Vetting Sources – The Book Review

One of the first things I do when I discover a new monograph (that’s a fancy word for book) source is look for reviews.

The academic publishing field can be pretty brutal. You publish your book, and there will be reviews of it that will be published in the various journals that have the same readership you’d like your book to have. These reviews might be glowing, encouraging people, usually fellow academics or library professionals, to add your book to their collections, or scathing, warning those same people away from your shoddy research and inaccurate conclusions.

This is an excellent way to vet a book – it’s similar to the customer review section of any online shopping website, only these are academics who, presumably, are well-versed in their field and so are coming to the book with a contextual body of knowledge.

So how do you search for book reviews? The same way you search for other journal articles! The key here is that the title of the book and the author are going to be your search terms. You can sometimes get hits by searching Google/Google Scholar, but if you want to be very specific, you can go straight to the journal you want to look in (you know, the one you have already saved fifteen articles from), or you can search databases like JSTOR, Proquest, or Taylor and Francis.

Sometimes, the reviews will be mixed. Sometimes they will be united in their critique. But it’s always a good idea to get a sampling, so you’re not relying on one person’s opinion. It’s also a good idea to look up who the reviewer is to check their credibility on the topic.

And even if the reviews are bad? Well, you still might want to take a look at the book, though maybe through a more cost-efficient method like inter-library loan, but do so with the grains of salt cautioned by the reviewers.

So let’s walk through this.

For this, we’ll look at The Westerners among the Figurines of the T’ang Dynasty of China by Jane Gaston Mahler, published in 1959. This is a series of photographs of tomb figurines with some accompanying text describing their clothing, etc. It’s been awhile since I held this book in my hands, but if memory serves, there was no indication of where the figurines originally came from (which is a problem when looking at this kind of art – because they were often the result of outright tomb robbery in addition to questionably ethical academics coming in to China from abroad). Provenance is important when looking at any extant item. Without provenance, you have no real substantial proof that the Thing is what it is being purported to be. (Psst. Go read Konstantia Kaloethina’s post on the importance of provenance. I will wait.)

I won’t be going into a lot of detail with these reviewers, but you can follow the links to each of their reviews (in JSTOR) to read them yourself. I’ll just be pulling out some of their summary comments.

To begin with, let’s look at Henry Truber’s review (1959), published in Artibus Asiae. Dr. Trubner received his Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Harvard in 1947 and worked as a curator for Oriental Art throughout his career (sorry that this source isn’t better; you’d think it would be easy tracking down credentials of Sinologists from the 1930s-60s…). Truber points out the photographs and discussion of costume as being “a distinct and commendable service to modern scholarship”, but also notes the number of typographical errors as well as Mahler’s tendency to quote well-established facts at length within her text where a footnote would have sufficed. What sticks out to me is his point that Mahler’s “racial” identification methods are faulty (because of course they are – thanks, pre-Civil Rights bunkum. This is a Very Good Reason to pay attention to publication dates and the diction used when people not part of that culture discuss the history of marginalized cultures):

p. 264

Edward H. Schafer‘s own academic focus was on China’s interactions with other cultures during the Tang Dynasty. Dr. Schafer worked as a professor in UCLA Berkeley’s Department of Oriental Languages from 1947-1984, serving as president of the American Oriental Society and receiving many distinctions throughout his career.

In his review (1959), published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Schafer agrees with Trubner that Mahler’s descriptions of clothing are far more useful than her attempt to classify them by “race” as opposed to region or culture. He also notes Mahler’s clunky, extended use of quotes in her section on the history of Western China.

p. 206

Still, like Trubner, he recommends the book to students, noting that his own criticism as “carping.”

The last review we will look at is by Dr. Richard Edwards, a prominent historian of Asian art who wrote extensively about Chinese paintings and taught at Brandeis University, Washington University in St. Louis (where he was at the time of this review), and the University of Michigan. Edwards’s review (1960) is in the Journal of Asian Studies.

