Thursday, November 29, 2007

The scholarly discourse on blogs as scholarship

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research This is part 3 of a multi-part post on the subject of blogs as scholarship. It is a short introduction to the discussion of the subject in the journal and law review literature. The last post addressed the blog literature on the subject. The next section indicates the themes that emerged from the discussion, and is quite long soI may need to break it up into 2 parts.

The scholarly discourse

Quantitative research

Scholars begin to address the question of whether blogs are scholarship in journal literature at about the same time they begin to discuss the subject in the blogosphere -- in 2006 -- while general descriptions of blogs appear earlier. In 2005, Herring, Scheidt, Wright and Bonus analyzed blog content and structure, coding 55 features of 203 randomly selected blogs. The authors compared observed characteristics with commonly held beliefs about blogs, and exposed several myths. Seventy percent of their sample consisted of personal blogs; only 12.6% were “filter” blogs, those whose authors link to and comment on other bloggers’ posts. The authors had expected filter blogs to be the most common blog forms (p. 151). Slightly more than half of the blogs surveyed linked to other blogs (p. 154), in sharp contrast to popular belief that linking to other blogs, for example, having a blogroll or other list of recommended blogs, is de rigeur. Most surprising, the average blog entry received .03 comments and the majority of entries received none (p. 156). Further, comparisons of newer entries with older ones suggest that posts do not continue to collect comments; rather, comments occur during a brief period when the post is fresh (p. 156). Fewer than a third of blog posts contain any links to external content at all, this, again, in sharp contrast to the popular perception that blog posts are built around an external link (p. 156).

Herring et al. are notable for reporting an empirical research study even if the sample cannot be said to be representative of the general population. Theirs creates some basis for comparison in later discussion, suggests where research in this area might focus next and lays the groundwork for an understanding of how blogs have come to be considered potentially scholarship at all. I will discuss other of their findings below to illustrate themes that emerge from the literature generally.

Qualitative research

Craig Saper also systematically observed blogs (2006), but focused on the qualities of a small, therefore not likely representative, number of blog posts. He quotes liberally to show how “[t]he blogademia resists the hegemonic academic machine” (par. 2). In short, for Saper, blogs are gossip. But just as quickly as he appears to dismiss blogs, he turns the observation around, suggesting that gossip and scholarly knowledge are more porous categories than we might think (par. 7).

[W]hen academics gossip they may also lead to a new form of knowledge. When bloggers discuss infrastructure (who in your department is an idiot or a psychopath; how poorly the administration of your University functions; or simply the trials and travails of the tenure-track publish or perish mill), they also discuss, unwittingly, the social processes of knowledge production, what counts as scholarship, and discipline formation.

Saper’s short report, other aspects of which I will discuss below, provides a qualitative view of academic blogs and begins to raise the question of whether even in their most banal, they may be scholarship.


Herring, S. C., Scheidt, L. A., Wright, E., & Bonus, S. (2005). Weblogs as a bridging genre. Information, Technology and People, 18(2), 142-171.

Saper, C. (2006). Blogademia. Reconstruction: Studies in contemporary culture Retrieved October 12, 2007, from

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Opinion about blogs as scholarship

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchToday, there is little more than opinion on the question of whether blogs are scholarship and what that might mean. As indicated above, one may observe the discussion about blogs as scholarship in blog posts which may or may not contain scholarly writing; in posts that contain discussions about whether blog posts are scholarship, and finally, in the journal and law review literature. I have only occasionally read posts by law professors that I myself identified as scholarship, but then, what is my definition of scholarship? And whose definition really counts? Ambiguity is part of the current landscape. Few scholars discuss the questions using defined terms. But we can observe at least anecdotally that legal bloggers themselves feel that what they or other bloggers write on their blogs should in appropriate cases be considered scholarship.

