Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Africa: A Guide to Reference Material (2nd edition). John McIlwaine. Lochcarron, Scotland: Hans Zell Publishing, 2007.
Is reviewing a print-only research guide in an online-only journal anachronistic? It shouldn’t be. As an Africanist librarian colleague aptly puts it, “while Google may be pretty good for Goethe, it is not nearly as good for Gao” (Henige 2005:2). My own library experience and nearly ten years of teaching graduate students effective methods to pursue their own library research on African-related topics supports my belief (along with generations of librarians) that quality printed guides such as this one remain valuable and have a significant, continuing role to play in scholarly research on Africa. This is true even as academic libraries themselves become increasingly digital, virtual and, it may seem at times, infinite. Research in the library, with the advice of a specialist librarian if available and using high quality print resources in combination with the catalog and an array of useful tools now available online, shouldn't be unfamiliar, unusual, or anachronistic for Africanist scholars. This is especially true for beginning researchers and anyone working outside his or her established area of expertise.
Electronic full-text, indexed or abstracted resources accessed at home and in the office are, of course, a great benefit to most researchers. They save us time, gas, and the inconvenience of multiple trips to the library as we rush to complete complex work on deadline. A vast and diverse array of online resources enriches our professional and everyday lives while enabling entirely new kinds of research. My own work and that of people I assist every day is enhanced by quick, easy access to scholarship via powerful web search engines, free library catalogs online, links to scanned books, subscription databases and electronic journals with hypertext-citations. While I’m not an early technology adopter, I advocate and promote the usefulness of a range of electronic tools and resources, especially as they begin to mature and become reliable for researchers in the fields I support.
It may be difficult to imagine that the solutions to all one’s research problems aren’t available online. This is especially true at any major academic university in the developed world, where it’s likely that on behalf of faculty and students the library spends several million dollars each year providing access to research resources and the tools to locate these effectively. However, it’s worth reflecting on what might be lacking from connected computers, because print publications (old and new) are sometimes the best tools available despite the prevalence, convenience, and astonishing growth of electronic resources. Importantly, the disadvantages of relying solely on online searches (for scholarly research, especially in interdisciplinary or area studies fields) may remain hidden.
There is no single, comprehensive or best online index for all of African Studies. It’s easy to overlook a standard work or an important set of foreign language sources within a web search engine’s often overwhelmingly large number of returned results, the order of which are based on a fine-grained, full-text keyword analysis automatically sorted by “relevance.”  Technical and proprietary issues can undermine online searches in purely scholarly tools too, as when an otherwise effective query appears to be conducted on scanned page images as displayed to the reader (e.g. in JSTOR), but which in fact is implemented on hidden plain text files that remain inaccessible to the end user and which are generated by notoriously error-prone optical character recognition (OCR) software. While some such problems may be effectively addressed in the future, others may persist for various reasons (including potential conflicts of interest in search engine companies’ business models). In any case, scholarly standards require researchers to understand a defined aspect of the literature completely and with great confidence; it’s incumbent on us to practice the most reliable methods available to assure adequate intellectual coverage and eliminate gaps in literature reviews and research writing.
Employing a library reference collection for searches, especially one that has been developed and managed with a focus on African Studies, is an important part of an effective, reliable and highly complementary overall strategy to the many available online search approaches. The value of reference materials “to find the best information quickly” is widely misunderstood and underappreciated (Mann 2005). It’s a misconception that reference sources should simply find something factual on a particular topic. This former (always low level) function of library reference services now largely has been replaced by online tools, which generally is a good thing. The more important role of reference work in the scholarly research process has not at all diminished: with proper training and perhaps occasional professional guidance, a researcher can learn to identify the best quality information from reliable sources with great efficiency. Within one’s own field of expertise such tools are not generally necessary. However, beginning scholars, non-specialists and advanced researchers outside of their area of expertise can all benefit greatly from the support provided by a specialist librarian or a high quality, printed reference guide and a good reference book collection. Relying on the expert guidance of an author such as John McIlwaine (Emeritus Professor of the Bibliography of Asia and Africa as well as the 1998 winner of the ASA’s Conover-Porter Award for Excellence in Africana Reference) is a particularly good way to get started with a few of the best quality resources available.
