Monday, July 31, 2006

There is no point not having a point of view

On February 3, 2005 I had a conversation with Bob that touched on the topic of plagiarism. Bob said something that I had not heard elsewhere on the matter. He thought that the real reason why most students were guilty of plagiarism was because they thought a paper was just a collection of facts and ideas that are collated into a logical order. There is no "self" in the papers that they wrote. An essay is a "third person" affair. Is it any wonder that writing papers are seen by students as a chore? Its just another form of raking leaves.

When I was in first year university I didn't know that there were schools of thought within disciplines. I didn't know that research journals were bloodied battlefields that determined what knowledge and status. It took a mandatory social science course that I took in my second or third year that exposed me to the soft human underbelly of what I thought was straightforward and objective science.

So of course I think Wikipedia's Neutral Point of View policy is laughable. I don't think we can be neutral - its biologically impossible for us to do so. We can't help but judge what is before us. Furthermore, what we think affects what we perceive which, in turn, affects what we think (Stumbling on Happiness does a great job of a quick job of summarizing the science of this. Literary theory, never quick, is also relevant here but I don't touch the stuff myself.)

When we decide not to take a stance and decide to "teach the controversy" instead, we lose something. When teachers are forced to partake in academic crossdressing and present Evolution and Big Coincidence, Global Warming and Within Parameters Warming, Armenian Genocide and a Big Misunderstanding - all side by side, with equal billing - well, more than the truth is lost. Meaning is lost. Lives are lost.

Let's throw our students into the battlefield of ideas as soon as possible.

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:

Friday, July 28, 2006

Encyclopedias down the rabbit hole

Have you tried to look for encyclopedias on your local library's website? If not, try it. I'll wait here.

Time passes.

If you can't find a page that lists the encyclopedias on your library's website, it could be due to the fact that no such page exists. It could be that you are searching the website of a library that expects you to search the library's catalogue for what you want. They have decided that they are not able to create and maintain a static website or second database of their online resources because that would require a duplication of effort. Too bad that library catalogues, or what we like to call in the library biz as OPACs... well, too bad that OPACs suck.

Another reason why you may be having difficulty finding encyclopedias in your library's website is because the encyclopedias are nestled snuggly in a section called something like "databases", "indexes", "e-resources", "find articles" or "research tools". After stumbling down this rabbit hole, you then have to search for what you want or browse an a-z list of titles in order to find something that you recognize as an encyclopedia.

Some libraries may also offer a "Reference" or Quick Facts section. Paradoxically, this section will frequently only offer encyclopedias that are freely available on the web. If you want to find the encyclopedias that your library has spent good money on, well, you have to get back to the homepage and find the right rabbit hole. Still other libraries will create annotated lists of useful encyclopedias and even break these down by subject. But these lists will be under a heading like "Subject Guide" or "Research Guide". So if a user has a question about hydrophobia, they are supposed to go to the biology section of the library's database collection (or Biology Research Guide) and search for an approprate research tool to use.

But our user knows what she wants to use. She wants to use an encyclopedia.

I think one of the reasons why its so hard to find encyclopedias on library's websites is because we don't organize our online material by format. I have only stumbled upon one library's website that provides searching by format on the front page and that is the University of Alberta. (Encyclopedias are listed after clicking on the Reference and Quick Facts link but these are free encyclopedias that can be found on the web. The encyclopedias that are paid by the library are to be found in their database of databases. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Leddy Library (where I work) took up their example and created a link to encyclopedias under a link called Journal Articles and Research Tools by Subject. We are guilty of not including some of the encyclopedias that can be found in our Research Guides).

Librarians have underestimated the public's desire to have an online encyclopedia that is always at the ready. Will we react to the public's enthusiam for Wikipedia and make encyclopedias easier to find? Or will we wait (and wait) until our library catalogues marry content management systems and give birth to more useful library websites?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Are there encyclopedias that scholars use?

Are there any encyclopedias that currently hold a important position in the understanding of a particular discipline of scholarship? The best way to answer that question would be to ask scholars directly about the matter. Another way to try to ascertain an answer is to see if scholars are citing encyclopedias in their published research.

Using ISI's Web of Science "Cited Reference Search", I searched for the term encyclopedia* to find the papers that had an encyclopedia mentioned in their bibliographies.

There are three indexes within Web of Science. The index that is the smallest - that being, covers the fewest number of journals is the "Arts & Humanities Citation Index". The index covers 1149 journals and for the period of 1996 to 2006, there are only 48 papers encyclopedias entries that are that are cited in a bibliography. Most encyclopedias in this list are only cited once and there is no encyclopedia that is cited repeatedly.

The "Social Sciences Citation Index" covers 1917 journals and from 1996 to 2006, there are 123 works encyclopedias entries that have been cited in a bibliography. Most of the encyclopedia entries are only cited once but there are a handful of exceptions when an entry is cited a couple times. There was only one encyclopedia that was cited frequently (24 times) and that was Encyclopedia Britannica.

Not surprisingly, the Science Citation Index (Expanded) is the largest index within Web of Science. It covers 6543 journals and from 1996 to 2006, 114 papers encyclopedia entries were cited in a bibliography. Unlike the other two indexes, there are encyclopedias whose entries are cited quite heavily. By far, the most heavily cited encyclopedia was "The Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology" with many entries cited over 50 times. The next encyclopedic work with similar impact is "The Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Engineering".

