This is a post that has nothing to do with cataloging. I hope that you will read it anyway.
I don't spend a lot of time working with end users or doing instruction, but I do teach one library instruction session per semester to several sections of our Freshman Writing Seminar. And that experience has taught me a lot about how students handle research problems. When I pulled "'The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection:' the subject encyclopedia in the age of Wikipedia" by John W. East out of my to-be-read pile, it opened an interesting rabbit hole down which I currently find myself.
The main assignment that our Freshman Writing Seminar students are given--the one that all of their small assignments build toward--is a final paper that analyzes a primary text through a discipline-specific lens (e.g., sociology).
One thing that has become painfully clear to me over time is that these novice researchers aren't often equipped to synthesize the discipline-specific material through which they are supposed to be viewing their primary text. The concepts and jargon are often unfamiliar to them and they are not always willing to do the leg work to figure out what they need to know.
Two important facts about the course:
1. It is required of all Freshmen
2. It cannot be tested out of.
Though the students (again...generally speaking) in these classes are conscientious learners and want to get good grades, the stakes simply aren't high enough to warrant a lot of extra work to understand the concepts.
The point of the course is to acclimate Freshmen to collegiate-level writing and the shift from regurgitation of facts to the synthesis of information. The research process does factor into this shift, but learning how to use the library is only one part of that process. I can show a class how to use an article database to find scholarly articles on a topic, but it is up to them to synthesize that material. And part of that synthesis process is understanding the concepts and terminology used in the articles.
In walks the subject encyclopedia, waving it's arms and yelling 'I can help! Hey...pick me!'
Subject encyclopedias are a great way to expose researchers to basic information about a concept. What's not to love? They cover all of the basics on a topic and provide a bibliography for finding more information.
But if I'm honest with myself, I realize that this isn't how I do research. I don't come across a concept I don't know and then refer to a subject encyclopedia to better understand it.
I go to Wikipedia.
East's article juxtaposes the quick-and-easy nature of finding information against the authority of the subject encyclopedia. And I think he makes a good point. Wikipedia is easy to access, but it isn't the most academic of sources. And he's right to point out that many instructors are nonplussed when their students cite Wikipedia as a source.
But if all a student needs is to quickly understand a concept, what's so wrong with offering Wikipedia as a way to do that?
As a librarian, I struggle with the answer to that question. I understand that you can't trust everything you find online. And I understand that the subject encyclopedia is probably better suited to give researchers the kind of support they need.
But for Freshman researchers who are often balancing a full course load against the challenges of navigating life away from home for the first time, the leg work it takes to find a subject encyclopedia to learn about a concept is often not worth the payoff they get.
I think that in this semester of Writing 1, I'm going to talk about subject encyclopedias. And I'll probably put links to a few of them on my course guide. But I also think that I'll be more conscious of telling students that context, wherever one finds it, is a valuable tool for researchers.
Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.
East, John W. "'The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection:' the subject encyclopedia in the age of Wikipedia" Reference & User Services Quarterly 50.2 (2010): 162-169.