Printed sources in specialized, financially risky markets such as reference publishing for African Studies are becoming scarce, while lucrative, large market, general resources proliferate online and on library shelves (Zell 2005). Can the purchase of such a specialized guide be justified (at a list price of $260) in light of the convenience, popularity and general coverage of so many other reference tools? For any library with a modest African Studies collection or with a reasonably large general reference section, McIlwaine’s guide proves its worth beyond a doubt. It can serves multiple purposes for a range of users and will save readers time while guiding them quickly to some of the best information sources online and in library print collections.
The introduction to McIlwaine's guide is a valuable review of the publishing history of African Studies reference works. He offers a survey of essential sources and complementary works that itself could be used to create the foundation of a good reference collection. Several excellent internet guides are included (e.g. those of Karen Fung at Stanford, Yuusuf Caruso at Columbia and Peter Limb at Michigan State University), all admirably comprehensive, reliable starting points for specialized African Studies research on the web. A good reference guide such as this one also can be of great value in identifying “flagship collections” in unexpected places, hidden collections under one’s own nose and archival resources available for interlibrary loan in microfilm format, allowing one to limit the need for expensive and time-consuming research trips to distant archives or libraries. It has further value as a checklist of resources to confirm coverage or to remind oneself of valuable standard sources online and in print.
The guide itself reflects McIlwaine’s long and distinguished experience in the service of generations of researchers, developing and using some of the world’s foremost collections for scholarship on Africa, Asia and British relations with these world areas. The preface and introduction clearly outline the guide’s purpose, scope, coverage, goals and organization. Entries, arranged regionally and topically, then by author or title, frequently incorporate brief comments from independent reviews, traced to their sources in over 80 journals. It sets a very high standard indeed for future reference book authors.
Coverage is for sub-Saharan Africa from 1938 forward for non-arbitrary reasons clearly set forth but also to save space for material not covered in the first edition, which therefore remains valuable itself. Excluded from consideration are bibliographies, single language dictionaries, handbooks for specific organizations, compilations of laws and treaties, indexes and abstracts in favor of other reference sources. Included and considered are many statistical compilations, organizational directories, biographical sources, encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, atlases and gazetteers, handbooks and yearbooks, and a number of specific series such as those by the War Office and Admiralty of Britain and similar series from France and Germany. Unlike the preceding edition, sources on the biology, habitat, geology and earth sciences relating to Africa are included, with particular attention to flora and fauna. The organization is practical, convenient and logical, with excellent indexing, clear headings and multiple points of access making it a pleasure to browse while still providing quick access to authors and titles. There is no question in my mind that this will be a valuable addition to reference collections worldwide and will prove its value many times over even as online sources become even more prominent and available for African Studies researchers.
Daniel Reboussin University of Florida
 Relevance rankings are based on a search engine’s proprietary, “black box” algorithm—another topic all together, but one that deeply concerns some writers, who question the commercial motives, scholarly appropriateness, language coverage and cultural sensitivities of the engine’s software engineers and their corporate employers. For example, Meng (2008) notes “the conflict-of-interest inherent in Google’s business model” and asks “are Google's customers really the individuals searching for information, or are they the advertisers who actually increase Google's revenues and stock value?”
Evalds, Victoria K. and David Henige (eds.). 2005. Africanist Librarianship in an Era of Change. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.
Henige, David. 2005. “Coping with an information world measured in terabytes.” pp. 1-5 In Evalds and Henige (eds.).
Mann, Thomas. 2005. The Oxford Guide to Library Research, 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
-----. 2006. “Doing research at the Library of Congress: A guide to subject searching in a closed stacks library.” (December 22, 2006). Research Guide No. 46. Washington, DC: Humanities and Social Sciences Division, Library of Congress. Available online: http://www.loc.gov/rr/main/research/research.html viewed June 27, 2008.
Meng, Grace. 2008. “What exactly is Google up to?” Blog post on My Place in the Crowd, February 6th. (Common Datatrust Foundation, URL: http://blog.myplaceinthecrowd.org/2008/02/06/what-exactly-is-google-up-to/ viewed June 24, 2008).
Zell, Hans. 2005. “The perilous business of reference publishing in African Studies.” pp. 199-226 In Evalds and Henige (eds.).