Tag Archives: asia library

why print?

I recently uploaded a new (and my first) resource to my site, a guide to print reference resources for Japanese humanities held by the University of Michigan. This guide was originally made for a reference class in 2008, so it’s about time that it saw the light of day. It certainly wasn’t doing much good sitting on my hard drive.

You might ask, though, on viewing this: Why would Molly make a resource guide for only print books? Aren’t they a little, well, archaic and outdated? Isn’t it more convenient to check out digital resources from the comfort of my own laptop, perhaps in bed? After all, there are fantastic reference resources – available through institutional subscription – such as the JapanKnowledge database that suit many needs, and bring together information from a wide variety of (originally) print sources and other databases. With something like JapanKnowledge, going to the Asia Library Reference Room and thumbing through dictionaries seems a little slow and pointless.

Let me tell you something. In the process of looking at the various humanities reference resources, for literature in particular, I found a large number of unique sources that aren’t available online. These range from the legendary Morohashi Dai kanwa jiten Chinese character dictionary to synopses and reception histories, guides to folk literature, a multi-lingual proverb dictionary (it has translations and annotations in Japanese, English, French, and German), and a guide to Buddhist terms found in Japanese literature that include the original Sanskrit and phrases from the classic literary works containing the terms.

Among the books that are entirely unique – an equivalent resource doesn’t exist in any other format (or, sometimes, language) – are a biographical dictionary of foreigners in Japan from the 1500s-1924, an annotated bibliography of translations into European languages dating from 1593-1912, an annotated bibliography of Japanese secondary sources on literary history published between 1955-1982, poetry indexes, and a dictionary of popular literature (taishū bungaku).

The process of making this bibliography was the pure joy of a scavenger hunt, and did I ever come up with a list of treasures. Leafing through a book of English-language synopses of untranslated Japanese work from the 19th-20th centuries may not sound exciting, but the fact that it exists as a quick reference resource for those looking to read some Meiji or Taishō literature is pretty amazing. I had a good time in the Reference Room finding these resources, and I’ve put some of them to very good use over the years.

Yes, I use digital resources; in fact, I couldn’t have come up with my dissertation topic without them. (As always, many thanks to the National Diet Library for the existence of the Kindai Digital Library.) But Japan is still a world of print – it’s nigh impossible to get a journal article in electronic form at this point – and, more importantly, print reference sources like these don’t go out of style. A guide to poetic allusions from the 1950s, or a popular literature dictionary from 1967, do not become outdated or irrelevant; we may wish for an update to the latter, but the information it provides is still valuable. Being able to use print reference works opens up a world of information to us by supplying that which has not been converted to database form.

Finally, why this guide? Is a guide coming for electronic resources? The short answer is, save for one-off blog posts, no. There are already so many excellent guides to electronic resources out there on the Web that my own meager contribution wouldn’t make much of a difference. The reason for this guide is that I haven’t found a good annotated bibliography of print reference books for Japanese literature specifically, and humanities more generally, that live at what used to be my own institution. I wanted to both know for myself, and share with others, what treasures were hiding on those rarely-used shelves (and, worse, in the off-site book storage) – what treasures were at my fingertips.

I hope you find it useful, and if you’re at the University of Michigan – or hey, anywhere else, for I can always check the catalog – and you have your own preferred humanities reference works, please send them along or leave the info in the comments. This is an evolving work and I’d like to include everything I possibly can!