Blog posts about blogs as scholarship

I first encountered discussion of blogs as scholarship on blogs themselves. I searched the Web using Google’s search engine, saved the results on the social bookmarking site,, and began tagging Web pages with “blogs as scholarship” on July 23, 2007. Later, I set up a blog alert to notify me whenever anyone discusses blogs as scholarship on a blog. I received a notice on November 14, 2007, for example. Anne Reed, a practicing trial attorney, was reviewing a book and discussed in that context how blogging had changed the discussion between law professors and practitioners (2007). Reed believes that blogs are affecting legal scholarship. She thinks that the style of blog writing evidences a change in the goals of legal scholars. They want to communicate with a wider audience, an audience that includes her. They recognize that style matters, they consciously change their style, and this in turn has made legal theory more accessible to practitioners. Practitioners and professors now talk with each other. She tells a story of this change, in blog-style (pars. 4-6):

I began lots of articles. Over and over, I set them aside because they had nothing to do with the work I was doing, or the work anybody else was doing. ... Law professors and law practitioners had little to say to each other in those days [the 80's].

It's all different now. The change isn't entirely caused by the Internet; the focus of legal scholarship itself seems to have shifted toward the practical. (So that, for example, the Empirical Legal Studies Blog could present this week "a particularly exciting example of how empirical legal scholarship can illuminate important matters about how the judicial system actually operates.").

But at least as important, as far as I can tell, is that blogging has changed the way lawyers and professors talk to each other. Practitioners hear from professors daily, not when the quarterly review comes out. Professors hear from practitioners, instead of just each other. And whenever either side posts, the other side chimes in with comments. It's a discussion.

Judges on the Second Circuit court of appeals apparently feel the same way. Douglas Berman blogged about an article covering a conference at Cardozo School of Law in Spring 2007 where judges pleaded with law professors to write more plainly about subjects relevant to the judges (Berman, 2007; Liptak, 2007, par. 17): “If the academy does want to change the world,” Judge Reena Raggi said, “it does need to be part of the world.” Berman thinks blogs posts are responsive.

The substance of the blogospheric discussion of blogs as scholarship is not that different from the discussion in the traditional scholarly literature, recounted below; it is in form that the differences are pronounced. The form of a blog post is relatively short and lacks the careful phrasing (the weasel words) and, usually, the footnotes that a polished law review article will display. The idea that blog-style expands the audience for scholarly discourse is strongly thematic of the discussion on blogs and in the traditional literature. Research about information seeking supports the assertion that how we speak can facilitate the reader’s ability to relate new information to that which is already known and understood (Kuhlthau, 1991). Reed and the judges speaking out at Cardozo would agree.

On a related theme, many scholars say that different types of communication vehicles (blogs, presentations and academic papers, among many others) function differently for them, allowing them to express their ideas in different styles. Grainne Canole (2007) posted an entry on this subject on her blog, She also said that blogs allow researchers to reveal a more complete picture of what research is about -- the process, not just the results. Her post on this subject garnered many very interesting comments, most of whose authors take a similar position.

Sometimes blog post comments raise points that are equally as interesting as the blog post itself. Jodi Dean (2006) posted a short entry describing positive and negative aspects of typical blog characteristics (pars. 1-3) (the temporality of blogs, the community that develops around them, the question of whether blog-style might be good for academe), but within a long list of comments were ideas I had not seen elsewhere:

This form of writing encouraged me to express my ideas clearly by placing me in contact with individuals coming from very diverse backgrounds, and also forced me to think quickly on my feet in quick-time exchanges. In certain respects, I believe that this sort of exchange could be described as a sort of isometrics for the mind (Posted by: Levi | June 27, 2006 at 12:13 AM)

Illustrating the back-and-forth we will see in the traditional literature, Brian Leiter, author of Law school reports, posted an entry discussing why he was not attending the Bloggership symposium at Harvard Law School (described in more detail below) (2006, par. 1).

I didn't really want to attend a conference on what strikes me as a topic of no intellectual interest. *** I find it hard to see how blogs can have much significant scholarly impact when the most significant scholars rarely participate in the forum, or, at least, rarely participate for scholarly purposes.

Apparently, although Leiter does not enable comments on his blog, some of his colleagues may have communicated with him privately, because he updated his dour pronouncements the same day with links to two posts that he felt exemplified “[f]irst-rate stuff that anyone would have been proud to have written,” adding that the Internet made it possible to get the authors’ posts out quickly to a wide audience (par. 2). Further, in a more recent post, Leiter is much more sanguine about the importance of blogging, concluding his reflection on whether they help or hinder academics by noting that speaking out publicly on important matters is part of academic life (2007, par. 8).

