REFERENCE AS A TEACHABLE MOMENT
By Marylaine Block
Doing reference can be kind of like doing magic tricks. The patron wants an answer -- quick, what's the national enrollment in private schools? -- and we just deliver it, along with the source we got it from ("according to Statistical Abstract, in 1998 -- the last year they have final figures for -- enrollment was 9,142,000"). We pull the rabbit out of the hat and leave it at that.
But knowing that there's a lot more to statistics than that, we could carry on a running commentary about what we're finding -- "It gives projected numbers for 2000 and 2004, too, if you want those, and it breaks the figures down by grade level. It also gives comparative enrollment data back to 1980, and comparisons with public school enrollment, if you're interested."
You see, that's another approach to reference: showing our patrons the art behind the trick while we're looking for their answers, so that they can learn to find their own rabbits. We do it by talking out loud, letting them hear our thought processes, the reasons we chose to search a database rather than the internet, chose ERIC rather than Lexis-Nexis, chose this search phrase rather than that.
Why? Because when people need to know something is when they are most open to learning not just the answers but strategies that will help them find other answers. Suppose someone asked you to track down a quote about how progress depends on the unreasonable man. We could take them to Google, and say something like, "Let's type in PROGRESS + "UNREASONABLE MAN," since you're pretty sure about those words, and we always want to put quotes around phrases to tell the search engine to search those words together."
As we sort through the results, we could say something like, "Hmm, there seem to be at least six different versions of that quote. I can't tell which one is correct, either, because the only source given on each of those pages is George Bernard Shaw, and we can't really go through everything Shaw wrote to check it. Let's go to X-Refer -- http://w1.xrefer.com/ -- or Bartleby -- http://bartleby.com/ -- instead, where we can look it up in their online reference books.
"Yes, X-Refer says the quote goes this way: 'The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.' It says the source is George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, Maxims. You know, I always like it when they tell us exactly where the quote came from -- it means they're sure enough of their facts that they're willing to tell us how to check them."
Of course we could also say, "You know, I don't trust the web because many of the quotes online are just wrong, so I'd rather use an online quote book," and take them directly to X-Refer or Bartleby, but in my experience, showing is more effective than telling. By bumbling through Google search results with them, we show them how unreliable the open web can be; actually seeing the problem should make them welcome the discovery of reliable online databases that are part of the invisible web.
I once helped some business students who were doing a project on community development along the Mississippi River and wanted to know where they'd find information on inland ports and barge traffic. I started musing out loud about who would logically be conducting research on it -- the Department of Transportation, the USDA (which inspects grain barges), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, state and regional boards and such, all government agencies. So I suggested we search on http://searchgov.com/, which indexes federal, state and local government web pages, where indeed, we found lots of good statistics and research reports. On the other hand, I said, there should be articles about it in business and trade magazines and journals, so I also helped them search it in our full-text business databases too.
I wasn't just giving the students answers. I was also teaching them a basic strategy -- find it by figuring out first where it's most likely to be.
When a faculty member once asked me what science databases were available on the web, I talked him through a mental process like this: "Hmm, interesting terminology problem, since a chemistry database, for instance, would be called a chemistry database, not a science database. How do we get around that? I know, let's use SciSeek, an engine that only searches through science sites. Now, let's just type in DATABASE and see what we get. OK, this lists 495 databases, for hazardous materials, software for chemists, aquatic plants and such." He learned a little that day about the complexity of terminology problems, about searching within restricted universes, and about a search engine he'd never heard of before that he's been using ever since.
If a student ask for information on schizophrenia, you could explain your reasoning as you escort them to the computer and help them begin their search: "OK, you say your instructor expects you to use psychology literature for this, so she'll probably want you to search Psychological Abstracts, which indexes the behavioral science journals. But if all we type in is schizophrenia, we're going to pull up thousands of references, so how can we narrow it down? If you found the perfect article on your topic, what would it be called? OK, let's take this word and this other word and add those to schizophrenia in your search."
Of course if the student really doesn't know enough in the first place to be able to narrow down the search, you could say, "Well, would you like to see what current psychological research is being done on schizophrenia? We could probably find a review of the research in Annual Review of Psychology. Or, if you like, before we go to the psychology literature, we could start with MedlinePlus -- http://medlineplus.gov/ -- where the National Library of Medicine has linked in some good background information on it. OK, it's got some overviews, and information on symptoms and diagnosis. Oh, look, here's a report on the evidence for a biological basis, and one on a possible genetic cause, and something on schizophrenia and suicide. Hmm, they also link in a couple of news items about psychedelic drugs and schizophrenia. Do any of those ideas grab you? Why don't you explore a little and I'll get back to you in a few minutes." Once the student arrives at a possible topic, THEN you can show her how Psych Abstracts works and help her explore the psychology literature.
You can teach quite complicated strategies by thinking outloud while you're finding things for your patrons -- "perhaps we could start with an expert site for the field, say the American Psychological Association, and see if it guides you to the best research in that area?" You can show them how to pick up new terms as they sort through results, and suggest different ways of narrowing the search -- were you interested in genetic aspects, or maybe therapeutic drugs?
Of course talking out loud is not a monologue but a dialogue. What you tell them, and how much you tell them will depend on how receptive or interested your patron is. But if your patrons find the perfect article or web site and want more like it, you have a chance to demonstrate clicking on hyperlinked subject headings or bibliographic references, or to suggest using the authors' names or additional terms from that article in new searches. You can suggest other databases to search and explain why what they're looking for is likely to be there. For that matter, you can show them why, in some cases, the best thing they could do is start with a good book on the topic.
Why should we demystify ourselves like this, give away some of our best tricks? Why not just take credit for being the sees-all-knows-all wizards that we are? Because we're living in a time where bad information far exceeds good information, and our patrons have no good way to tell the difference. Their best defense is skepticism, not blind trust in anyone's authority, even ours. When they come to us for answers, let's also give them some of the tools they need for self-defense.
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Any fool can have an opinion; to know what one needs to know to have an opinion is wisdom; which is another way of saying that wisdom means knowing what questions to ask about knowledge.
Neil Postman. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.
…to say that we live in an unprecedented age of information is merely to say that we have available more statements about the world than we ever had. This means, among other things, that we have available more erroneous statements than we have ever had. Has anyone been discussing the matter of how we can distinguish between what is true and what is false? Aside from schools, which are supposed to attend to the matter but largely ignore it, is there any institution or medium that is concerned with the problem of misinformation?
Neil Postman. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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