Connecting Users to Networks — Web 2.0 and Reference Services?

When I was in my first year of Public Administration School at Dalhousie University, I met Marguerite Cassin, who is, perhaps, the smartest and wisest person I know (next to my wife).

Through Marguerite, I learned about Dorothy Smith and Institutional Ethnography (IE). Basically, IE is a path of inquiry that begins with individual experience and tries to map out the “texts” that exist between individuals and the institutions that control/impact/direct their lives. Most of the time when I explain this approach to people, I get a blank stare. But I really, truly, positively believe that at least thinking in an “IE way” can help with practical problems, and I have tested this out at a reference desk when I was doing my internship.

When people are doing hard-core research — and by “hard core” I mean they are looking for multiple resources and an in-depth understanding of a subject from as many angles as possible — I recommend a “research plan.” This plan is very simple and consists of three things:

  1. A brainstorm of possible search terms, perhaps with the aid of a cognitive map.
  2. Resources to use as grounding points (eg. encyclopedias, key journal articles etc.).
  3. A list of possible databases.

Number 1 is important because, if you want to access more than one resource, you may need to use different terms to get at the same information.

Number 2 is useful because it uses a “pedigree” approach to research (ie. you can steal citations from the most important articles in your research).

Number 3’s usefulness is obvious. Unfortunately, I find that this is the only route that people take to finding information. It is helpful sometimes, but other times it simply wastes large amounts of people’s time, especially if #1 hasn’t already been done.

As I stated before, Web 2.0 seems to imply new approaches to online knowledge seeking. Instead of searching for subjects, social softwares make it possible to access information through the people who know seem to know it. Ironically, we have learned that the “find a knowledgable person” approach is the favored approach in real life as well. Web 2.0 only brings that experience through a computer.

So, what does Web 2.0 imply about my three-step “research plan?” Well, here are some ideas.

Step 1: brainstorm possible search terms, perhaps with the aid of a cognitive map

The typical cognitive map used in this situation, is the infamous “thesaurus map” where individual topic words are extracted from a thesis, problem or research statement and broader, narrower and related terms are used to provide a broader (subject-oriented) context for the subject. For instance, a person with the topic “The impact of the cold war on international trade in Canada” might take the phrases “cold war” “international trade” and “canada” and brainstorm other words to go with them. For instance “cold war” might produce other words like U.S., U.S.S.R., communism, capitalism, international relations, Cuba Missile crisis and so on.

Through my association with Marguerite, I learned the Institutional Map approach. The thinking with the institutional map is a little bit different. Instead of words, you begin with an event and brainstorm the players involved in that event. So, you begin with (for example) the Cuban Missile Crisis and identify players related to that subject (Castro, Kennedy, US Department of Defense, Kruschev, etc.). Between these “players” are documents that connect them, for example, correspondences, official government documents, pamplets, policies and laws, minutes of meetings and so on.

With a more local area of information need, the “event” could be their own localized problem. For example, “I need to apply for Canadian citizenship.” Then you can make the institutions involved in that scenario, for instance, a department of Customs and Immigration, local citizenship groups, advocacy groups, and community leaders. Once you have these names, then you can use Google or Technorati to see who’s talking about them. Then the network approach begins. The person can connect, via RSS, the sorts of information that is important to them.

Step 2: Find Resources to use as grounding points (eg. encyclopedias, key journal articles etc.).

Ok. So you have the key resource for econometric analysis via the Granger Test. Why not Google the author and see if he/she has a blog, or better yet, Instant Messaging? Maybe this person has a Wikipedia account and adds/edits frequently. If he or she does, then you can begin the networking process from that resource. As librarians, shouldn’t we be offering this as a search strategy as well as the citation stealing? As Web 2.0 matures, it seems that the wealth of information will grow and grow through this strategy.

Step 3: list of possible databases.

There’s not much to add in this regard, except that we know now that databases offer RSS feeds for their searches. Also, there are a wide range of blogs and wikis that do nothing but pathfind to new an interesting journal articles. Perhaps libraries ought to highlight particular resources like this, or maybe even offer them as part of their services.

Web 2.0 impacts the way users access information; it should therefore impact the way libraries do reference work. I am sure there are a variety of search strategies besides the ones I suggested that could greatly improve the customer experience with doing research.

I also focussed on the “hard core” research experience, which is only a small part of the game. I bet there are other strategies out there to take on the task of bringing Web 2.0 power to our customers. One I can think of off the bat is a downloadable import of key blogs for basic reference. I know that snopes would definitely be on my list.

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