The idea of blog as journal appears in the literature and the blogosphere. Dan Rodick, rethinking his own earlier questioning whether the opportunity cost of blogging (time not spent working on journal articles) was worth it, decided that he and his economics colleagues would likely continue to blog partly because of the “stunning” number of people who read their blogs, and because the blog acts as an important intellectual journal (Rodrik, 2007, pars. 4-5):

Not so incidentally, one of the unexpected scholarly benefits of having a blog is that it is like keeping an intellectual journal. You get an idea, you jot it down in your blog. Some months later, you vaguely remember having had the idea and you google your own blog to recover it. I am not kidding: I google my own blog all the time...

And here is the evidence: the first third of my talk at Nottingham was based on a couple of blog posts from a few weeks back (this and this).


Berman, D. (2007). More grist for the blog-scholarship debate [Blog post]. Sentencing Law and Policy, March 19, 2007. Retrieved November 23, 2007, from

Canole, G. (2007). The nature of academic discourse [Blog post]. E-learning innovation: research, evaluation, practice and policy. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

Dean, J. (2006). Blogs and scholarship [Blog post]. i cite. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user's perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Leiter, B. (2006). Blogs as scholarship: Conference at Harvard [Blog post]. Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, April 28, 2006. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from

Leiter, B. (2007). Do blogs help or hinder professional prospects? [Blog post]. Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, November 12, 2007. Retrieved November 18, 2007, from

Liptak, A. (2007, March 19, 2007). When rendering decisions, judges are finding law reviews irrelevant. New York Times, from

Reed, A. (2007). The future of reputation, part I [Blog post]. Deliberations, November 14, 2007. Retrieved November 14, 2007, from

Rodrik, D. (2007). Why the econ-blogosphere is here to stay [Blog post]. Dani Rodrik's Weblog: Unconventional Thoughts on Economic Development and Globalization, October 19, 2007. Retrieved November 18, 2007, from

Monday, November 26, 2007

CO2Stats: Measuring a Site's Impact

So, I'm in the midst of data analysis on the blogging a draft experiment, very focused on little details like how many people visited which pages and stayed how long, right? Thinking, of course, that this is a good thing, that people come, that they see lots of pages, that they stay a long time. Well, guess what? It's a bad thing: CO2Stats: Measuring a Site's Impact. Yessir! Impact -- not in a good way. CO2 emissions.

What an eye-opener. I think of myself as pretty conscientious, but it had not even occurred to me that by trying to place things out there where people will see them, I am contributing to global warming. Well, it's incredibly obvious, now that I think about it. But here's a little widget that actually measures your blog's negative impact on the planet.

This paragraph could go on to rationalize why I shouldn't feel bad about this, but it won't. I do. I don't know why this should have brought home the importance of carbon offsets when nothing else really has (I've been studiously avoiding thinking about that whole game I suppose). Now it's personal. I am encouraging energy use (some might say frivolous energy use) by blogging. I need to do something about this. Now I need to find out the real truth about carbon offsetting. It just sounds too easy. I have a garden. Is that enough? I plant trees. I have a forest (1 acre of it anyway). Uh-oh. I'm rationalizing and I said I wouldn't. The bottom line is I have to find out what carbon offsetting is and how it works and get serious about taking responsibility for my actions.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Blogs as scholarship presentation; due in one week

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchI have been working for about 6 weeks now on the research project, blogs as scholarship, for my doctoral research and theory and radio, television and film studies classes. I'm just about finished with the lit review and analysis of future research; I must get busier with drafting the observations from my experiment at Mass Digitization. This weekend I'll set aside time to get that into at least a reasonable first draft. But for now, I need to prepare for the presentation on the lit review. The image above shows the concept map I created using cMaps Tools to talk about the relationships between the questions raised in the reports by bloggers, underlying values and beliefs, and different theories through which one might investigate further. Very cool tool. But in the mean time, I thought I might go ahead and serialize the paper in maybe 3 or 4 parts, plus the bibliography. Here's the opening:


