Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Should we abandon reference material? (ETL 501)

The leather bound, gold plated Encyclopædia Britannica’s that graced the shelves in our family living room were a treasured item. An expensive acquisition, bought by parents who felt it important to have good quality reference materials on hand at home to support the years of homework and projects faced when raising four children. Nestled next to them, were the 6 volumes of an Australia specific encyclopedia set, several dictionaries and a thesaurus, several atlases and other reference materials. We used theses volumes with reverence, searching out information we needed for school, and occasionally reading them out of pleasure and a quest for personal knowledge.

Then the internet arrived, and with it the demise of status of those beloved tomes of knowledge and fact. The immediacy of the internet meant that when facts were changed, those facts could be changed instantaneously on the internet. So when Pluto officially lost its planetary standing, its change in status could be and was in many places online, changed with some immediacy - unlike the encyclopedias on our shelves, gathering dust and still championing Pluto as the 9th planet in our solar system. 

The idea of traditional reference materials gracing the shelves of our studies and libraries has been undergoing significant change over the past decade. Traditional definitions of what constitutes reference materials include texts such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, bibliographies, biographies, directories, indexes etc. I would argue that there does remain a place for materials of this sort in our libraries. What should be considered is what form those reference materials take and how library users are able to access those materials. The immediacy in be able to update information rapidly, has quickly led to the poor old printed encyclopedia becoming defunct – but not the premise behind it’s original use.

The definition of reference materials could be stated as:
Reference(noun) : the act of referring or consulting

Reference(noun) : a book to which you can refer to for authoritative facts

Reference (verb) : to refer to

As seekers of information, we still need information sources from which we refer to. Traditionally, reference materials were not able to be borrowed and were housed on shelves in the library. Now, much of the information contained within reference texts is freely available online. So it could be fair to say that reference materials have not been abandoned so much as having shifted format.

I think that the more significant issues facing the use of online reference materials versus traditional reference texts, is that of authority, accuracy and currency. Traditional reference materials were produced through qualified / experienced authors / editors. They contained reputable sources of information, guaranteed to have accurate information and published by a recognized publisher.
n some ways, it could be considered that much information online is referred to, and therefore reference material. Yet it is often not easy to determine the qualifications of the authors / editors and whether the information is reputable and accurate.

Wikipedia is an example of this. While it can be considered to be reference material, being an online encyclopedia, the fact that anyone can input fact and influence the information found within its pages makes it an unreliable source for reference. It cannot be guaranteed that all information is accurate and one does not need to be qualified or experienced within a particular field to publish on its site.

Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles, People of all ages, cultures and backgrounds can add or edit article prose, references, images and other media here. What is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor’ (Wikimedia, 2014).

Encyclopædia Britannica, another example of online reference material, has successfully taken its print reference materials and moved them online. However unlike Wikipedia, Encyclopædia Britannica does not allow anyone to publish information on their site, continuing to value the provision of information that has accuracy, authority and currency. Encyclopædia Britannica do not consider that reference materials such as encyclopedias are no longer useful and should be abandoned. Instead they state:

The encyclopedia is very much alive—more than ever, in fact, in many digital forms, online and on mobile devices. It’s bigger, better, and richer than it was in print, easier to use, and, just as important, online we can nurture an entire community of learners and researchers around the Britannica and all of our content, a community where people share their knowledge with others at the same time they’re learning new things themselves. The Internet and mobile interaction create a host of new possibilities, and we’re making the most of them.

We’ve gone way beyond traditional “reference.” In today’s networked world the scholarly and intellectual work we do serves learning in many new ways. As just one example, we now create high-quality instructional products for K-12 classrooms—products like Pathways: Science, which helps teachers correct common misconceptions about science among middle-school students.
Besides great editors and scholars, our teams include instructional designers, user-experience specialists, teachers, school administrators, and others—all the people you need to make great educational products. It’s fun, and it keeps us on our toes because the markets we serve are always hungry for new and better products, and we intend to give them what they need ‘(Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014).

So no, I don’t think we are a point of abandoning reference materials at all. I think we are in a time when we have a much greater choice of reference materials that ever before, and that as teachers and teacher librarians, we need to make informed choices about what online reference materials we share, use and teach our students with, always espousing the importance of authority, accuracy and currency.

Encyclopædia Britannica (2014). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com

Wikimedia Foundation (2014). Wikipedia:About in Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About

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