I was very taken by Timothy Burke's presentation at the first open meeting of the Library of Congress Working Group on Bibliographic Control. What was especially interesting was how he outlined a variety of ways in which he needed to interact with the literature. In his own specialties, he expected to have comprehensive knowledge of what was published. Occasionally he might prospect a new area, wanting to get a sense of its 'shape'. He might need to understand something of the research area of a student. And so on. This variety of approaches led him to outline a set of capacities that would be useful to him, summarized in the meeting report as follows:

  • the ability to recognize clusters of knowledge production (persons and subjects),
  • the lineage of publications (i.e., how they exist in chronological relationship to each other),
  • the ability to make previously unknown connections among resources,
  • the ability to make serendipitous or unforeseen connections among topics,
  • identification of the authoritativeness of sources,
  • the popularity/amount of use of a resource, and
  • the sociology of knowledge, for example the "pedigree" of authors and publishers.
[Users and Uses of Bibliographic Data Meeting - Meetings - (Library of Congress)]

Now, he does not talk about 'discovery' or 'search'; he talks about patterns, relationships, judgements. That said, I was also interested that for his specialist areas he was able to name appropriate Library of Congress Subject Headings.

It seems to me that that phrase "strategic reading" might cover what he is doing quite nicely: his pattern of reading is determined by a particular goal, and will be different depending on the goal. His goals are probably variably well supported by our bibliographic apparatus (and remember he is also the author of the modestly notorious Burn the catalog.)

"Strategic reading" is a phrase used by Alan Renear and Carole Palmer in a recent contribution to Science Magazine: Strategic Reading, Ontologies, and the Future of Scientific Publishing (Science 14 August 2009: 828-832) (behind a paywall), and in the associated news story. Their focus is more on the techniques adopted to do some of what is discussed above, than the patterns themselves.

Scientists have always strived to avoid unnecessary reading. Like all researchers, they use indexing and citations as indicators of relevance, abstracts and literature reviews as surrogates for full papers, and social networks of colleagues and graduate students as personal alerting services. The aim is to move rapidly through the literature to assess and exploit content with as little actual reading as possible. As indexing, recommending, and navigation has become more sophisticated in the online environment, these strategic reading practices have intensified. ...
... They sweep through resources, changing search strings, chaining references backward and citations forward, dodging integrator and publisher sites to find open-access copies, continually working to reduce the number of clicks required for access. By note-taking or cutting and pasting, scientists often extract and accumulate bits of specific information, such as findings, equations, protocols, and data. In this process, rapid judgments are made--such as assessments of relevance, impact, and quality--while search queries are being formulated and refined. (Fig. 3). The goal often seems to be undifferentiated assimilation of information about a domain or a problem at hand, and the online experience may be highly valuable, even though no clear aim is met and no articles to read are located. [Allen H. Renear and Carole L. Palmer. Strategic Reading, Ontologies, and the Future of Scientific Publishing. Science 325, 828 (2009) - behind a paywall]

They go on to refer to the analogy with the remote control proposed by David Nicholas et al in their work on information behaviors. We have become bouncers and flickers, moving horizontally though the literature.

Just as the aim of channel surfing is not to find a program to watch, the goal of literature surfing, is not to find an article to read, but rather to find, assess, and exploit a range of information by scanning portions of many articles. This behavior is common among scientists (9). [Allen H. Renear and Carole L. Palmer. Strategic Reading, Ontologies, and the Future of Scientific Publishing. Science 325, 828 (2009) - behind a paywall]

What types of services are strategic readers most likely to use?


(9) D. Nicholas, P. Huntington, H. R. Jamali, T. Dobrowolski, Inf. Process. Manage. 43, 1085 (2007).

Comments: 4

Aug 30, 2009
Peter Keane

This is interesting as a follow-on to your last post about serendipity. And, I suppose, this is more to the point. What we view as serendipity is often not at all "chance" -- these encounters are statistically much more probable in an appropriately rich context. The aim of the scholar is to throw themselves into such a rich context and "look around" a bit. The rich context might be a subject-specific database, but could as likely be a hallway lined with offices of like-minded scholars (and doors ajar), or a well-stocked library. To make distinctions between "digital" and "physical" is quite beside the point. It's the geography we are after, and the hit count of a search might be as relevant as the span of shelves in a given subject area.


In my years as a reference librarian I always recommended that undergraduates embarking on an honors thesis spend some quality time with the big red volumes containing the Library of Congress Subject headings. It was (and remains) a superb jumping-off point for an understanding of the "geography" of a particular subject area. This is especially important for those subjects that may be only tangential to the main subject matter (the geography of which is likely to be quite evident in the normal course of research).


Of all of the "Semantic Web" projects, the work being done at id.loc.gov is to me the most exciting. Here is data not designed to give us answers, but data designed to give us context (using SKOS -- the "Simple Knowledge Organization System"). Librarians need a sophisticated understanding of "strategic reading" and we must develop systems that make it easier AND to emphasize its importance.

Aug 30, 2009
Peter Keane

Quick P.S.: Most of my time in a library "scanning shelves" (I do a lot of it) is spent looking at book indexes. It's my #1 strategic reading, well, strategy. Let's get all of those indexes into RDF (or whatever data format is most useful) and start building systems that allow researches to do interesting searches/visualizations/aggregations of that data. Combine that with the subject headings of each book, published date, and (perhaps) citation information and now we have a very powerful system ready to aid "strategic readers."

Aug 31, 2009
James Pakala

Indexes in books also have been to me a key factor in whether to acquire (for the library or personally). What Peter Keane suggests is exciting as long as somehow "accompanied," as with shelf browsing of those indexes, whose context includes a range of things from cataloging to experienced intuitions that use visual and tactile factors (even size, age, condition, proximities) as well as intellectual acuity brought to the encounter--and subconscious prejudices or inclinations admittedly affected somewhat differently by physical versus digital interaction.

Aug 31, 2009
Elizabeth Hostetter

As a librarian this reality has been an interest of mine for some time. In my estimateion training in semantics, a sub-discipline of linguistics, can augment this type of reading significantly. While it is important to acknowledge and describe strategic reading, it would also be interesting to know what aspect of the linguistic mind is at work. (Note that linguistics is rarely occupied with texts and focusses rather on speech and sound.)