This survey of the discussion about whether legal blogs are a form of scholarly communication includes examples from the blogosphere (the term broadly applied to all blogs on the Internet), where discussion is quite informal, and traditional and new electronic-only forms of law review and journal literature. With few exceptions, the discussion reflects opinion and non-systematic observation. Nevertheless, seven themes emerge from discussion in both locations: 1) blogs and blogging enter existing arrays of types of communication media and academic duties and must find their utility in either replacing or extending existing forms; 2) blogging can be synergistic with other academic duties and forms of scholarship; 3) essential features of blogs include their short posts, timeliness, informal style and relatively broad audience; 4) blogs build communities of readers and can be used to solicit commentary for early-stage ideas; 5) blogs have disadvantages as well as advantages; 6) they are part of an emerging Web-based, computer mediated system for establishing scholarly authority; and 7) ultimately, they are not actually driving change, rather, they are one of many effects of a shift within academe towards shorter, more open forms of disintermediated communication.

The paper next suggests research questions based upon the emergent themes just described, the need to define the concepts and values embedded in the discussion of blogs as scholarship, such as the nature of information and the values traditional forms of literature evidence, and possible theoretical frameworks within which the phenomena might be examined, including a positivist approach, a material-semiotic approach (actor-network theory), neo-pragmatism and sociocultural theory, information behavior or practice, and boundary objects.


I started blogging when I semi- retired from the practice of law and took up life as an academic. I now host four blogs, soon to be five. Blogging is tailor-made for explaining aspects of my legal specialty, copyright, to a non-legal audience. But as I consider my future academic publishing responsibilities, I wonder whether this particular communication medium might be more than merely fun. Might it be part of the process of establishing credentials as a scholar? My new career affords the opportunity to explore just such questions, and because I work in two worlds today, the law and social science, I can begin my research career by joining both in the study of legal scholarship from a social science perspective. Luckily, legal bloggers discuss whether their blogs are scholarship, so they create a self-identified group of bloggers to query, a collection of blog entries to study, and traditional scholarly literature to review.

Orin Kerr, whose views I will discuss later, defines legal scholarship as “research into and writing about the legal system in an attempt to shed light in an important and lasting way on the function, purposes, meaning, and impact of the legal system and role of law in society"(2006). The question of whether blogs are (or ever will be) legal scholarship is not academic. On the contrary, it is vitally important whether an activity that engages many legal scholars for hours each week will further their careers. Scholars thus discuss this question on their blogs, at conferences and in the journal literature. But with few exceptions, which I will review below, they do not theorize, construct models, test hypotheses, systematically observe anything or critically analyze scholarly communication. One could conclude that the absence of such features is merely characteristic of much of legal research reporting generally; however, I observed the same phenomenon in discourse on blogs as scholarship in fields other than law (Canole, 2007; Dean, 2006), and in discourse about the future of writing on the Internet generally (Serius, 2007).

Why study blogs? They are rather niche, and my interests are actually broader – the future of libraries in a networked world – but I have, little by little, accepted that the library’s future depends on just this kind of little thing. What I learn about legal blogging and its relationship to legal scholarship may tell me something about academic scholarship more broadly. But more importantly, studying legal blogging could reveal in the context of a particular communication mechanism (blogs) potentially far reaching effects of the ease with which anyone may reach a wider audience today than was possible when academic authors depended on publishers to distribute their works. Blogs are instant publishing, and instant publishing will likely do more than just publish instantly. It likely contributes to changes already taking place in the academic publishing industry, the communities of scholarly authors, and the systems of authority they depend upon to validate their work. Instant publishing enables legal scholars to reach an audience beyond the numbers and types of readers to which they were only recently limited by the small subscription bases for the journals in which they typically published. Authors must write differently for a broader public than for an insular academic audience. Writing for a broader public will have an effect on what the author writes and how it is expressed. I want to know what that effect might be and what its implications are for libraries.

For example, if any part of even some blogs might constitute scholarship, and if scholars’ use of academic blogs increases, academic libraries will need to assess how and to what extent they should collect and archive blogs (Dempsey, 2007, par. 14). Blogs locate a discourse within social networks where it is sometimes difficult to discern the contours of what we used to call a document, or a discussion. If top bloggers spend half their blogging time commenting on others’ blogs (O'Keefe, 2007), preserving blogged scholarship will likely pose interesting challenges for libraries and librarians. More fundamentally, if blogs are scholarly communication, they will compete with closed forms that communicate the same types of information, adding to the pressure on traditional scholarly publishers to take better advantage of the Web’s potential to enhance the speed, reach and effectiveness of scholarly communication. And, of course, when publishing changes, libraries change too.