Now one could make the argument that I have set up this test for encyclopedias to fail from the start as encyclopedias aren't meant to communicate important ideas among scholars. You could say that encyclopedias exist to provide an important reference to students and are meant for their use.

Incidentally, from the years 1996 to 2006, there have been 12 papers in Web of Science that cite Wikipedia.

Do mere mortals buy encyclopedias?

Other than libraries, who buys encyclopedias? And what encyclopedias do they buy?

The bestselling encyclopedia at Amazon is Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs: The Definitive Pop-Up. Barnes and Noble has a similar motley top ten encyclopedias. The first general history encyclopedia that pops up on both booksellers' lists is The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. I had never heard of it before.

The most catalogued encyclopedia on LibraryThing is Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. No university library in Ontario carries this encyclopedia. My local library doesn't have it either.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Because Britannica Doesn't Recognize You

When a University of Windsor student, at home in front of the family computer, accesses she will not get the full text of most articles because Britannica costs $12 a month. Britannica does not inform her that she can have full access to its all content through her university library. So the student must know that she has to visit the website of her university library and see if she can find a link to Britannica. She will be authorized to use Britannica using the library's link to once she is authenicated, that being - she must enter her PIN number on her library card before she can get to the site.

When the same student is on campus, she does not have to type in her library card PIN number because recognizes the IP address of the library compter she is using and it lets her see all of its content. She mostly likely doesn't even notice that that there are varying level of access and that her her access was paid by the University. She will assume that the Encyclopedia Britannica is free and can't understand the site doesn't seem to work when she's using her home computer.

Some librarians see this as a "branding issue" but its really an authentication problem.

The Song of the Darnedest Stuff

Can you remember those first articles gushing about the Internet? How you could find just the strangest things there? Then came the articles waxing poetic about Google and how it could find the darnedest things. And now there are articles singing the praises of Wikipedia.

Its the same song. There are just slight variations.

Remember when the Internet was primarily filled with "homepages" of enthusiasts who documented their various arcane interests? During these early days, there were times when you wanted to link to someone's work but their other interests on the site were embarassing. Other problems: you never knew if the page was going to disappear the next day, change URLs, or freeze in time and never be updated again. Sometimes a site becomes uncomfortably political in nature.

Better to link to Wikipedia. You can find the darnedest stuff there!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School

The latest issue of the New Yorker has a taken a little snapshot of Wikipedia (link will expire eventually) and wonders whether Wikipedia can sustain its battle against the experts. While Wikipedia is compared to Britannica several times in the article, no attention is given to the fact that Wikipedia is free and Britannica costs $11.95 a month ("Save $1,251.60 off the print Encyclopedia Britannica!"). Of course, many people have free online access to Britannica through their local library but they just don't know it.

From my understanding, public libraries are reluctant to advertise their online wares like Britannica for a couple reasons. First, they have limited marketing budgets. And secondly, even if the library could afford a city-wide campaign promoting their online databases, they choose not to because the access to such products are done on a per user basis. This means that while you are able to make three users happy at a given time, you can potentially create a lot of unhappy experiences for the rest of the people who are unable to access the same advertised database.

I work at a university library and have found that the vendors of databases are often able to temporarily waive access restrictions when a librarian wants to teach a class and demonstrate their product. It has been a while since I've worked in a public library so I don't know whether these same vendors would be willing to similarly waive access restrictions for the length of time of a marketing campaign. I would hope so because we can hardly blame the public for using Wikipedia when they don't even know that they have other choices.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A standing army is waiting for orders

When authors wax poetic on the wonders of Wikipedia, they often gush about the ability for just anyone to alter any of its pages within. But to me, that's not the wonder of Wikipedia. What makes Wikipedia so wonderful is not that you, the reader, can easily add a big, fat whopping lie to one of its encyclopedic entries but the fact that more likely than not, your big fat whopping lie will be made to quickly evaporate by one of its many nameless volunteer editors. So when there is a ripple of applause in the blogosphere because someone in libraryland created a wiki, I am frequently unimpressed. Technology is easy. Creating a community that actively contributes and edits content (and comedy) is hard.

Now don't get me wrong. I love Wikipedia. I love the fact that it is not-for-profit and ad-free. I love that it strives for a universal (and multilingual!) access to information for self-education. And while Wikipedia may not do the best job in capturing all facets of all disciplines (like history), it unto itself, captures a history of the present moment where you can see the ideas of the day negotiated in public. I think all librarians would be testifying their love to Wikipedia if it wasn't for that tricky matter of authorship. And so our massive free-standing army of fact-checkers and citation chasers stands idly by.

Imagine if you will if there was a project like Wikipedia that *did* activate just even a fraction of the world's librarians to take up the cause and actively contribute on a regular basis. I do. I dream of a digitization project (untainted by corporate interests) that librarians happily tag away at, in their spare moments. I imagine government document librarians, going above and beyond mere data liberation and moving to liberation of a broader sort.

We have a community of librarians. We can rebuild. We have the technology.

Monday, July 03, 2006

For Future Reference (

For Future Reference (
From a list of new Library of Congress subject headings that received Dewey Decimal numbers last year. Originally from Harper's Magazine, June 2006.