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 "geocities.com" or "Emersoncentral.com,"
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
Ralph" they would have found this, the current, authoritative scholarly
biography of Emerson:
Richardson, Robert D., 1934-
||Emerson : the mind on fire : a biography / by Robert D.
Richardson, Jr. ; with a frontispiece by Barry Moser
||Berkeley : University of California Press, c1995
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":
||Nathaniel Hawthorne, a biography / Arlin Turner
||New York : Oxford University Press, 1980
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.
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."