Few words strike as much fear into my heart as the literature. Just sound of it dredges up repressed memories of the trauma of studying for my doctoral comprehensive exams. To prepare, I attempted to read an impossible number of books in an effort to understand the debates. Years later, I’m still not sure I understand them or remember much of what I read.

I dread writing the literature review because I am afraid that I will omit someone’s important research, a monumental study that transformed everything we thought we knew and understood about the world. I am sure that someone will expose me as a fraud if I fail to mention a crucial work. I also hate writing literature reviews because they bore readers. When I read literature reviews, I find that many academic writers drop big names with a mighty thud to prove their intellectual chops. Others drone on about tedious micro-debates that interest exactly no one.

Week five of Wendy’s Belcher’s book, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, outlines an efficient way to get a grip on major works and important debates without spending months in the library. What I liked the most about her approach is her emphasis on the economy of the literature review; she argues that it need not include everything ever written on topic X. Instead, she gives us a strategy for writing a concise literature review just comprehensive enough for the purpose of an academic journal article.

Excited that I wouldn’t have to spend years reading hundreds of obscure articles just to write the literature review, I spent last week reviewing THE LITERATURE. It was much less painful than I’d feared.

Reviewing the literature didn’t hurt as much as I’d anticipated because I realized I’d already read a lot of it. In 2010, I had published a historiographic essay on world’s fairs (the topic of my article in progress) in Studies of Latin American Popular Culture. In that article (which I offer you here, in case anyone has interest), I identified theoretical frameworks, evaluated methodological approaches, and assessed the state of scholarly knowledge on world’s fairs. Re-reading it now, I’d add new studies and ideas to it, but as far as I know, it still is the only historiographical article that packages the major recent scholarship on the interdisciplinary field of world’s fairs into a neat box. Go me! Having already reviewed the literature on world’s fairs up until 2010 gave me an easy way to filter my reading. I decided to only read major books and articles about world’s fairs published in the last five years. I found several and added them to my reading list.

I also wanted to understand better to which debates about world’s fairs my article might contribute. The biggest debate revolves around whether world’s fairs are best understood from top-down or bottom-up perspectives. Some scholars argue that world’s fairs were top-down affairs, where elites inculcated their social and cultural values of the middle and working classes. Other scholars have questioned whether this is true, showing how both audiences and the people on display on the midways understood their experiences in a different way. Understanding the parameters of this debate helped me clarify and classify the works I read.

The other major part of my article involves thinking about how a German geographer would have understood the meaning of a world’s fair in Guatemala. I knew that in the late nineteenth century, German scientists had also displayed people in human zoos, known as Völkerschauen. However, I didn’t know much about how Germans understood these events or how the German social sciences had developed. My failure to read anything about German anthropology reflects the fact that my PhD research focused on relationships between the United States and Latin America rather than transatlantic connections.

So, here was the hole that I was going to have to fill.

I did some basic Internet searching for articles on Völkerschauen and German anthropology. I regret to say that my lack of German reading skills will necessarily limit my engagement with THE LITERATURE in German. Fortunately, a few English-speaking scholars have examined the development of popular science in Germany. I also searched in my Zotero library for any articles I’d saved about Germans or Germany. Fortunately for me, I save articles and books obsessively. I found I already had many works to consult, including a few dissertations.

The dissertations contained some of the most concise summaries of major works, approaches, and theories. PhD committees require that students include literature reviews to prove that they understand major debates in the field. Even though the literature review and theoretical bits are sometimes the worst part of a dissertation, they are valuable because they provide an overview of major works and debates. From the dissertation literature reviews, I located some more books and articles that seemed promising.

From my reading, I found that historians of science have studied Völkerschauen; they debate over whether popular or elite discourses held greater scientific authority. Although scholars long have understood science as an elite (and white and male) invention, popular sites of science (like the Völkerschauen and world’s fairs) challenge this view. Ta-da! A debate! And the debate is similar to that of world’s fairs scholars. Were world’s fairs really top-down affairs or did the middle and working classes have any way to challenge them? Figuring out the major debates about world’s fairs and Völkerschauen helped me figure out how my article fits into the historiography and gave me ideas to refine my argument even further.

My final reading list was much shorter than I’d anticipated. I put together a list of twenty books and articles to read and then enlisted friends with institutional library access to download them for me. [Trying to be an independent scholar is harder than it looks, but I digress.]

Reading the literature involved skimming much of it. I could have saved myself so much time in grad school if I’d learned academic reading habits earlier. Reading a monograph requires different skills than reading a novel.

I read the books and articles on my list for broad methodological approaches, theoretical frameworks, and checked the footnotes for mentions of important works and debates. The reading strategies that I’d developed when I studied for my comprehensive exams actually came in handy. To make my reading more efficient, I made a template. It looked like this:

  • Debates/historiographical contribution:
  • Methodology/approach:
  • Theoretical framework:
  • Periodization:
  • Major argument:
  • Evidence:
  • Related sources:

So, when I skimmed the works on my list, I reviewed the introduction or abstract, the table of contents, the conclusion, and the bibliography or footnotes. It surprises me how little I have to read to fill in my template with the relevant information.

Armed with a better understanding of THE LITERATURE, I drafted the literature review section of my article. I tried to synthesize the literature and theoretical frameworks as much as possible. If I were to explain the literature part of my article to a friend, I think I’d summarize it as, “So, there’s this debate about world’s fairs. Some scholars think we should think about them as X. Others argue that we should understand them as Y. Some major scholars [names] are on Team X. Many other people [names] are on Team Y. The scholars on Team X use the theories of Theorist A. The scholars on Team Y think the work of Theorist B explains the debate better. I’m also on Team Y, because no one has really looked at XYZ evidence.” This imaginary conversation is, of course, a gross oversimplification of my literature review. Nevertheless, it really more or less reflects how I tried to write it.

I confess that I didn’t quite read all of the literature in a week. Life and work conspired against my good intentions, but I’ve at least got a plan.

On to week six!

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.