Canole, G. (2007). The nature of academic discourse [Blog post]. E-learning innovation: research, evaluation, practice and policy. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

Dean, J. (2006). Blogs and scholarship [Blog post]. i cite. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

Dempsey, L. (2007). Quotes of the day (and other days?): Persistent academic discourse [Blog post]. Lorcan Dempsey's Weblog on Libraries, Services and Networks, October 28, 2007. Retrieved November 18, 2007, from

Kerr, O. S. (2006). Blogs and the legal academy. Paper presented at the Bloggership: How blogs are transforming legal scholarship. Retrieved October 12, 2007, from

O'Keefe, K. (2007). Top bloggers spend half blogging time commenting on other blogs [Blog post]. Real Lawyers Have Blogs, November 17, 2007. Retrieved November 18, 2007, from

Serius, R. (2007). Is the net good for writers? [Blog post]. Ten Zen Monkeys, October 5, 2007. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Electronic literature organization and LOC collaborate to celebrate the future of the book

I just joined a new listserv this week, the Association of Internet Researchers, AIR-L, and right away began receiving lots of mail that was sort of interesting, but it's like when you first walk into a party and conversations are already going on and you just hear snippets -- nothing really piqued my curiosity at first. Well, of course, it was overall interesting to read what all is going on in this field and to realize that Internet research is something I'm proposing to do and it's really pretty fantastic!

But this morning I noticed a message about a Library of Congress (LOC) (that sounds familiar) initiative in concert with the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) (hmmm. not so familiar) to archive 300 e-literature sites. When I read the definition of e-literature (works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer) I realized that the LOC/ELO project will quietly collect links to the very sites that I am pretty sure are a key to the future of the library. For, as the book goes, so goes the library. We are the handmaidens of the publishing industry (though they've come to see us as their enemy -- how on earth did that happen -- but that's another story). Is the book going, you might reasonably ask. Maybe, maybe not.

The LOC/ELO's main page is a wiki (of course): Main Page - ELO Archive-It Mediawiki. It links to the suggested sites so far, those up for consideration for the 300 site group.

Poking around a bit, I came across Beard of Bees, a journal of poetry that describes itself like this:

Beard of Bees is committed to publishing quality chapbooks by liberated poets from Anywhere. We do not discriminate against non-human or post-human artists. Since the alleged ownership of language and thought is a revolting legal fiction, all Beard of Bees publications are freely downloadable and freely redistributable.

Et voila. I am back directly within the premise of Mass Digitization ~ changing copyright law and policy, that the massive availability of massive amounts of free reading, listening and watching will inevitably pressure the currently massive paid, contract and DRM restricted corpus of old media content to evolve. Its owners will have to abandon that business model in order to compete effectively for our time and attention. Did you notice that the Wall Street Journal followed the New York Times into free yesterday? Where does quality really rank as a consideration when quantity alone, and the sampling, sifting through, looking for, and finally, evaluating that quantity asks of us, can take precious amounts of our time? And that's why Google rules, isn't it?

So, I spent (wasted?) 20 perfectly good minutes that I could have used to rummage around in the library (on it's password protected databases, that is) reading poetry. Here's one of Barbara Maloutas' poems from the collection called, Coffee Hazilly, published just this month:

In every American town. There is a town. In every American.
American town. There is a town. An American constantly in town.
In every American. In a star. Starbucks. Starbucks, the only constant.
In town. In starbucks. Every American. With constant parking. In
parking. In starbucks. Every American with parking. For parking.
American Starbucks. The only constant. Parking.

Me to artists, poets, filmmakers, musicians, singers and authors of books: "You want my attention, *come* and get it." Books will have to compete. "Make it easy or don't make it at all. Not because I'm lazy really, it's just that there's so much to see, to hear, to experience, and your barriers are so tiresome and not worth it."

The producer's are (or better be) listening.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Research progress report

I am really enjoying the aspect of research that I seem to have entered about a week ago. (That's me, enjoying research...) My little project "jelled," so to speak, in that I have defined it in such a way that it satisfies three requirements: 1) the analytic literature review I am doing for Phil's Doctoral Research and Theory class covers precisely the background reading I've been doing for 2) Sharon's Web 2.0 research project, and 3) it's actually fun at this stage.

