Thursday, August 9, 2012

You can have your search engine(s), I'll be in the Reference Collection.

Yes, you did just hear the sound of a gauntlet hitting the ground. J'accuse! I have long attempted to frame the extreme usefulness of reference sources in a way that would attract you, dear reader, to turn away from what purports to be a source of information to the containers of organized, subject specific reference sources.

In beginning an exploration of how well the strengths of reference sources for art translate into databases, I placed myself in the N's on the 2nd floor. One of the best ways to learn a source is to first examine how it is organized, then move on to the contents. One of the best ways to hurry up step one is to read the introduction and the preface. Don't cough to indicated excessive dryness or roll your eyes at me. The preface and introduction is one of the few places a long suffering editor gets to throw a few zings and you will often find unexpected wit in such entries. The purpose and the scope of the source are usually summarized concisely in these sections as well.

For example, one of the sources I perused today, in the good company of my post-doc research colleague and co-conspirator, is The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, edited by Gordon Campbell. The preface notes that editor Campbell distilled "the vast corpus of information on the decorative arts in Grove Art Online, nearly 4 million words, into a cohesive and remarkable reference work. Gordon has also written more than 1000 new entries to cover many areas that were not discussed in Grove Art Online" (vi). In the introduction, Campbell explains, 'I have also attempted to provide material that is not accessible to Anglophone users of electronic search engines....What electronic resources (especially free ones) cannot at present provide is comprehensive access to material based on the most recent scholarship, or translation of much of the material in languages not understood by the reader" viii).

Campbell wrote that statement in 2006, and I believe that in the face of search engine distractors like advertisements and "content farms" it is even more true today. The Digital Divide also brings with it the Invisible Wall that prevents access. How can you know what your search is missing if you don't know what it is missing? Do you have a better metaphor for censorship by omission?

In my on going quest to elevate reference sources, I award a place of high honor to the Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts.

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