Reference Nostalgia

Generations before the Millennials may remember striving diligently through library materials, such as encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs, etc., especially for school projects.  Unfortunately, this diligence has surrendered to convenience.  The wave came first through computer software, then through the internet.  And as many have tried to “surf” the web, rip tides are inevitable.

Let’s start with Google.  It has been synonymous for quite sometime with searching the web.  Or maybe even searching, period.  In any case, let the searcher beware.

And now you have an “encyclopedia,” known as Wikipedia, which, being a public entity in which people try to look things up, there is little or no assurance of scholarly backup.  Sure, the sources in the references may be scholarly.  And there are varying differences of technicality among Wikipedia articles.  But the contributors (read:  writers) are responsible for what goes in and out of it (along with a few “bots”).  And, whether you consider it a blessing or a curse, articles constantly change!

Alas, I must confess, I am prone to using Wikipedia myself.  Therefore, I want to avoid preaching about it, but just follow your heart.  Besides, in scholastic situations, instructors advise their students not to use it (or any encyclopedia) for projects assigned.

Ok, moving on.  Yesterday I felt I had the dilemma of keeping either the print set (1981, though most content seems to been written in, say, the early 70s), and the more modern computer program (2012). But since they work as a team, there really was no “dilemma” to begin with!  Some libraries, in fact, may retain multiple editions of a reference source.  Though in the 21st century, many libraries have purged much of their reference material.

And there is much potential in that.  Back to Google (or any of its rivals, e.g. Bing), you can get even more content.  Or if you prefer print, consult a number of references.  Or even websites!  See, there is a good element to the web.  It just requires wisdom.

Until you’re satisfied with a topic, the more references, the merrier.  Think of them as a team, whether separate works and/or different editions of one work. And if you’re totally puzzled in one source, try another.  Variety is the spice of life, as they say.

Just Add Water & “edu”

When doing a Google search on an academic topic, particularly a more formal one, I have serendipitously discovered a way you can get trustworthy articles and avoid the forbidden Wikipedia (and other similarly “iffy” sources).  You simply type your intended query, followed by “.edu.”  The quotes are optional but recommended, in order to to optimize your search.

Watch out for the other extreme, though.  If you see “Cited by (number)” and/or “Related articles,” these are directed by the branch of Google called “Google Scholar,” home of dry academic papers, many of which you’d fall asleep on page one.  (Unless you happened to be a professional in one of those fields.)

Nonetheless, to strike a balance, depending on level of your understanding and scope of the source, this is actually a good method.  Great sources, given the “.edu” domain requested, include course pages and department

To sum up:

  1. Include the “.edu” in your Google query
  2. Stick with stuff that is not Google Scholar material based on the methods above (unless you really wanted to enter into such territory.)

So, whenever appropriate, you can boldly Google where no other search has gone before!

Get Right on Target When Googling!

Not too long ago, when I want to investigate a topic, I tend to make the error of being too broad.  Instead of Googling my intended item, I would Google a college course’s lecture notes or similar “all-purpose” resource for a subject.  While they can be doubtless rich in information, it will depend on the scope of content that the leader (often, a college professor) wants to contain on his site, both in breadth and depth.

I’m not denying their substantial information is of good quality.  I’m just recommending a different means of searching the web.

My solution here is simply to be more specific.  For example, say “cephalopods” instead of “invertebrate zoology,” or “sapwood” instead of “plant anatomy,” or “electric potential” instead of “physics.”

And once this rule of thumb is observed, you will probably unleash far more power than by doing a search on a broad topic.  You may even cross paths with those “all-purpose” sites mentioned above, such as course notes.  But since you are aiming for what you want, when you need it, it doesn’t matter what the identity of the sites are.

I wish you some “bull’s eyes!”

Dealing with Details Down and Dirty

An area I always struggled with before is what details actually “are.”  Well, eureka, it dawned on me, and here is your answer:  statements that answer questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how (much).  Therefore, giving more form, substance, and complexity to a question by answering these questions, and obviously giving them an answer.

However, details, both in their quality and quantity, can be a blessing or a curse.  (Of course, I enjoy the heavy stuff, but many others may not.)  Naturally, details on a topic are pursued by one who is genuinely interested.  If not, you wouldn’t do so.  And often, as they say, ignorance can be bliss.  (No wonder ads will say “see store for details” or websites say likewise “click link for details.”)

Heavy detail must be absorbed slowly, and only portions of what you learn are likely to stay.  Of course, though, if you need to know a particular fact that you may have forgotten, we have the Internet as a rich resource, as well as the more conventional library methods (which are slowly dying) and many other books as well, especially ones you may own.

Remember, in the end, learning is all about utility.  As they say, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it; but it may come back to you if you reviewed it.  Yet it’s not worth investing time into learning subjects (or even isolated facts) that are not relevant to what you would expect out of life.  Also, detail control is an art; it takes trial and error.

And like anything, information (at any level of detail), can be an idol.  Aside from Scripture, most information is secular and explains exactly that — worldly phenomena.

As 1 Cor 10:31 states, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  And, since “all” means “all,” that includes research and choosing reading material.  Amen?

At least you can judge books now, regardless of their covers!

Why I Often Like “Heavy Reading” Material

If I was to just consult a “popular” or other summarized source, the writers decide what details go in and what gets cut out.  But if you do the summarizing from something “heavier” (like a textbook, peer-reviewed journal, etc.), you get to summarize whatever you want, and get your own product.

Of course, both the heavy stuff (which needs to be summarized by your own effort for full understanding) and “light” or “popular” sources can work as a team, as all good research includes.  Using a cooking analogy (since I love to cook), it’s kind of like mixing natural and processed foods.  Natural foods (which we’ll compare to the “heavy” reading) can be mixed with those “processed” foods that have been around the block, just like a summary.  Processing includes all the added and modified ingredients and the, yes, processes used together.  Combining them can turn into a meal.  Summarizing (and its typical complement, paraphrasing, or changing the wording) is a process on writing.  Light and heavy materials can be used together in personal understanding of a topic.

And don’t get trapped into thinking that something is simply “over your head” and thus dismissing it as a source.  Reading is an exercise of the mind, so if it isn’t over your head, it’s probably too easy.  As you perform these mental calisthenics, you improve your capacity of intake and take it to new heights.  (This very logic is from the book called “How to Read a Book,” by Mortimer J. Adler).  And technical terms and concepts, in this information age, thanks to Google, are just a click away from their description.

Probably the biggest barrier is math, found often in science articles.  But this phobia is merely caused by first glances, if you learn the appropriate level of math (and the knowledge needed is usually theoretical and rarely, if ever, computational), an equation will feel more like a “puzzle,” just like crosswords, word searches, jigsaw, and Sudoku.  The pain (or at least fear) thereof can potentially turn into a pleasure, hopefully.

I would still advise people who use this strategy, nifty as it is, not to publish it to mass audiences (except if they are truly expert).  This may compromise accuracy, since after all, you are most likely not a professional in that field.  You can share it orally or otherwise personally as much as you like, though.

So, ready to climb Mt. Reader?