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Following the review in my last post of the report “Navigating Research”, here is a follow-up post to take the findings of the study and then to make some recommendations. The key question is: what is the place for reference in the browser world?

In summary, my recommendations would be:

  1. Place reference content at the point in the user journey where the user needs it;
  2. Provide an interactive glossary;
  3. Restructure reference content to fit the user’s precise needs at that moment;
  4. Adapt the reference by level (beginner, intermediate);
  5. Provide brief, appropriate, annotation where relevant

None of this is truly radical; it simply follows from the recognition that reference as a standalone collection of self-contained entries is today largely superseded.

There are of course already precedents for presenting reference content as part of a web search although these are limited in scope. Google promotes Wikipedia entries to the top of the hits list of any search, as a rule. Credo provides a series of Web pages that combine hits from a number of reference resources, such as encyclopedias and subject dictionaries, into “topic pages”. This approach is good, but limited because Credo has no control over the reference resources they are displaying. The result is good, but remains essentially a collection of print-based reference resources shown together on the screen.

Similarly, Wikipedia was not created with the goal of being sliced into reference-ready chunks – there is a lot of retro-fitting taking place to build such services as Wikidata, but this operation is cumbersome and would be easier if starting from scratch. A reference publisher, an organisation involved in creating reference content, could create some innovative content that meets the above criteria in a more direct way than simply opening a full Wikipedia article next to every mention of a topic such as “Paris” in a text article.

Here are a few examples. Imagine your topic is the French Revolution, about which you know little. You see whole shelves of books just devoted to introductions and overviews. How do you start? Following the Navigating Research terminology, as a user you want two things:

  1. Language context (the meanings of individual terms and phrases in the context of the French Revolution)
  2. Big picture context (understanding how the text you are reading fits into the bigger framework.

Thus, for language context, a glossary of French Revolution terms (Tennis Court Oath, Sans-culottes, Montagne/Mountain), each with a one-sentence definition, would be available to appear alongside each use of the relevant term.  There is no reason why these definitions could not be longer, as long as the first portion was self-contained and could be used standalone. What you don’t want is to overwhelm the function of a glossary with excessive information (something that Wikipedia does very frequently). Thus, the Tennis Court Oath (le Serment du Jeu de paume), one of the most notable incidents of the early Revolution, receives a range of coverage in introductory books:

  • no mention in the index to Davidson, The French Revolution (2016)
  • four mentions in Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989), which leaves the reader of trying to determine which is the primary reference.
  • a cross-reference (under Jeu de Paume) in Tulard, Histoire et Dictionnaire de la Revolution Francaise (1987).

You begin to see the need for key terms explained at the point where they are first encountered.

Books can usefully be summarised and placed in context in one sentence:

Alfred Fierro, “Historiography of the French Revolution” in Tulard (87): Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France “placed alongside each other the English 17th century revolutions in England with the upheavals in France, and discerned a difference in form between the wise empiricism of  his compatriots who maintained the national tradition but modernised and reworked it, compared to the willingness of the Constitutionnels to start from a tabula rasa. “ [interesting that a French writer describes 17th century England as “revolutions”, while 1789 is merely an “upheaval”].

Davidson (2016) on Francois Furet: “Furet was the leading historial of the revolution after World War II, and he was influential in breaking the grip of the Marxists on French historiography; his deep analyses and judgements are still essentially unchallenged.”

Such summaries do not exist in Google or in standard bibliographies such as the MLA. For these resources, there is too much information and not enough evaluation. Much of this work has still to be done by hand.

To conclude: there are several ways in which “reference” content, even if not labelled as such, can be introduced as part of the research navigation journey. it may need to be restructured, and held in smaller units, but for a dedicated reference publisher, all this can be done. In other words, Reference is dead; long live Reference!