available only via the computer screen. Sure, scholars in a hurry will be able to find their materials faster and more efficiently, but the art of browsing will be lost.

I never went to library school, but I am convinced that college and university libraries should function as more than the academic equivalent of a convenience store. A library periodical room—no matter how small and budget-constricted-- invites us to feed our minds with a veritable feast of new ideas. Some of my most wonderful and unexpected intellectual discoveries happen when I allow my mind and body to wander in a place where I am surrounded by the published thoughts of others. This is a very different approach from the quick and easy information fix that most of us are after when we enter the library.

Periodical rooms invite us to let the life of the mind and the activities of the guild soak into our very being as we glance at footnotes, introductory paragraphs, and the institutional affiliations of authors and members of editorial boards. Librarians understand this, but their hands are too often tied by administrators and budget officials who just don’t get it.

In the everyday busyness of an academic life an hour spent reading periodicals may be an irresponsible use of one’s time. But in my experience the slow meandering through narrow aisles of scholarly quarterlies continues to shape me as a scholar and an intellectual. On-line journals are great, but let’s be careful to embrace technological progress with caution, always aware of unexpected consequences.


Anonymous said…
Speaking of technology and a reader's guide to periodical literature, I have a request for your site: can you please add a search feature that readers might search all of your posts? Not an internet search feature, but a search just of your site. I just finished Jill Lepore's article in the April 14th New Yorker and wanted to search your site for any additional information on Wills and the others she mentions. Thanks for your good site and your consideration of the idea to add a search feature. Here's a link to Jill's article in case you missed it:
John Fea said…
That's a great idea. Paul, is this possible?
Paul Harvey said…
I'll look into putting on a search feature -- I'll have to find out if blogspot allows me to do such a thing (it's going to have to wait until after the semester, so bear with me a little while . . . )
John G. Turner said…
Leo J, Thanks for the link to Lepore's article. I had been meaning to post on it but forgot.

Readers interested in that topic should also read Richard Brookhiser's review of Stephen Waldman's recent book in last Sunday's NYTBR:

I agree with Waldman's view of religion and the founding, for what it's worth.

Enjoyed your post, John. I don't mind online journals, though I of course always print out what I want to read. The things I read regularly (JAH, Church History, B&C) I can't imagine only reading online or not having the entire issue.
Kelly J. Baker said…
There is something about touching a physical page that I deeply miss, so like other commenters, I print out online sources. My technologically inclined spouse has promoted new readers for e-books, like the Kindle, but I fear books will go the way of periodical rooms. The physicality of the books enhances my reading experience. Great post, John.

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