This week I finished work on a survey I will administer later on to law bloggers (blawggers) and began field testing it. I got many good suggestions from friends like Kevin Smith, Alex Bienkowski and Peg O'Donnell about things to clarify and to change. I made changes, and am retesting. Carlos Ovalle, I think, is lined up but hasn't commented yet. I should check on that. Maybe he has already sent me his comments.

I began working through the voluminous online IRB process, but I don't plan to submit my application until it is closer to the time when I want to administer the survey. I expect my own experience of drafting and soliciting comments about Mass Digitization in CommentPress to produce insights that I'll want to reflect in the survey questions.

Nevertheless, I started work on the introductory letter to email recipients, and the invitation letters, modeling them on those my colleagues in this class have used. I will post these for comment from my class colleagues and Sharon when I get them to next draft stage. I also began assessing where I would get my potential survey participants from. There are several academic blogging portals, one specifically for law, so I don't think I'll have a problem finding participants. Gathering valid emails will be difficult though, I suspect.

I also continued to write about my experience with the CommentPress blog, to track data in Google Analytics and to read. I am about to post the 4th segment and am really getting into the argument, finding great source material to support it, etc. This is turning out to be a lot more interesting than writing legal papers the old-fashioned way. Before it would not have even occurred to me to support legal argumentation with references to popular literature, blogs, news stories, etc. Cases, statutes and law reviews were pretty much it, maybe some legislative history. All that still must be in the mix, but I find that I can tell a much richer story with reference to what's taking place in the world outside academe. And richer story telling is a lot more fun than poor story telling. Ok, not a fair choice of words, but it reflects how I feel about it.

In particular, this week I focused on blogs themselves, rather than writing that I find in the journal literature about blogs as scholarship. The actual scholarly blogs themselves contain both primary source materials (writing as scholarship or at least as academic discussion) and discussions about blogs as scholarship. These sources will provide great quotations to illustrate points I might want to make based on my own experience, or even points that might emerge from survey data. (Query: if you quote people who have publicly written, and cite them, assuming quotes are short, ie fair use, there's nothing here of interest to IRB types is there? And is it normal to make such uses of publicly written material without asking for permission to quote? If it is normal to ask, why is that?)

The other thing I learned this week is that in many respects, the same kinds of comments, concerns and predictions that are being discussed around the idea of blogs as scholarship are being discussed by writers generally, about writing today (as compared to pre-Internet). RU Serius (Ten Zen Monkeys) posted an interview with ten authors in which they responded to the question of whether the Internet has been good for writers. The parallels seems striking. I expect to include this observation in my writing, with relevant references (quotes) to illustrate it.

Overall, I have found exploring the primary source material a lot more interesting than exploring the discussion of the subject in journals, but I suppose that's to be expected. The life gets squeezed out of it when it's "scholar-ized." In a way, this is becoming a theme for me, how to keep the life *in* research. I wonder if this might be one of the things that blogs can do for scholarship -- reveal a bit more clearly the liveliness of scholarly pursuits. The final paper form strips so much out, including the life.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Library Quarterly’s Book Reviews

Each issue of Library Quarterly features articles and book reviews. I have previously focused on its articles, but because I must write a book review of Ben-Ari’s Just a theory in a few weeks (2005), I will take this opportunity to study Library Quarterly and other book reviews and ponder their form, function and value as preparation for this writing assignment. In the process, I will acquaint myself with some of the new works considered worthy of a review in Library Quarterly (LQ). The
October issue features nine reviews ("Reviews," 2007), and all but one held some degree of interest for me. I neglected only the review of an English-Russian dictionary ("Reviews," 2007, p. 493).

Why are there book reviews? Who reads them? Who writes them? What level of authority must the review author possess on the subject of the book she plans to review? Is it enough that the reviewer writes well and discusses the book, noting what the author does well, what he or she does not do well, perhaps compares the book to another book (this was the form for many of the reviews in October’s LQ issue)? Do readers remember review specifics or only that “someone” reviewed the book and (probably) did not say anything bad? And how does a reviewer judge what the author does and does not do well without a certain amount of experience with books on the subject or of the type she is reviewing, and is that all it takes? What if she simply does not like the author’s style or what he has to say? What makes her opinion helpful to others? Is the book review about the book or her opinion of it, or both?

