Friday, April 20, 2012

Comparing Reference Resources

I think one of the most frustrating things about reference librarianship is hearing about research projects, looking at information, and getting a cursory introduction to the topics, but never being required to fully complete the research. My part in the process typically leaves me feeling half-finished. I regularly look back at research projects I worked on as a student and wish I could do them over again. How weird is that?

So I can't tell if this exacerbates the problem or relieves it, but I've taken to coming up with reference questions independently and then following up by testing them in our online reference databases. I still get only a cursory understanding of the topics, but I get to relieve my own curiosity somewhat, in addition to putting our resources through their paces. 

I've been trying to do this this systematically (picture a spreadsheet) since January: I record basic reference questions translated into keywords, run them through our various reference databases as well as google, record the top 5 results, and assign a (subjective) quality grade on a scale from 1-5. In this way I'm learning quite a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of our databases, as well as google.

For example, I am consistently looking for neutral, objective information, and I wonder how much google is customizing my results these days (watch this TED Talk to become paranoid about this). Most of what comes up when I use google are wikipedia entries. As much as librarians like to debate the merits of wikipedia, in the searches I've been doing google would have been close to useless without it. Instead of comparing our reference databases with google, it has quickly become how our reference databases measure up to wikipedia. I've already run through that exercise to my satisfaction previously, with the conclusion that as long as I have access to an academic library and am up to date on the scholarly resources there, I prefer the reliability and quality of the information in online reference databases to what is found in wikipedia -- even when an article in wikipedia is longer and has more pictures. The only time wikipedia 'wins' is when I truly can find nothing anywhere else, and frankly I'm always disappointed when something in wikipedia is all I have to go on. It might as well have been something I overheard on a bus.

Another thing I'm starting to understand is the strengths of certain subscription reference databases compared to others. Some of this is malleable, meaning we can select and swap the underlying titles as needed, but in other cases the underlying content is just not there, no matter which titles we choose to include. Many reference databases claim to cover all subject areas, but the only one I've found that comes close to doing this is Encyclopedia Britannica (Academic Edition), which may come as a surprise to some who had written it off as an anachronism.

Now that I've started, I'll probably continue to do this for the foreseeable future. I've benefited in unanticipated ways, by finding myself knowledgeable about the strengths of our resources and how their interfaces work. In fact, I should have started doing this sooner!

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