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For Reference
March 13, 2012 - 9:50pm

It was a good day in class. We’ve reached the end of the “here’s how things get published and how libraries deal with all those publications” section of the course (a semester long workshop on how information works) by tying off a couple of loose ends. We visited the college archives to get a sense of how archivist organize things and what researchers might get out of using archival materials. Then we took a quick cruise through the reference section, with a special focus on specialized encyclopedias.

It seemed an odd way to wrap up five weeks of information overload, but it actually addresses the essential problem that undergraduates exploring new ideas are bound to run into, a challenge which databases and search engines handle rather badly.  Sure, you can use the library’s databases to find hundreds, even thousands of sources that might have something to do with your topic. But which ones are worth paying attention to when your attention is necessarily limited – and so is your background knowledge? Once we’re deeply into subject matter we forget how sophisticated our filters are. We know which journals are most solid and respected, which authors are Big Names, whether to trust the editorial judgment of a particular publishing house. We know the language of the field and we can quickly sort out different approaches, zeroing in on the ones we’re most interested in. But try looking for ten high-quality recently published scholarly articles in a field that is foreign to you, and you might get a feel for how challenging this is for undergraduates.

Students have gotten used to turning to Wikipedia as a starting point for short and easy-to-understand explanations of basic concepts and they use the references appended to the articles as leads to useful sources (at least sometimes, depending on how well developed the article is). It’s not that hard to go from that kind of reading practice to the use of various subject encyclopedias in which the signed articles are written by recognized experts. It’s a bit like dropping by a professor’s office during office hours to get the lowdown on some issue in ten minutes, leaving with a list of some key texts worth consulting. At least, that’s what I try to convey to students.

So today, I brought in some encyclopedias covering areas they are studying and had them browse through them. Once they chose an article to examine, I had them try finding the cited works. (No matter how often students compose citations, figuring out how to go from a citation to a book or article in hand is peculiarly challenging.) Then they checked to see how those books and articles were being cited, using Google Scholar. They seemed to get the hang of it.

After class, I switched on my phone to catch up on Twitter and, in between conference reports and lots of commentary on a fight between a Texas stem cell outfit and a University of Minnesota bioethicist, I saw about 50 retweets of a short New York Times story on the decision by Encyclopaedia Britannica to stop publishing a printed edition of the reference work with a 244-year history.  About half of the comments were of the “they were still publishing it in print?” variety; the rest were a mix of “whoa!” and nostalgia. Some of us remembered the day we got an encyclopedia at home – for me, it was the World Book, and it seemed like a magical compendium of all knowledge, particularly since I wasn’t yet old enough to read.

It's not surprising that the printed edition is going away. It's hard to sell parents on the need for a home encyclopedia with so much available online, and it has never been that useful for college libraries. A lot of academic libraries are reducing their reference sections drastically or doing away with them altogether. We're not ready to do that yet. Our small but perfectly formed collection still gets a fair amount of use, primarily for those times when background is needed but Wikipedia isn’t providing enough depth, and a lot of really fine reference books in all manner of scholarly subjects are still being produced.

But it's hard to match the sheer scope or the quick updates of Wikipedia. Out of curiosity, I just checked Wikipedia's entry on the Encyclopaedia Britannica and was a bit surprised that the news item from the New York Times hadn't been added as an update. I mean, it had come out hours ago! But it turned out the article had, in fact, been updated hours earlier to reflect the change, but the initial material citing the news item had already been edited eight or nine times and blended seamlessly into the article.

I guess it's old news now.



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