Edwards makes many of the same points that Trubner and Schafer did, but also notes that the twelve pages on clothing need to be taken with a grain of salt:

“We are told (p. 115) that ‘Dignitaries of the seventh and eighth centuries . . . adopted pleated cuffs and bands like the Kuchans (Fig. 6).’ The drawings of the Chinese in Fig. 6 show extremely long sleeves, and if the cuffs are there they cannot be deciphered.”

p. 337

Of the three, Edwards feels the most scathing in the end.

p. 337

There might be more at play here bubbling beneath the surface. All three reviews came out not long after Mahler’s book was published, as would be expected. All three were from men recognized in the field via academic postings or their own research and publications. Remember – Mahler is Jane Mahler. While Schafer worked to see policy changed at the University of California so that women could have full professor status, that was in the 1970s – far be it from us to say whether or not he had these same views of equality a decade prior. I also don’t want to assume that Trubner and Edwards were misogynists, but as sexism in academia is still an issue in 2019, I don’t think it’s an unfair assumption.

I want to point out that Dr. Jane Gaston Mahler was the first woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in Oriental Art History (Columbia, but I can’t find a date). She taught at Barnard College and Columbia University.

All that aside, I hope this exercise was helpful. Again, (scholarly) book reviews can be found anywhere you look for academic articles already – JSTOR, EBSCO, etc. It’s also not a bad idea to keep track of the journals specific to your area of study and check their tables of contents every now and again to see reviews for new titles to add to your wishlist.

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Intellectual Property, Public Domain, and What Are Even Citations

Found in the Internet Wilderness (aka Reddit), shared on social media, and the inspiration for this post.

Hat tip to Mistress Sunneva de Cleia for sharing the horrendous screencap above.

Note: I wrote this very quickly as a response to the image at the very beginning. If I got something wrong, or if you think something could be cleared up, please leave a comment and let me know. We’re all here to help and learn from one another.

Hey. Internet-person.

We need to talk.

We need to talk about what “intellectual property” and “public domain” and “citations” actually mean. Because I think if you knew what they meant, you wouldn’t say things like in the comment at the beginning of this post, and because you’d understand that pointing to the people who said something before you said it actually strengthens what you’re trying to say.

Intellectual Property

I won’t pull out any fancy legaleze here, so don’t worry. It’s a pretty broad term, but Intellectual property is basically:

  • Anything intangible (that means you can’t touch it) you create using your brain-meat and creativity;
  • that is new and didn’t exist before you thought of it (derivative works, meaning works that build off other works are okay); and,
  • that you could apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, or some other legal protection for – meaning that it has to be something that can be turned into something that someone else can interact with – an image, sound, words, invention, etc.
Oh look! A video about IP that’s super easy to understand! Look at that! It’s really a series of seven videos, but… still. It’s trying to take a complex thing and make it simple in 10 minute chunks. Plus, Crash Course is neat.

So okay – for the purposes of our discussion, for which I am going to assume the author of the screenshotted comment was snarking against someone asking for them to credit them, and because this is an SCA blog – let’s work on the assumption that your Intellectual Property is some documentation you’ve written for an A&S project. It’s also the object you made, and any sort of diary you kept to document the process – be that in a blog, in a notebook, or a series of Facebook posts. It’s all Intellectual Property, and it’s all yours – though you may have given some rights to some other entities when you posted it online, such as Facebook or YouTube. Aren’t Terms of Usage of Service great?

Citations

In your documentation, you’re trying out a new method for doing a thing based on a supposition you’ve made after doing your research. Fun! Okay – but you still have to point to that research. That research is the intellectual property of the people who did that research and published it. Citing them – giving them credit – supports your claims and makes you a more credible person. If you cite a source to support a claim, or to lay out the groundwork which you then draw your suppositions from, the people who read your work can look back at those sources and go “Oh! Okay – I see how they got there. Neat!”

