Okay, but what is an encyclopedia anyway?

Whenever I talk to a class about understanding source types, I like to ask how many of them have ever used a print encyclopedia for research. Or even seen one. There’s usually one student in every class who will hesitantly put their hand up, and then look around as they realize they’re the only one with their hands up. 

Which I think is probably part of the reason why so many students have a hard time understanding what a reference source is or when and why to use one. Same goes for magazines, newspapers, journals, etc. – if all of these source are open in a tab, how do you figure out what it is and where it fits in the information timeline.

Many of us learned what these kinds of sources are by actually getting our hands on them, and so as I was talking with teachers about improving our students’ understanding of how different types of sources work, we thought “why not have students get their hands on some sources?” Newspapers, magazines, and books were easy to get. I get the ALAN Review and (in that way that random mail often ends up on the librarian’s desk) I lucked into a copy of Journal of Microscopy, so I was all set with academic journals. While there are no encyclopedias in my current library, I knew my old library had an old set of encyclopedias and the librarian there was kind enough to loan me a few volumes (thanks Amy Perry!).

Our first activity was intended as a warm-up but ended up taking about 20-25 minutes with each class. We gave each table of students one type of source and some big paper and asked them to try to answer the following questions:

  • What are the defining characteristics of this type of source?
  • Who do you think is the audience for this source?
  • Why/when would someone use this source?
  • Who is responsible for the information in this source?

I was so impressed by what students were able to observe as they looked at these different kinds of sources. While there were some tongue-in-cheek answers (“why would someone use this?” Because their wifi isn’t working), students were also able to discern the differences between each kind of source and identify who the creators and potential audiences were for each source type.

From there, we moved into an activity I’ve done before – the source type card sort. I updated it using some of the language from this awesome information literacy module from NoodleTools. It may be coincidence (or confirmation bias), but it seemed like students had a much easier time matching descriptors to source types than they had when I tried this activity before. I think having some time to generate their own understandings of these kinds of sources really helped in building a mental model of each source type. 

Many students seemed to really enjoy reading the newspaper and the magazines. And doing every crossword they could find.

The teachers I was working with really wanted students to dig into understanding sources, so next we tried to apply what we’d discussed so far by doing a source deck activity. I’d built my deck around labor movements through history, and we asked students to use the source type categories from NoodleTools to identify what kind of source they were looking at. We had a lot more ideas for what to do with the source deck, but ran out of time because our opening activity took longer than expected – but I’m glad to have the deck (and ideas!) for another class.  

One of the things we hadn’t been planning to talk about, but emerged in our discussions, was the distinction between “database source” and “source found in a database.” I talk to a lot of students who seem to think that “database” is a type of source – and the way teachers require “database sources” doesn’t help this misunderstanding. I’ve long struggled to find a good way to explain to students what, exactly, a database is, but I think I’ve found an analogy that works: a charcuterie board. I ended up pulling this slide together in the middle of class and introducing it in the last two minutes, but I definitely saw some lightbulbs go off as I explained it. 

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I feel very lucky that I got this much time to talk with students about source types, and while I don’t know if I’ll always have this much time I can definitely use some of these activities in other classes.

How about you? What has helped your students understand different kinds of sources? 

5 thoughts on “Okay, but what is an encyclopedia anyway?

  1. I suspect this activity is pitched at students younger than mine, but it is something that I struggle with too. Getting their hands on physical sources definitely helps, so this is a great activity! I like the charcuterie board idea–I’ve used legos which are also great for teaching controlled vocabulary and critical use of search terms in a database. Plus, starting class with a box of legos always gets the students invested!

    • I actually did this with juniors! I’d love to do it with younger students in the future, but there was definitely a gap in students’ understanding even as they reach the upper levels. I think getting their hands on physical sources could work well for any age.

  2. I completely agree with Chris above! The charcuterie board idea is beyond genius. I will definitely borrow that when faced with yet another person scrolling through EBSCO who asks me, “But is this a database source? I need a database source! How do we filter for database sources?”

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