Sunday, August 16, 2009

What is 'reference' material, and other curly questions.

Topic 2 of ETL501 is called Print and Electronic Information Resources. The first issue it addresses is 'Exactly what is the definition of reference material in the age of electronic resources?'
My first thought, harking back to my school days, was the 'reference section' in my local public library. Located upstairs, it housed World Book, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and various other dictionaries and atlases. The books could not be borrowed, so I used to either sit at one of the desks laboriously making notes, or carefully photocopy the pages that I needed (making sure I budgeted my money).
Now, of course, not being able to borrow a physical resource is not an issue! So what exactly constitutes a 'reference work'?
Katz, W.A. (2002). Reference librarians on the information highway. In Introduction to reference work: Volume 1 Basic Information Services (8th ed.) (pp. 3-38). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Katz lists bilbliographies, indices, encyclopaedias, yearbooks, almanacs, handbooks, directories, dictionaries, biographical sources e.g. Who's Who, atlases, guidebooks and dictionaries of place names as various reference sources. What distinguishes these sources?
They provide definitive, authoritative information. They compile information for ease of reference. So we have now arrived at something of a definition: a reference work allows for quick, easy access to authoritative information.
The internet allows free access to many reference works including encyclopaedias, dictionaries, biographical sources, directories, bibliographies and indexes. However, some free to access sources on the internet lack the authority to be labelled reference works. The forum hosted quite a lot of debate on the subject of Wikipedia. Should we advise our students against using it? Encourage them to use it wisely?
Without training and help, our students are going to make a lot of mistakes and run into a lot of trouble when searching for information online. Accepting what's written on Wikipedia as gospel may be the least of their problems! Some of the pros of Wikipedia are: children can usually understand what they read, it is generally accurate on most matters, it is familiar, and easy to find. So as long as children understand the limitations (i.e. lack of authority), I think we can teach them to use Wikipedia as informed readers. Perhaps they can read the Wikipedia entry on a topic to get an overview, which will help them to identify keywords for further searching. Perhaps they can use the links provided to find more authoritative sources on the topic.
Unfortunately, many of the authoritative reference works online are available only by subscription or the payment of a fee.
I attempted to use Katz's criteria to evaluate Merriam-Webster Online The Language Center.
Purpose, Scope and Currency can be evaluated by accessing the "About Us" page and heading to "FAQ". It settles the fact that the information is directly from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and that the same publisher is responsible for the website and the dictionary itself. Check! That also covers Authority.
How about Audience? Merriam-Webster is an American dictionary, so not the first choice for Australian students. However, a closer look at the "About Us" page leads to some interesting information for potential advertisers. The page waxes lyrical about the well-educated, affluent users that frequent the Merriam-Webster site!
It's free, so that settles Cost. Check!
Now what about the Search experience, Navigational Aids, Logical and Practical Organisation, Graphics, Layout and Links? I've got one word for you: ADVERTISING!!! The brightest, most attention-getting things on the page are the ads. They distract. They get in the way. The actual search results are displayed with the minimum of fuss, but the page is so busy that children would find it difficult to navigate back to their search. And it links to other (subscription-based) Merriam-Webster products! Buh-Bow! (That is the sound of the contestant getting it very, very wrong!)
The last criteria is Objectivity. I'm at a loss as to what to say here. It's a dictionary, and I'm not sure how to evaluate objectivity.
Would I recommend Merriam-Webster to be used by my students? No.
My next little assignment was to head off to the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. I evaluated the information given on two prominent Australians, one past and one present.
For my present day Australian, I chose Jane Rutter, a virtuoso flautist. Unfortunately, she wasn't listed.
For the other I searched for Dame Nellie Melba. The information seemed thorough. Check! The article provided links to other articles within the site such as people named within her biography that were also listed. However it gave no links to more information about Dame Nellie Melba outside the site. And the language level? Too difficult for primary school students and probably more suitable for senior rather than junior high school students. So would I suggest using this site to my students? Perhaps...
Next I checked out the Commonwealth Government Online Directory. I searched 'Immigration', and got 120 results, linking me to different key people or offices, their responsibilites, and how to contact them. Useful for school students???
Lastly, a search of the Australian National Bibliographic Database Libraries Australia. This resource lists the copies of books, CDs, kits, and other physical resources that are available at every library in Australia. Great if you want to track a specific item down!
Whew! That's it for me and topic 2!


Witch Baby said...

Wow - I knew that Wikipedia had issues, but I honestly never stopped to access whether or not I classified it as reference material. I always go there to get a basic understanding of the issue at hand & then go out and research it more. Kinda using it as the card catalog.

Fiona said...

Hi 'Baby'! It means a lot to me that you take the time to read and comment on these posts. What a friend!

Fiona :)