If you don’t cite these sources, you’re violating the Intellectual Property Rights of those researchers. You’re basically claiming to have done all the work they did – and you didn’t. If you cite the source, you’re thanking the researchers and acknowledging the work they did. It doesn’t make you lesser than the researchers you cite. Building on what others have done before you is important. Claiming what they did as your own is plagiarism – the theft of intellectual property.

Another video! This one has PUPPETS. 😀

Public Domain

“But if it is on the internet, it’s in the public domain.”

Nope.

The Public Domain is where things previously protected by copyright, patent, trademark, etc. go after that protection has expired. Currently, in the US, that’s 70 years after the death of the author. If it is a work produced by the US Government, it’s likely already in the public domain. Anything published (again, this is US law) before 1924 is fair game.

“Okay, so if it is in the public domain, then I don’t have to cite it?”

I mean, I guess not technically? But it’ll still be pretty nasty of you to do so. It’s not really theft, but again – citing your source is about more than just avoiding prosecution. The Night of the Living Dead is in the Public Domain, but you didn’t write or film it. To not credit Romero makes you just look… bad.

It’s not a good look.

So don’t be gross. Use citations. Give credit to the works you’re building off of – whether they are professional researchers/academics or fellow SCAdians. Be honest about where you found stuff. Be honest about when you’re drawing conclusions. This is how we all benefit and get better and learn from and with each other.

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Alerts!

It’s been a bit, and for that, Oh Internet, I apologize.

One of my 2019 SCA resolutions is to post here at least once a month, so hopefully you will start seeing some “regular” content. My last post is from over 2 years ago, and in that span of time I have done quite a bit, including bringing another child into the world. Much of my current research has been on garment construction in Tang Dynasty China, as part of the Epic Timey-Wimey Garb Project. Don’t fret, though. I have been equally neglectful of the SCA Reference Desk, if not moreso.

But today I want to talk about Google Scholar Alerts. Google Alerts, you may know, are searches you can set up to email you (either individually or in a digest) when the search engine discovers a new page relevant to your search terms. It’s super great for staying on top of stuff.

I have two alerts set up for “Tang Dynasty” – one is a straight Google Alert and one is a Google Scholar alert. The Google Alert mostly pops on articles from Chinese news sources, and the content is rarely relevant to me – it lacks citations, and is often just a historic nod in a “this has been going on for this long”sort of way. Not the sort of thing you’d want to include in your reference list for documentation.

On the other hand, the Google Scholar alerts get me some really interesting stuff – some of it is modern (those historical nods again), but I get a fair bit of archeological articles. Today’s alert included an article about cultural exchange between China’s Tang Dynasty and the Sasanid Empire as seen in ceramics.

So how do you set up a Google Scholar alert? Super easy. But I’m going to let Richard Byrne do it, because he covers some other cool stuff Google Scholar can do to help you find and save articles.

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Writing Documentation: Step Four, The Writing

It’s been awhile between posts in this series. Let’s summarize a bit, shall we?

Step One: You have a basic understanding of how to put communicate ideas and concepts in writing.

Step Two: You researched a Thing – who did the Thing, how they did the Thing, what the Thing was for, etc.

Step Three: You did the Thing, taking notes and pictures along the way.

Now you’re ready to share the Thing with others, which means writing up Documentation about the Thing – whether it’s meant to be printed out and sit alongside the Thing in a fair/competition/display or be published on your blog/website.

Getting Started

Documentation can be basic and brief, or it can be long and thorough. I tend to lean toward the latter when I sit down to write documentation. (Notes on the back of scrolls are a little different – I simply cite whatever extant I used as inspiration, the folio, date, and holding institution and call it good – but if I were to enter a C&I piece into a fair/competition, I would do a full write-up. Here’s a scribal-specific template!)

