Friday, February 18, 2011

Article Note: On subject encyclopedias in an age of Wikipedia

Citation for the article:

East, John W., "'The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection" The Subject Encyclopedia in the Age of Wikipedia." Reference and User Services Quarterly 50.2 (2010): 162-169.

Read online.

This small article basically gives a small overview of the subject encyclopedia's place in the academic library and how it is losing that place to tools like Wikipedia. The author, John W. East, also looks at online subject encyclopedias and considers how libraries are (or not) promoting and facilitating their use. The article begins with a brief historical overview of the subject encyclopedia. He suggests that by the 1970s, the subject encyclopedia was well-established in libraries for reference work (163). East goes on to say that the heyday of the subject encyclopedia was around 1986; this is the year when American Reference Books Annual (know as ARBA by most librarians; odds are good many libraries still have ARBA volumes) published the first edition of Guide to Subject Encyclopedias and Dictionaries.

I found it interesting when the author points out how some back in 1986 or so predicted that computers would not replace encyclopedias anytime soon. We have a come a long way, and the computers have done quite a bit of replacing (for good or ill, that is for another debate another day). The point is that subject encyclopedias were slow to move into electronic formats. Then the web came, and pretty much everything changed from how students seek out information to our roles as librarians and educators. Students began to see Wikipedia as an easy and convenient source of information while libraries began to cut back on their reference collections; whether due to economics, lack of use due to more online resources, due to Wikipedia displacing the reference collection, so on  is another debate. The point is it is happening. Many libraries are shifting from print to online versions for their subject encyclopedias, if they still purchase subject reference works at all. That is the approach we are pursuing at my library where online is favored whenever possible (and while I have some strong opinions about this, they are not here and now). East does observe that "the attitude that 'if it's not online, it doesn't exist' is becoming more prevalent with every passing year" (165). I will note that in many cases, it is also an attitude that is becoming more common among librarians as well. That is something I disagree with, but over time, I may find myself in the minority position. But let's not digress.

Some notes from the article:

  • A good number of subject encyclopedias are available in electronic format via a few vendors (SAGE, Gale, etc.). "It is encouraging that so many of the titles are available online, but their dispersal across multiple platforms puts them at a disadvantage when compared with the 'one-stop-shop' that is Wikipedia" (165). This is a big issue overall. Different reference works are on different platforms, and each platform has its own idiosyncrasies and restrictions that patrons often do not understand (assuming they even bother to access one of these electronic reference works). Then there is the licensing, the authentication issues to get to the reference work in question, etc. All this make using a particular electronic encyclopedia a challenge for students. Thus it is even more of a challenge for us librarian to promote use of these works when they are not exactly user friendly. I don't foresee this problem going away anytime soon since it is not necessarily in the interest of the vendors to get their products to play nice with each other.
  • "Clearly many of our online subject encyclopedias are not earning their keep" (165). I am sure a lot of this has to do with what I just mentioned above. They can't earn their keep if the students cannot get to them. East expands on this when he writes, "it is now a cliche of librarianship that our clients are more interested in convenience than quality and that our high-quality resources will only be used if our clients can identify and access them easily" (166). 
  • On promoting the online resources: "When liaison librarians have access to sites that students in a particular course will use frequently-- such as electronic course reserves or course management systems like Blackboard-- they have the opportunity to insert links to relevant electronic encyclopedias. If the links are prominently situated, students might notice and use them" (167). We had to fight a bit of a battle to get access to Blackboard in the first place. Then another to get a library presence in it where we wanted a library tab on the interface that would be prominent for students to see while the BB administrators wanted to toss a link to the library under "other campus organizations." So you may find yourself fighting a bit just to get into the CMS in the first place. However, once you manage to get in, you may be able to accomplish some things. 
  • Other ways of promotion mentioned in the article are listing individual electronic reference sources in your library catalog, on your subject guides, and on lists of books and databases. I do put some of the online reference works relevant to my subject areas in my LibGuides. I probably could do a bit better about promoting some specific e-book encyclopedias in class, but I will admit that some of the obstacles already mentioned are a big turn off. In other words, I have a hard time recommending something to students that I know will be difficult for them to use. This may be a partial answer to the question the author raises: "If we think that our students still understand and value the encyclopedia as an information resource (and this is a question that probably merits further research), then why are we not promoting our encyclopedias more prominently on our websites?" (168).  I think students do understand, or can learn to understand, the value of a good subject encyclopedia as an information resource. And I do promote print encyclopedias that may be relevant to a specific need when we have them. However, for electronic, as I said above, if it is a difficult source to use, I have a hard time promoting it to students. 

    1 comment:

    Michael Steeleworthy said...

    A nice recap and some great thoughts. I'm glad you picked up on the 'convenience v. quality' argument, too. Sometimes I wonder if we cater too much to a student's preference for convenience in order to teach proper research skills. i.e., Although Wikipedia can be an acceptable gateway at times, that doesn't mean we should encourage its use when there are so many better resources available to our users, like the many subject encyclopedias still available to them in print or in electronic form.