The Way of the Ninja

Katsukawa Shunsho, Nakamura Sukegoro II as Aso no Matsukawa, 1768. Woodblock print. Art Institute of Chicago.

I have two sons, one who is twelve and one aged eight. “Ninja” as a term gets thrown around a lot in my house: “You are a total ninja in the kitchen, Mom.” “Get out of my room before I go ninja on you!” “When I grow up I’m going to be a pilot. Or a ninja. Or both.” You get the idea. Cluttering up the costume closet (what, you don’t have a costume closet? We’re the only ones?) are little black balaclava masks, several sets of plastic nunchaku, and at least one pair of those split-toed socks. They are not real ninjas . . . but you can be! Without, you know, all the killing.

In fact, real ninjas in medieval Japan were employed more often as information-gathering agents, or to spread disinformation where that was useful, than as assassins, although that aspect was certainly true as needed. Black pajamas are very slimming, but you don’t need those either, for the goal of the ninja was to blend into ordinary society and work from within – your cardigan sweater will do just fine.

If you have limited paid databases due to budget constraints, below are some terrific resources to help you track down requests from faculty or students without depending on the kindness of strangers. All of us at AISL are prepared to send the occasional article to one another in answer to a request on the listserv, but you’re a librarian – your superpower is in tracking down information in places that regular humans fail to consider. Remember, real ninja were collectors of intelligence, able to blend in with regular people, and that’s definitely you so you can do this. At the very least, consider it a professional challenge to try at least one or two of these. Hone your skills as sharply as a ninjato blade and prepare to cut through reference requests all day long. Some of these resources will no doubt be familiar to many of you, but other approaches might surprise you.

Unpaywall: a browser extension that will reveal whether a requested article is available for free. Once installed, the small lock icon located in a tab to the right of your screen will turn green if the article is located for free anywhere online. A lot of us overlook the value of a straight-up Google search for an article, when plenty of resources are actually out there for free, even the ones that are of a more weighty, academic type.

Remote access to public library databases: your state library system may provide remote access to databases either by detecting your IP location or with a library card barcode number. I realize that it may give you pause to use your personal access to source database articles. Some library systems may be willing to issue a library card to your school. You may also wish to encourage your students to use their own library card numbers if they have them; if their families pay taxes in the state, they are entitled to use its library collections whether it is for public school homework or private school homework.

The Library of Congress does offer free remote access to a great many periodical titles. The link provided here takes the user to a page of subject areas – pick your area of research and browse what’s available remotely. Links at right will connect to the periodical itself, and users can search by date of publication for the exact article they want.

Contact the scholar: scholars are allowed to share their articles privately with you themselves. They are generally not paid for scholarly articles that appear in peer-reviewed academic journals, and they are usually thrilled to be asked to share their work. If you have an author’s name, contact him or her directly via email or phone at his or her college or university, and ask for an offprint or digital copy of the article. You have absolutely nothing to lose by asking, and the scholar in question may send you other material that  provides you with more or better information.

A note about faculty or student requests: often it happens that a student or a colleague insists that he or she needs this exact article or the world will collapse into a heap of ashes, metaphorically speaking. Literally or otherwise, this is rarely true. Often a published scholar has written several articles on the same subject and one that you can find will do as nicely as the one you can’t. Search the resources that you do have using the author’s name and some useful keywords and see what full-text results come up. You may end up finding a nearly identical article, published with minor changes, for a different audience or perhaps an even better one.

WorldCat: literally a union catalog of the world and operated by the OCLC, WorldCat covers books, DVDs, CDs, and articles. It returns results ranked by proximity to a ZIP code that the user enters, so you can search a nearby library, or one in a city you plan to visit, or where you have privileges as a result of being an alumnus or some other circumstance. Almost any publicly funded library – including college libraries that receive state funds – will allow you to access electronic or print materials if you are on-site, so at the very least a researcher could scan a print article or download an electronic one.

Hathitrust: an online digital library of millions of full-text books, many of them with their illustrations intact. Because these resources are out of the public domain, which is why they are free, the material tends to be older. However, it means this is a particularly useful resources for books that may be out of print.

Directory of Open Access Journals: more than 12,000 open-access journal titles. These are high-quality, peer-reviewed, scholarly journals, and the DOAJ provides free access to the full text. These journals are valuable enough to be indexed by many major database vendors, but they are out there free of charge for anyone to use. Dive in!

These suggestions are limited to sources for periodical articles and digitized books. There are sources such as Researchgate and Humanities Commons, that I have purposely left out of this blog post, because they involve a component of networking amongst scholars that was beyond the scope of today’s topic. If you have a favorite free resource for high-quality reference material, please feel free to be the ninja I know you are and leave a link in the comments so we can all benefit from the intelligence you’ve gathered.


7 thoughts on “The Way of the Ninja

  1. Forget lounging by my (imaginary) pool – I’d much rather be perusing such an informative and entertaining blog post such as this!

    I have excellent luck with a combination of Unpaywall and Google Scholar – you’re quite right about it being amazing what’s out there. I’m often amazed by it not being difficult to find an article originally published in a scholarly journal but then available from other sources (usually the scholars’ educational institution).

    My Research students also have great success obtaining articles from the authors themselves, as you suggest, which sometimes ends up with them developing their first professional relationship with an academic. They love inquisitive high school students!

    • Thanks Shelagh! I’ve had great luck with contacting university scholars too, and I think it’s very powerful for students to see that original research matters and that there are actual people behind those journal article titles.

  2. As someone who is amazed by the librarians on the listserv who always seem to know how to find everything, I’ve been hoping someone would write a post like this. Thanks, Alyssa! Looking forward to honing my ninja skills.

    P.S. If it makes you feel better, everyone in New Orleans has a costume closet.

    • Delighted it is helpful, Chris! I always knew New Orleans was the homeland of my tribe. I have at least two pirate outfits, three hula costumes, a dozen saris, six Grecian style dresses, and of course, if you’ve seen the video . . . all that belly dance gear.

  3. ***AMAZING***
    Why am I just learning about Unpaywall?!!! Off to download…
    Thank you x 1,000,000 for these great ideas. While it’s fun to be able to give patrons a quick answer, demonstrating the willingness to think outside the box, to think critically about an article (is this the only one or can we find a closely related one by the same author that’s more easily accessed?), or to engage an author directly,
    –>THESE are the skills we must model as our schools’ information professionals. <–
    Thank you, Alyssa! This is fantastic!!

    • Happy to help, Katie. Leave no stone unturned, no reference request unfilled. I am kinda imagining a cadre of masked, black-clad librarians wielding iPads and executing spin-kicks while searching the Library of Congress humanities page . . .

  4. I am so impressed by your informative blog. (And really proud of you!)You are helping the world by aiding your fellow librarians everywhere to make the space we live in better in these too weird times.

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