Link post: August 27, 2010

An interesting post – with links to other ideas – from Joyce Valenza about things she wishes school librarians would unlearn.

I definitely agree with several points on her list, including the Wikipedia one. My comment on it to students has always been that it is a starting place. From there, you can learn:

  • useful terms and phrases common in that subject area (fantastic for me when someone asks a reference question about a topic I’m not already familiar with.) Better terms = better searches.
  • names and dates of relevant people involved (useful for getting broader context)
  • links to further sources, so you can go look at the initial material yourself.
  • and sometimes other things, like recent books about a topic or other resources that can help you dig deeper.

The search that brought this home to me was comparing the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia a couple of years ago (right around the time The Other Boleyn Girl movie came out) on the subject of Anne Boleyn – scarcely a minor figure. The Britannica version was 500 words, didn’t mention most of her family by name, didn’t give any background on a number of topics – her brother and sister, her interest in religion and philosophy, background issues and politics of the time.

In contrast, the Wikipedia article (at something like 2500 words), gave all of that, plus included links to current biographies with a summary of their main focus and theories, a link to an analysis of the choices that Phillippa Gregory had made in her writing of the book (and the subsequent changes in the movie) and how that fit in with different scholarly theories.

Which one do you think is most useful to high school students who got interested in Anne because of the book or the movie? And which one do you think starts a better conversation about how we study history, and how our own interests and focus and choices affect what we see in that history? Even more importantly, the Wikipedia article showed that real people – people like them – could do that kind of analytical work too, and contribute to understanding how all the historical fragments might fit together in various ways. Not bad for 2500 words.

I think a lot of people remember what Wikipedia was like initially, and forget (or don’t know) that in the past few years, they’ve done a lot to improve citation requirements, address some of the problems of prank edits, and other such things. It’s not perfect (and like all online sites, there are still quirks) which is why you still need to go look at the original sources.But that’s always been true, regardless of your tertiary source. Growing up in an academic family, I’ve long been aware that the ‘authoritative published sources’ (like traditional encyclopedias) have the potential for flaws. There are politics and person wrangling and pet projects, and all sorts of other things that introduce bias and inaccuracy there too. They’re just much more hidden from the end reader.

Michael Stephens shared an updated assignment for the class he teaches on Participatory Service and Emerging Technologies: to read one of the selected books and either do a report (the old fashioned option) or to do a media presentation (podcast, video, all sorts of other options.) That part’s great – but the list of books is also useful (and a good reminder to me: I’ve read about half of them, and should read the rest.)

And to go with my post earlier this week, LifeHacker has a top ten list of Facebook fixes you might want to look at. (including videos on how to adjust privacy settings, if you prefer that to text instructions.)

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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