Researching at Altitude
19 April 2021 by Eric Calaluca

Product Updates | Reference Universe | RU Product Updates

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This post is the second in a three-part series that began with Meandering the Stacks in March 2021 and concluded with Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things in June 2021.

- Ed.


“The comparative perspectives provided by multiple specialized encyclopedias provide an assurance of quality that does not attach to Wikipedia articles. Again, this is not to criticize the latter for what they do; it is rather to point out that other important research options for gaining overview perspectives exist…”1

Our post in March outlined how best to use the See Similar Titles within Paratext’s Reference Universe. It permits users to “drop in” to adjacent specialized encyclopedias with similar classifications. Today, we’ll explain the extension of this browsing option—Focused Browsing.

Whereas See Similar Titles gives a ground-level view of adjacent introductory works that might lead the researcher down a valuable new path, Focused Browsing opts for altitude. It raises the users up from the stacks to view your specialized encyclopedias and scholarly compendia from the realm of broad subject categories. It reveals the scope of your library’s curated collection of introductory materials, unlocking important resources.

How does it work?

From the search results page, the user selects Focused Browsing from the top navigation bar and is faced with a tiled selection screen offering categories and subcategories. Once the user has chosen both, they are given a view of the books that appear under that subcategory in the Library of Congress classification system.

This system is not merely a useful alternate way into a library collection. It is also flexible and it is continuously augmented by editors at Paratext.

Screenshot of RU Browse results page for astronauticsThis flexibility derives from the use of Library of Congress classification ranges to define the categories available . By regularly adding additional sets of call numbers to the system, Paratext editors have elevated significant categories which did not exist when the current Library of Congress classification system was enacted.

This has allowed us to add contemporary subjects like “computer networking,” while still retaining the basic LC category/subcategory system familiar to both librarians and experienced researchers. We regularly add new categories to Focused Browsing, increasing the number of entry points into your reference collection.

At this point its necessary to state the obvious. Browsing library materials by Subject is not, in itself, new technology. After all, subject access predates online search tools—even card catalogs.

What is new in this service is the easy access afforded to detailed subject analysis allowing highly focused initial library research—all made possible by Reference Universe content itself.

Reference Universe is the only online resource focused solely on exploring the content of specialized encyclopedias—both print and e-form.2 By bringing this detailed subject analysis to a small but vital research corpus, new paths are revealed and the value of this genre of reference work comes to the surface quickly.

Back to Mann’s perspective: broadening one’s scope at the early stages of research leads to far greater focus down the line.

A third advantage is that if you can find articles from several different specialized encyclopedia and compare them to each other, then, right there, you are beginning to get a good overview of your topic in a way that solves the problem created by Internet searching and also takes you considerably beyond the reach of Wikipedia articles...3

By way of example, in Reference Universe a search of “ballet” may be expected to bring up the Oxford Encyclopedias of Dance, The Cambridge Companion to Ballet, or even the Encyclopedia of Russian History.

Screenshot of RU Browse results page for balletBut one might not expect to find full articles in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, the Companion to Black British History, the Encyclopedia Judaica, The Encyclopedia of Chicago, and the Routledge Encyclopedias of Women. By browsing specialized encyclopedia articles, one gets perspective and depth from the get-go.

There’s a final benefit of this approach, even beyond that of perspective: confidence. Mann points out that, unlike in the wild frontier of open web sources, specialized encyclopedias are structured to be non-controversial. These articles, written only by well-qualified scholars in the field, seek to put forward only information that is readily agreed upon within their specialization.

A specialized encyclopedias provide a solid survey of major themes and ideas that any scholar in the field would readily assent to. As such, they’re perfect for scholars looking to learn the nomenclature and major themes of an unfamiliar field.

So, in summary, where See Similar Titles drop researchers to the ground level, Focused Browsing elevates the view. Doing both gives the best chance for clear understanding of a topic, and dramatically reduces the time spent looking for monographs and journal contents thereafter. Researching at altitlude helps identify the precise spot on which you wish to land.


Up next:

The final offering on browsing will be posted in May. We will examine the value of indexes themselves within specialized encyclopedias—specifically, how their construction is a clue to deeper use of these materials—in ways library practitioners and users often overlook.


[1] Thomas Mann, The Oxford Guide to Library Research, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 9.

[2] This is not to say there aren’t options available to researchers. The development of library ‘discovery layers’ nearly a decade ago was a response to requests from library administrators concerned that vast web search tools would obviate library research. It was hoped that making every bit of library content available (behind the library paywall, so to speak) would generate greater use of research materials. The intention was good, and these discovery services have improved over time, but in nearly all cases the typical library users is now overwhelmed with library data. It was a step forward, but didn’t necessarily improve research in all cases.

[3] Boldface added for emphasis. Mann, 9.

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