Reference Book Petting Zoo

It’s been pretty quiet in Blogville these days: not much happening over the summer, and then BAM the semester starts and suddenly I’m teaching eight different library sessions (two of them built completely from scratch) in nine work days.  But the fall-semester rush is dying down, and even though apparently blogs are dead (who knew?) I’ve still got stuff to say.

A colleague at another university recently asked for suggestions for teaching reference books, and I emailed her my thoughts on an activity I often do in classes that I call the Reference Book Petting Zoo.  I had to restrain myself from getting totally carried away in the email, so I thought I’d elaborate on it a bit and post it here:

The basic idea of the reference book petting zoo is for the students to actually touch the books.  Open them, flip through them, get a feel for what they contain and the idea that subject encyclopedias are different from the Britannica.

First, I pre-select a bunch of reference books that I hope will be relevant to their topics (this is easier or harder, depending on the subject of the class and how much information I have about their assignment).  The more glossy, colorful, and/or sexy the reference book, the better.  (If at all possible, I try to work in the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender, which is definitely NOT G-rated; and/or the Encyclopedia of Body Modification, which has color photos and always elicits a resounding “eewwwwwww!” and/or the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture.)  I also aim for what my favorite library-school professor called highly “generative” books: books that contain articles on subjects that you wouldn’t expect to find in that particular reference work, but that are related, somehow.  The Encyclopedia of Community, the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, and the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender are all fabulous for this.

Then I break the class into groups of 3-5.  I give each group a reference book, or sometimes a pair of related books (we have two one-volume works on TV that I often group together).  Each group has 5 minutes to examine the books and then prepare to report back to the whole class the answers to three questions:

  1. How is it organized?
  2. What (or even better, who) would it be useful for?
  3. Tell us one interesting or weird thing that you found in the book.

I emphasize that “alphabetical” is NOT a sufficient answer for #1.  They need to tell the class about indices, cross-references, lists of articles at the beginning of the book, etc.  In short, access points.  And especially bibliographies.  I really try to hammer home two concepts: use the index (not the alphabetical listing of entries) and use the bibliographies.

The second question is good if, as a class, they know what each others’ topics are, and can say, “hey John, there’s an article about your guy in here,” or whatever.  They sometimes bail on the third question, which is fine, but if they don’t, it’s often an eye-opening experience for me to see what they find interesting and/or weird.

Then as they’re reporting back to the class, I make sure to fill in any gaps they may have missed.  This is especially important for #2, as they often don’t think very far outside the title of the book for what kinds of topics it might be useful for.  I find that I really need to lead them by the nose in thinking broadly about potential sources of information on their topics.  As they’re going around, I’ll also ask, “who has a topic that might be covered in this book?” and get them to say a little bit about their topic.  Or I might ask a specific person, “what’s your topic?” and then get them to think aloud through which books might be useful to them.  The best is when I ask, “who’s got a topic that you think isn’t covered in any of these?” and then I take their topics and talk about how two or three different sources might be useful.

I’ve never had this activity go really badly, even with the more recalcitrant classes, and with an engaged class it is fabulous.  The downside to this is that it really does not translate well to online reference sources, like Gale Virtual Reference Library or Credo Reference.  Luckily, we don’t have any of those at the moment!