Finding, citing & evaluating books: evaluating

Why do you have to evaluate books found in a university library?  Aren’t they all good?

Unfortunately, no.  University libraries strive to buy the best books they can.  However, information ages: new data renders older theories and interpretations useless, and well-known  authors, such as the late Stephen Ambrose, are caught plagiarizing.  University libraries also buy books for courses on topics such as pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience & pseudohistory books can be difficult to identify unless you’re an expert in the field.  The authors of such books present evidence to support their views;  they just don’t adhere to commonly accepted scholarly methods and requirements for evidence, or claim that evidence contrary to their beliefs is made up.  Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Godsis a classic example of of pseudoscience.  Books by Holocaust deniers are an example of pseudohistory.

You need to evaluate books for other reasons as well.  You need to determine if the book is relevant for your needs, if it is current enough,  if it contains quality information and if it’s the right kind of source (scholarly/popular and primary/secondary) for your assignment.

You may also want to evaluate a book to decide if it’s worth spending your time on it.  Reading a book is a definite time commitment.

EVALUATING  BOOKS

The reading on Evaluation discussed criteria for evaluating different sources.  You need to keep the chart from the Evaluation reading in mind and consider those factors.  In this reading, we’re going to look at determining if the book is scholarly or popular.

1.  COVERS & TITLE

Check out the cover and title.  You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, BUT the cover plus the title will often give a hint as to whether it’s popular or scholarly. 

Probably Scholarly

  • Cover is plain, or uses a piece of art or a photograph related to the subject of the book
  • Title suggests a work aimed at an audience of specialists.  For example:

    Example of a scholarly book cover

    Example of a scholarly book cover

Probably popular

  • Covers have bright interesting art of different types in order to attract buyers.
  • Non-fiction titles suggest a work that will interest readers with a variety of interests and backgrounds.

NOTE:  It can be very difficult to tell if history books are popular or scholarly.  As a general rule, the scholarly books will have significantly more notes and references and more extensive use of primary sources.   Sources in a foreign language are less likely to be translated.

Popular book cover

Popular book cover

Possibly trade

  • Covers can look like popular or scholarly, so you need to check the title.
  • Title should contain a hint that the work has a practical, how-to orientation

    Trade book cover

    Trade book cover

DON’T RELY ON TITLE/COVER ALONE  

The book cover shown below is primary and scholarly.

Cover of a book that looks popular, but is scholarly & popular.Courtesy of Amazon.

Cover of a book that looks popular, but is scholarly &  primary.
Courtesy of Amazon.

2.  CHECK OUT THE AUTHORS

  • Do they have a degree in the field that they’re writing about?
  • Are they affiliated with a university, museum, or other reputable group?
  • What is their reputation in their field?  (You’ll need to use a search engine to find out)
  • Look for where they work,  a brief bio on  a university department web page, lists other publications, etc.

Authors who meet all or most of the criteria above are most likely scholarly.  Popular books are often written by journalists and others without academic credentials.   Some popular books are written by experts who are presenting their work in an easily understandable fashion and, just to make things difficult,  some journalists write books with the rigor expected of those with extensive academic credentials.

You’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to find all of this information.   (Yes, you are expected to track down this kind of information.)
  • Find and read:  forewords, afterwords, cover blurbs,  etc. – they often have useful information.  This is why you need the whole book even if you don’t read all of it.  Don’t even think of grabbing a couple of pages  off of Google books unless you can find enough information about the author and the rest of the book.
  • Check the editorial reviews on Barnes and Noble  (they usually have the best editorial reviews) or Amazon.
  • Barnes and Noble editorial reviews often give author affiliation – click on the Overview tab.  (You may need to scroll down.)

    Example of author information from Barnes & Noble.

    Example of author information from Barnes & Noble.
    Courtesy Barnes & Noble.

  • You can look at reader reviews, but you must be very careful using them.  Drop the one  star and five-star reviews.  Look for the two – four star reviews that say specifically why they did or didn’t like the book AND that give examples from the book.
  • Read book reviews.  Academic Search Premier and JSTOR are good places to look for book reviews.  Most subject databases will also have reviews of books in those subject areas.
  • You can ask a professor.  Just be aware that they have their biases too.
  • You can try Wikipedia or do a search, but then you have to be concerned about the quality of the information that you find.
If the author is an academic and/or has scholarly credentials, the book is probably scholarly. Even if popular, it is probably a well done book.  And yes, journalists can write books that are good enough and well documented enough to be called scholarly.  Check with your professor before using one of these – some instructors don’t want books unless they’re written by academic historians.
PUBLISHERS
 Check out the publisher of a book.  Books are usually scholarly if they are published by:
  •  A university press.  University presses usually include the word “university” in their name.
    For example:  Oxford University Press, University of Chicago Press, etc.
  • A professional organization.  The words “association,”  “society,”  “institute,” and related terms will usually appear in the name.
    For example: the  Modern Language Association and the Geological Society of America.
  • Trade books are often published by professional organizations and some specialty publishers.
  • There are also some important publishing companies that specialize in academic books.
    For example:  Wiley, Elsevier, ABC-CLIO, and Routledge.
  • In addition to specialty publishers, many of the large publishing companies, such as HarperCollins, have an academic branch.

FRONT MATTER

Front matter is the stuff before you get to the actual book content.  If your book includes a foreword, introduction, prologue, prolegomenon, etc. that discusses the authors and their work AND there is a detailed table of contents,  this is a strong indication that the book is scholarly.
BACK MATTER
The stuff at the back of the book, after the main content, is called back matter.  Good indicators of a scholarly book include:
  • afterword – this is similar to a foreword, but is at the end of the book.  Often, an author will give more information as to why s/he wrote the book the way they did.
  • references, works cited or bibliography
    NOTE:  for history books and older books in all field, check for footnotes that include bibliographic information (citations).
  • appendices (singular = appendix).  An appendix contains additional  information that supports the author’s thesis, but doesn’t really fit into the main body of the book.
  • an extensive index.  Popular books frequently have a fairly short index that links to the major topics.  In most scholarly books,  you can find reference to a large number of small, sub-topics as well.
  • maps or illustrations (these can also be listed in the front matter – occasionally, they are part of the front matter, they can also be in the body of the book) Are maps, illustrations, photos, etc. good quality and well labeled?
Remember that these criteria are indicators.  The more of the indicators listed above  a book has, the more likely it is scholarly.  The fewer the indicators,  the more likely the book is popular.  Trade books should have the practical, how- to orientation.

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