Every day, newspapers, magazines, television, and radio bombard us with information dealing with political situations and developments. However, few of us think of this information as falling within the discipline of political science. Similarly, political science questions posed at library reference desks will frequently deal with current events and society, rather than with an analysis of a political theory or ideology. Yet all these questions fall into the arena of political science reference work.
One difficult aspect of categorizing political science questions is that they are dependent on both the type of the library and the needs of patrons using that library. Each reference question can require different resources and different reference processes. In an academic setting, questions about the availability of foreign newspaper translations, articles about the impact of congressional redistricting on voter registration, and statements and voting records on a wide range of topics are likely to be posed. In addition, questions about political situations in other countries and the activities and publications of international and intergovernmental organizations are increasingly common. With the growing awareness of world events and the greater availability of information about these events, researchers are increasingly expanding their research to include non-U.S. sources. The breadth and complexity of many political science questions illustrate two facts about the discipline of political science: It lacks a clear definition and delineation of the subject from other social sciences, and the range of material covered in the field is very large.
Einstein once observed that politics was more difficult to understand than physics because of the number of relationships and factors involved. 1 This can be said also about the study of political science. Politics and the governance of human beings have, of course, been in existence since we first organized into societal groups. Yet the study of political science is a relatively new social science, born from the disciplines of history, economics, and government and nurtured by the fields of sociology, psychology, geography, and philosophy. Because of the field’s interdisciplinary nature, political science reference questions often require sources and knowledge beyond those traditionally categorized as purely political science sources.
Evolution of political science
The birth of this new social science is usually placed at the turn of the twentieth century with the establishment of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 1903. Before that time, most studies of politics took place within departments of history and economics. However, with the founding of the ASPA, political science departments soon developed in colleges and universities across the country. The founding was also significant to the discipline, because it was a U.S. association and the discipline itself is a uniquely U.S. social science, with more than three-quarters of political scientists being American. 2 The predominance of Americans in the field focused most research in the area of the U.S. politics, a bias that still exists today. However, this is changing not only because the end of the Cold War has placed the superpowers in a relationship of cooperation rather than competition, but also because information about other countries has become more available.
As the discipline developed, its lack of scientific principles was viewed by all as a primary deterrent in a field claiming the word science. Political scientists consciously tried to develop the principles and theories necessary for a scientific framework for this new field. However, the discipline continues to struggle with the need to define itself and its role. 3 The 1982 International Handbook of Political Science, edited by William G. Andrews (Greenwood Press, 1982), opens with the same sentence that the first article in the first issue of Political Science Quarterly (the first professional journal in the field) did in 1886: “The term political science is greatly in need of definition.” 4 On the surface it would appear that U.S. efforts during the past century have done little to define the discipline of political science. Yet the profession has made a good deal of progress; it has produced a body of classic works, fostered specialization, developed a systematic theoretical structure, and developed models for analysis.
The discipline has passed through five developmental stages in the past 100 years. The first stage, the study of government, was an outgrowth of the marriage of history and economics. This period produced the great classics in political science, many of which stand up well even by today’s standards of science 5 and were the basis for political organizational theory. However, the search for scientific rules for the discipline continued until after World War II, when the second stage, behaviorism, emerged. Behaviourists sought to scientifically learn why and how people react in political situations, and tried to predict occurrences and political actions. A third stage, the study of comparative politics, began to move political science out of its largely U.S. focus and to compare how nations and states operate. The fourth stage, the study of public administration, dealt with how governments and organizations (e.g., Congress, government agencies, political parties) operate. The final stage, the now-burgeoning field of public policy analysis, seeks ways to quantify and evaluate political decisions to maximize benefits for the public good. Each of these stages reflected the interest and themes of the historical periods in which it was born and effectively added new fields of specialization within the study of political science.
Fields of specialization
Within political science there are many fields of research, each slightly different from the others and each borrowing from and overlapping to certain degrees with other social sciences. These fields can be grouped into seven broad areas: national governments, comparative politics, international politics, political theory, public law, public administration, and public policy analysis.