These are not just idle questions (although I shall not answer them today). Book reviews seem like a solid feature of our environment and as natural as air, but book reviewers believe the sky is falling because the sections of the nation’s newspapers that carry book reviews and other information about books are shrinking (Berger, 2001; Wasserman, 2007; Whitlock, 2007). Up until now, I have not paid much attention to book reviews, but even I have noticed that there is much concern in the popular press and in the blogosphere with this reported disappearance (Berger, 2001; Wasserman, 2007; Whitlock, 2007). In spite of the bitter tone of some of these and other news stories, book reviews are not really disappearing. Most books for sale at have book reviews associated with them. David Weinberger’s new book, Everything is miscellaneous (2007), trails a list of book reviews so long I tired of reading them( Book Page, 2007). users associate book reviews with many of the works cataloged there. Even library catalogs are beginning to feature patron-written reviews of books. And, of course, there are literary blogs.

Chris Anderson, author of The long tail (2006), told a story at the O’Reilly conference, Tools for Change, of how he and his publisher plan to take advantage of literary bloggers to market his new book, due out in 2008 (Gomez, 2007, 2nd numbered par. 4):

Give away books to “influentials.” (This worked incredibly well for The Long Tail, where Anderson convinced his publisher to print 1,000 ARCs — many more than publishers usually print — and they ended up getting about 800 copies into the hands of interested bloggers. From this, more than 600 online reviews appeared, which then linked to Amazon. Anderson said that his Amazon sales outweighed his bookstore sales, leading him and his publishes to believe that all of that online-linking led to more Internet/Amazon sales.).

Ah, but that gets to the heart of the problem. None of these alternative review venues requires that those who write reviews possess any particular expertise. Let the reader decide. We thus confront the debate between authority and expertise on the one hand and “hive mind” or “group think” or amateurism or whatever term we apply today to the age-old phenomenon of those without expertise challenging those with it. Nunberg noted that Carlyle in the nineteenth century and Johnson in the eighteenth complained about the ease with which just anyone could publish anything (1996, p. 23). The experts always have a smaller piece of the pie than they would like. But reviewers of all types will continue to review books (and Websites, and blogs, and movies, and music, and plays, and art exhibits) and we will continue to read their reviews.

Being pragmatic, I was satisfied with LQ’s reviews because they were plainly written and required no specific subject-matter expertise on my part to learn from them, yet they effectively persuaded me that I should go out and buy books. None persuaded me that I should not buy a book, which would be equally as practical a result as being persuaded to buy one; rather, most did not persuade me one way or the other. This seems about right. Eight reviews, and I will consider buying one book, maybe two. Perhaps that explains at least in part why I have not read reviews much in the past.

The review I shall recall for some time, probably until I buy the book, was Thomas Mann’s review of The Oxford guide to research (Michelle M. Kazner)("Reviews," 2007, p. 491). The title of the book reveals why this particular review appealed to me. I am desperate to figure out research. The other reviews were not less well written; they were just not about books for which I have more than passing curiosity.

Examining the form, function and value of book reviews in this essay has convinced me of more than the value of a book or two, however. The exercise has turned me into a book review reader. I have relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends about what to read, but no more. I look forward to next quarter’s LQ and am on my way to bookmark a couple of literary blogs. I will be a book review writer the week after next.

References Book Page. (2007). Sales page for: Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. Retrieved October 29, 2007, from

Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail. New York: Hyperion.

Ben-Ari, M. (2005). Just a theory. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Berger, K. (2001, July 19, 2001). The incredible vanishing book review.

Gomez, J. (2007). Free the people: Chris Anderson at O'Reilly TOC: Print is dead: Books in our digital age.

Nunberg, G. (1996). Farewell to the information age. In G. Nunberg (Ed.), The future of the book. Berkeley, CA: Brepols (Belgium) and University of California Press.

Reviews. (2007). Library Quarterly, 77(4), 477-497.

Wasserman, S. (2007). Goodbye to all that. Columbia Journalism Review.

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