Try your very, very best no to wait until the night before an event to write/finish your documentation. This is the same advice you got when you were told not to wait until the night before to do your homework/write that research paper/etc. For a myriad of reasons, it’s best to get things done with ample time for editing, review, and printing physical copies. I’ve done the late-night dash to a Kinkos the night before an event I traveled several hours to in order to print off my documentation – it’s not a fun dash.

Gather up all your notes, files, pictures, etc. before you start writing. This is where the notebooks, or digital tools like Google Drive or Evernote can come in handy.

Let’s get to it!

Continue reading “Writing Documentation: Step Four, The Writing”

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Writing Documentation: Step Three, The Execution

Are you ready for Step Three?

You’ve got an idea of the Thing you want to do. You researched the Thing to get a better idea, and even to develop an understanding of how the Thing was done in period.

So now you have to Do the Thing.

Continue reading “Writing Documentation: Step Three, The Execution”

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Writing Documentation – Step Two, The Research

In the first post in this series, I talked about the basics of writing research – which are really just the basics of writing. There are lots of “how to write documentation” guides out there, which I will link to in Step Four, The Writing, but even if you’re following an outline/template/guide, writing in a clear, concise style that is easy for people to read and understand while pointing them to where they can find out more about The Thing You Did is a skill. And all skills can be honed and tweaked and improved upon.

But before you can write, before you can even Make the Thing, you need to research.

Continue reading “Writing Documentation – Step Two, The Research”

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Writing Documentation – Step One, The Basics

This is the first in a series of posts related to writing documentation. Click the category tag on this post to see them all.

Full disclosure: I was once a high school English teacher. Now I am a librarian. Writing, research, and writing about research are THINGS with me.

Documentation is all about writing. You’re writing what you learned about the Thing you did, both from a research and an execution standpoint. It’s a way to share more than just the finished item. You’re sharing the entire project journey through your documentation.

When you’re writing documentation, try to write in a clear, accessible style – imagine that you are explaining the Thing you did to someone who knows next to nothing about the Thing. For example, when I was writing my documentation on Han Dynasty silk shoes, I talked about the history of silk in China – and I cited my sources. I didn’t go into a lot of detail, because there have been entire books written about the history of Chinese silkworm cultivation and silk production, but I made sure that if the reader wanted to, they had a place to go to learn more.

And that’s the thing – make it easy on your reader. Organize your documentation so that it flows, and proof-read it for mistakes that snag the eye or cause confusion. Treat it like you’re going to publish the finished product – either as a blog post, academic paper, or some other online or print resource.

Even if your project isn’t the be-all and end-all version of something, treat it like a hundred people are going to look at it as a potential reference for their own project. Honestly? This is one of the reasons why I love the SCAdian Internet. If I’m starting out on a new project journey, one of my first steps is to see if someone else has already blazed a trail. I can learn from that person – what worked, what didn’t work, and what resources were helpful to them. Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel.

Back when I was in college, I had a little spiral bound book that was a Sacred Text for all English majors – The Beacon Handbook. It’s a great little book that is easy to use and answers pretty much any question you may have about:

  • writing mechanics;
  • style; and,
  • format.

The Beacon is what taught me that it is a Right and Proper Thing to put semicolons at the end of items in a bulleted list that are part of a sentence, along with the ” and,” before the last item.

But the Beacon isn’t the only writing guide out there – find one that you like. Look for writing guides at your local library. Ask your favorite English Teacher friend for their recommendations. Browse the bookstore’s offerings.

The last piece of basic advice I can give is to write about your project from the start. Keep an A&S journal. This can be a physical notebook, a blog, or even a series of posts on social media. You’ll be thankful for this record of your process, pictures you took and shared, resources you looked at, and notes you took when it comes to writing your formal documentation.

I’ll leave you with a tease of future links to the rest of the blog posts in this series:

Writing Documentation – Step Two, The Research

Writing Documentation – Step Three, The Execution

Writing Documentation – Step Four, The Writing

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