The study of national governments is the oldest branch of political science, covering many topics and evolving out of the works of Plato and Aristotle. Originally this field dealt with the subjects of power, the state, and political institutions. Due to the U.S. dominance in political science, the field soon grew into the study of the powers and interactions of the legislative, executive, and judicial bodies at the national, state, and local levels. The study of the national governments branched out in the early twentieth century to include the study of voting and electoral patterns and the power of political parties within the U.S. political scene. Today, because of behaviorism and frequent forays into sociology and psychology, the key fields of study are the behavior and motivation of voters and the power of the media in the political process.
The study of comparative politics became an area of serious research after World War II with the emergence of behaviorism. Comparative politics research attempts to develop methodologies by which institutions and governments can be compared scientifically. Unfortunately, there has rarely been agreement on consistent methodologies, and, consequently, scientific cross-national comparisons rarely occur. Study in this branch of political science and the resulting literature tend to be primarily descriptive, occasionally crossing into the field of history, areas studies, and economics.
The study of international politics examines the interactions of independent political entities within an international sphere. These entities can be either separate nations or intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the United Nations or the Organizations of American States. Frequent topics of interest in this field are the foreign policies of countries or organizations, national defense policies, peace and military research, and diplomatic affairs. The literature of this field of study depends heavily on official government, organization, or intergovernmental documents, including proclamations, resolutions, reports, and policy statements.
The study of political theory seeks ways to explain and predict political phenomena through the philosophical and moral aspects of political ideologies. The field is divided into two major areas of study: normative and empirical. Normative theory concerns itself with analytical, moral, and philosophical issues. Empirical theory tries to predict behaviour through established models and hypotheses.
The study of public law is the counterpart to the legal profession. Whereas the attorney researches issues to know how best to represent a client in a court of law, a scholar studies the same material looking for patterns to describe how society places controls on the individual. Research, dominated by U.S. scholars, has focused primarily on the separation of powers, presidential power, and the powers of the courts. However, there is also extensive study of international law, covering the issues of accepted international legal behaviour, both by individuals and nations. This field depends heavily on court decisions (including administrative and appellate courts) and on international agreements and treaties.
The study of public administration grew out of research since the 1880s on the daily operation of governments and bureaucracies and has developed a substantial body of classic literature to serve as a foundation. 6 The primary focus of public administrations research is on governmental operations and the managerial processes associated with the successful operation of any organization, including budgeting, staffing, management, directing, analysis, and evaluation. Governments at all levels--national, state, and local—are studied. The field frequently approaches issues from a comparative politics standpoint, and an important area of recent study involves research on the governments of developing countries.
Public policy analysis
Public policy analysis, the newest field of study, combines economics, public administration, and national government as it delves into the decisions and actions of governments operating with limited resources. The field attempts to develop methodologies and models through with public policy decisions can be made. Despite its newness, the field has grown rapidly and is now considered a mature field of study.
Structure of the literature
Information sources for political science fall into two categories: primary sources in either paper or machine-readable format from research or governmental bodies and secondary sources (e.g., accounts from monographs or serials). Each field within political science depends on these two information categories to differing degrees. For example, a study of legislative intent would require the publications of official bodies, such as the Congress or the United Nations General Assembly, to interpret legislative intent; a voting analysis study would require raw data of electoral results to develop a hypothesis concerning voting behaviour; and a study of Chinese national economic policies would require government publications and monographic, serial, and newspaper accounts.
Reference services in political science is highly dependent on the nature of the question and the type of patron. It should be obvious that a firm grasp of other social science reference sources is requisite. A basic knowledge of current events and American history is also essential in conducting the reference interview. Familiarity with the structure of the United States and key intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations, is also essential. Finally, a working knowledge of the organization of government document collections and the characteristics of specific types of government publications, particularly congressional and judicial documents, is helpful. In short, to provide reference service to the field of political science one must be comfortable with the social sciences in general and with collections containing primary source materials.
The titles discussed in the remainder of the chapter represent the variety of political science reference resources available. The sources are arranged based on the subject and type of question that they could help to answer, in the following categories:
Public Administration and Public Policy—General Sources
U.S. Government—Executive Branch
U.S. Government—The Presidency
U.S. Government—State and Local
Elections and Political Parties—United States
Elections and Political Parties—The States
Elections and Political Parties—Worldwide
International Relations and Organizations
War and Peace; Terrorism