Sunday, July 30, 2006

The closest reference book on the digital shelf

A couple years ago, I was in front of a class of first year, visual arts students in a computer lab in the library where I worked. I was reviewing their answers to the library assignment that the students had been working on for the last 20 minutes. I had worked on the assignment with their professor who was, at the time, sitting in the back of the class. I mention this fact for a reason. Even though the students were in a library, using library computers that displayed the library's website, and even though the students knew that they were there for a library assignment (and while being in the presence of their professor), almost the entire class answered the question "give a definition of pointillism" by using

I have to admit that the first time this happened, I blanched a bit. But I did feel somewhat better when I realized that I was being treated with the privilege of their honesty. This was how they did research.

I then introduced some of the general and subject dictionaries that were online and offered by the library and as I did so the professor did a wonderful job explaining why the definitions in these dictionaries were of much better in quality and, by the way, had the sort of detail and quality that she was expecting from their upcoming paper. Her presence and her participation made all the difference in this class. The students got to hear an expert explain why they should use expert tools as they worked to become experts themselves.

Without instruction, students won't know the differences between Webster dictionaries and Merriam Webster dictionaries. Most of them won't know the difference between the Cambridge English Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. There's not much brand consciousness in dictionaries and brand consciousness is everything in this modern world.

This is why to most folks there are really only three encyclopedias: Britannica, Wikipedia and Encarta.

Wait. Sorry. I forgot the highest ranked encyclopedia in Google:

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