Book-Length Scholarly Source Quality: What your high-school teachers never taught you

        First, click here to read a bibliography that was used in a presentation to provide cultural background on Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Please open and skim it before you read further.  The authors deserve praise for their foresight in attempting to use electronic distribution rather than dead trees to move this information to you.  They are serving their readers, and that's the ultimate goal of all academic research and writing.

     The group's report offers a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of all the research English 105 students typically do as a class in the early stages of the course.  Unlike some research groups, these folks actually hit the library, and though they included web sites which would not be acceptable for the paper, clearly they did not rely entirely on sources with the scholarly authority of "" or "," clearly "fan" sites which don't follow the basic scholarly law, "Tell the truth" (as in don't tell me easy-to-find information, but tell me all and only correct information!).  They found some print publications relevant to Emerson.  One book is only 31 years old.  The rest are ancient, one being as old as I am (yikes! 1949!) and the other being published in 1921.  Though the humanities are not as fast-moving as the natural sciences, shouldn't we expect that something new has been written about Emerson's life in the last 82 years?  That's the trap your high schools have laid for you by rewarding you for the number of sources rather than their quality.
     Here are the basic rules for book-length print sources:
1)  unless there is a period issue involved (they talked about this in the 1930s and haven't mentioned it since), nothing should be used that's over two or three decades old unless you have checked with the instructor about its quality, and the most recent (post-2000) books always are preferred over older ones if the next two tests are not violated;
2)  when you have a choice between university press books and commercial publishers (Scribners, Barnes and Noble, even Knopf and Basic!), choose the university press books;
3)  when you have a choice between university press books from smaller presses and those from the majors (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, UCalifornia, UMinnesota, UIllinois, UIndiana, and the English counterparts, Oxford and Cambridge), choose the heavy hitters because they had to pass a far more tough peer review process to make it.
     Exceptions are numerous, and I don't want to encourage snobbery, but these are generally accepted truths in the profession.  In the natural and social sciences, sources older than a decade or two may be "antique," useful only for general history of science research.  Publications by "bottom feeder" presses may contain useful insights, but they have to be read far more carefully for errors because their peer reviewers and editors are not as good as those working for the "top tier" presses.  That is a fact of life you know from consumer product purchases--when you have a choice between a Kia and  Benz, you'll pick the Benz.  Do so in academic research.
        Had this research group done a Library of Congress Subject search on "Emerson, Ralph" they would have found this, the current, authoritative scholarly biography of Emerson:
  Richardson, Robert D., 1934-
Title Emerson : the mind on fire : a biography / by Robert D. Richardson, Jr. ; with a frontispiece by Barry Moser
Pub. info. Berkeley : University of California Press, c1995
  Main Collection  816 E53Sri 

The most useful biographical background for students writing papers on Hawthorne would be a similar scholarly biography on him.  This is what you get from a LOC Subject search on "Hawthorne, Nathaniel":

Author Turner, Arlin
Title Nathaniel Hawthorne, a biography / Arlin Turner
Pub. info. New York : Oxford University Press, 1980
  Main Collection  816 H39St    AVAILABLE

Note that each of these authors is represented in the library collection by only one biography of this quality.  Until new information becomes available about the author or the biographer's judgment is called into question, scholarly biographies tend to rule their domains for many years.  When a new one supercedes these, we will buy it.  They are the only acceptable scholarly source of biographical information about their subjects, and anything from "fan" web sites is, at best, stolen from them, or at worst, inaccurately stolen from them or taken from another non-scholarly source.

        Next hard lesson: journal publications often are far better for your purposes than books, and they contain things never published in books, whereas much of what is in books already has been published in journal articles.  Why? The answers have to do with the physical demands necessary to publish journals vs. those which result in books, and with the intentions of the authors and readers of each type of information "package."