Thursday, June 16, 2005

Notes from ATLA

Day 1 of the American Theological Library Association annual conference has just concluded. It was a good day. The opening plenary speaker was Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust: Recommended Readings for Every Mood and model for the Librarian Action Figure. Her talk was titled "The Pleasures and Perils of a Life of Reading." She was hilarious and kept everyone in stitches throughout her hour-long speech. What struck me as most interesting was what she identified as the perils of a life of reading. They included:

1. Never learning how to pronounce the words we read. After all, if we read to ourselves all the time, there's no pressure to check pronunciations of unfamiliar words. The examples she gave included "segue" and "fugue." For the longest time, she said, she pronounced segue as "sagooee."

2. Being too lazy to pick up the dictionary off of the bookshelf to look up unfamiliar words. When we're settled and comfortable in our chair reading a good book, who wants to interrupt the flow to get that heavy thing off of a high shelf?

3. Never knowing for sure if our memories are actually ours. She related a story in which she had told her daughter that she had gone to her junior prom. Nancy's daughter asked, "Mom, are you sure you went to your junior prom?" Nancy proceeded to explain to her daughter that, yes, she had gone to prom with a guy named Monk and even described her dress in detail. Then there was a long silence on the other end of the phone. "Mom," her daughter said, "that story is from a book we had both read." Sure enough, Nancy checked the book her daughter had said the story was in, and there was the Monk and the prom dress, exactly how she had described.

While I have yet to suffer from peril number three, I am guilty of perils one and two. It is very comforting that I can identify with someone who is an avid reader and fellow librarian.

After Nancy's talk, the exhibits officially opened. Then, I attended one of the many concurrent sessions. It was a roundtable discussion about the format/design, audience, and value of pathfinders. "Pathfinder" has a number of definitions. One of the session's handouts included three definitions. Two of the three that I most identified with included:

A guide designed to assist the user in researching a particular discipline or topic. A pathfinder identifies key subject headings related to the topic, important reference books, periodical indexes, journals and other resources available at the local library. Sources on the World Wide Web are usually also included. Pathfinders can be printed or available online.


A library pathfinder is a document that serves as a map and guide to bibliographic research on a specific topic. (See:

Participants mentioned that pathfinders seem to be most successful when they are compiled in consultation with faculty. Students like to know that the list of sources has been "approved" or "recommended" by professors, and may be afraid to use sources that they perceive as not receiving such approval. One participant explained that dropping a draft of a pathfinder in a professor's mailbox for review is like dropping something into a black hole. She instead visits faculty during their office hours to discuss sources that should be included and to develop annotations explaining each resource.

I pointed out, though, that pathfinders are both a blessing and a curse. Students like the lists (if they know about them, and can find and understand them). The lists reduce library anxiety by presenting a small, "digestible" universe of library resources with which to begin a research project. However, students may be afraid to venture off of this list, thus limiting their searches to a few resources while many potentially rich sources in the library go unused. This leads to a flaw with lists of sources that Thomas Mann pointed out in Library Research Models. People tend to forget the sources and at the same time don't learn of a constructive research process. Thus, pathfinders fail as an instructional tool (obviously) unless there is some effort to convey a procedure or method. But, as one participant wisely pointed out, librarians have to assure students that if they feel like they have a method that they should not be limited by what a pathfinder or tutorial might suggest to them.

One participant wondered if there was a compilation of particularly outstanding pathfinders. By this time in the discussion, the terms "pathfinders" and "online tutorials" were being used synonymously. I suggested that the participants check out the Association of College and Research Library's Instruction Section's PRIMO project. PRIMO "is a means to promote and share peer-reviewed instructional materials created by librarians to teach people about discovering, accessing and evaluating information in networked environments."

After this discussion, I attended a vendor product talk. In this case, the vendor was Thomson-Gale describing their resources in religious studies and philosophy, including the new second edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion. The vendor representative also addressed the criticisms of the New Catholic Encyclopedia and mentioned the upcoming update to the Encyclopedia Judaica, which is set for publication in late 2006.

This evening, I went on one of the "hosted excursions" to the Austin Museum of Art. The current primary exhibition is a series of photos by Annie Leibovitz.

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