Problems with online musicology bibliographies

The Oxford Bibliographies Online logo, with its tell-tale slogan.

I received an email this morning alerting me that one of my publications had been recommended as ‘a must-read resource’ on Oxford Bibliographies Online (apparently the latest in Oxford University Press’s online projects), about which I hadn’t previously heard. Naturally interested to find out what this meant I followed the login details provided by the site and found myself listed as ‘provocative’ (possibly the word most frequently used to describe my work) in the entry on Benjamin Britten by Heather Wiebe (the link to the article will probably only work with a subscription to OBO, but my ‘provocative’ article can be found here).

A quick survey of  the articles available revealed a very curious spread of subjects, which in musicology (only one of 16 disciplines listed) reflects the mostly North-American authorship and editorial board for the subject (so there are entries on the American composers Bernstein and Barber, and ‘American Music Theory, 1955–2010’, but not on Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen, or even Beethoven, Mozart, or Wagner). OK, it’s presumably very early days, and the resource will presumably be expanded in the coming months. But what is it for, exactly? The About page says that

It is a tool designed to help busy researchers find reliable sources of information quickly by directing them to exactly the right chapter, book, website, archive, or data set they need for their research. It is a springboard for new research that allows for fluid movement between texts and databases within a given institution’s collection and beyond. It is a starting point for organizing a research plan, or for preparing a writing assignment or syllabus. The style and approach is accessible to students, but the depth of coverage makes it of great use to faculty as well.

A nice ambition, one might think, but on first inspection I’d have to say that it can’t hope to achieve it, and this has much to do with OUP’s meagre conception of what an online resource should be, as well as what is increasingly clear about its aims as a publisher.

The bibliographies on this site are briefly annotated, and links are provided to Google previews of them. That is more or less the extent of OUP’s understanding of the possible in online bibliographies: a list that might have been written on paper, plus a link to another site. I don’t know how much they’re planning to charge for this but it ought to be pennies. If it is updated no more frequently than the much bigger bibliographies on another Oxford site, the online edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, we can expect OBO to be hopelessly out of date within a couple of years. (There is certainly no reason to expect it will ever be updated, since OUP does seem to think of the Internet as simply an electronic form of paper, with little sense of its dynamic possibilities.)

The number of resources listed under each subject is relatively small: not even sufficient for an undergraduate course for the areas I looked at. This is simply daft. Responsible scholarship doesn’t care any longer about the personal preferences of other scholars (the authors’ selection of what counts as what the About page says it should include — ‘the most important and significant sources’ — is often extremely eccentric) and with an online resource – where the cost of paper is not an issue – there simply should be no need to take decisions at all about which resources to include. Before anyone at OBO gets back at me, I know that it’s the intention to choose only ‘the most important’ sources, but this intention itself is ill-conceived. Scholarship must weigh all the available thinking and find its own course, not follow the personal preferences of individuals. Selectiveness is inimical in a resource with pretensions to true intellectual usefulness. Some articles also privilege accessibility over scholarly quality, suggesting a failure of communication somewhere in the editorial structure: contributors clearly aren’t sure of the intended audience for the site.

Scholars who are used to using the excellent JSTOR (a huge collection of journal articles), RILM (a specifically musicological bibliography, not totally comprehensive but practically so), and Google Books certainly need not bother with this new resource. Again, OBO might respond that it would take a long time to go through the thousands of hits that a RILM and JSTOR search tends to produce even with a faceted search that removes a lot of irrelevant material. But the proper intellectual response to that is: tough. There is no royal road to science, as Marx once observed, and it does and should take days and weeks to get a grasp of a new area of research. Assimilating and then personally synthesizing a vast amount of material is what scholarship and intellectual enquiry is about. There is, of course, a name to describe what OBO is offering, and not one they would like to put in their publicity materials: spoon-feeding.

In short, no researcher could ever find this site useful. If they don’t already know the scant resources listed here they really shouldn’t be engaging in scholarship in these areas. And I’m doubtful of its value as a teaching tool, since equally reliable reading lists (or better ones) could be found by doing a quick online search for freely available reading lists for already existing undergraduate courses. In any case, every lecturer provides their own reading list for their courses, inevitably slanted towards what they themselves consider valuable, but none the worse for that since they will in any case be teaching the students so the danger of influence is unavoidable. In making these bold claims for its new resource I can only imagine that OUP is either engaging in self-aggrandizing sales puff or else hasn’t got a clue what scholarship really amounts to. It’s a severely disappointing – not to say simply confusing and weird – debut, and furthermore clearly an attempt to turn a profit out of something that is already freely available in at least as good a form elsewhere.

Oxford’s ‘value add’

None of this disappointment surprises me. It’s no more than a consequence of the continuing capitalization of the academic publishing world, in which a crucial part is played by the promise of something ‘more’ that a brand like Oxford or Harvard or Stanford or whatever can offer that goes beyond anything that could be assessed by actually reading the material they publish (as excellent as it very often is). The Research Excellence Framework, the government-imposed atrocity that will within a couple of years divide a shrinking pot of research money to British universities, follows this logic to the letter. The question whether a book is published by a major press or an article appears in a so-called ‘top-drawer’ journal is constantly on the lips of chairs of research committees in university departments as they prepare their REF submissions. Forget about expecting anybody to actually read the work and make an assessment. There’s no hope of a department’s research chair being able to read everything their colleagues have written and reach an assessment, so it’s the ‘top-drawer’ stuff that counts. The same goes for institutional promotions committees, who don’t read their colleagues’ work either, and instead judge the number of pieces to appear in respected journals and book lists. Increasingly in academic life, what counts is not the scholarship itself but the ‘additional’ element that the brand provides. And what is that ‘extra’, exactly? This old Coca Cola advert has the answer.

‘You can be how we feel. Share our Coke. Coca-Cola is it!’ it promises in its last lines. The additional element that makes us know that the pleasure we get from drinking Coke is ‘it’. Coke is ‘it’. In the same way OUP is ‘it’. We can’t go deeper than that word: if you try to determine exactly what it is that drinking Coke as opposed to drinking Dave’s Cola adds as a quantum of pleasure, you’ll never find it. You will, in fact, never be able to find the value of any commodity at all simply by taking it apart and looking inside. The value of a commodity is simply that it is ‘it’, not the other thing, and if you don’t have ‘it’, you’ll be missing out. People will look at you oddly in the street. You won’t get laid. The ‘it’ is the Lacanian objet a, the empty and indefinable imaginary psychological object that we assume to exist in someone or something as the cause of our desire for it. Drink a Coke and you’ll want another; have sex and you’ll want it again: we’re conditioned by capital to seek after the satisfaction of desires that forever exceed our grasp.

The ‘authority’ that OUP promises on the logo of its new resource (see above) is therefore not the authority of scholarship, whose surface its tiny bibliographies barely even scrape, and which its authors’ personal selections in any case undermine. What it offers is the authority precisely of the brand, of the promise that what Oxford tells you is reliable. It’s precisely like buying from Harrod’s. You don’t need to worry about the quality: the name guarantees that (or so the myth holds). Buy OBO and you’ll get ‘it’: more than just reading the same (or better) information on an individual academic’s reading list for a course on Bach or whatever. This is the way major university publishers, with their eyes ever more fixedly on the bottom line, have been tending for years. We’re currently fortunate that the truly valuable resources, like JSTOR and RILM, which don’t promise ‘authority’, ‘innovation’, or the extra value of the brand’s ‘it’, both exist and are free at the point of use (supported by subscriptions paid by universities). This, not the capitalized model of the major university presses, is the best model for resources that deliver something quantifiable, rather than the vacuous promise of an impossible ‘more’. It would be enormously to the credit of university libraries if they resisted the fetishistic urge to buy into Oxford’s latest product.

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One comment

  1. It reminds me off all certification though, and the danger of the filtered bubble.

    Provenance is ok if it is “the quickest route” – as that is definable and measurable. “The scenic route” is a much more difficult term to address.

    You use mendeley?

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