12 March 2012

Elusive Definitions: What's a Resource?

In the mid-1980s, two definitions of reference book prevailed in library science:

1) A book that one referred to, as opposed to reading from start to finish.
2) A book normally found in a library's reference section.

Variations on those definitions survive to this day in ODLIS: Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science.[1]

Information scientist Marcia J. Bates sought a more precise definition, one that described the book itself, instead of explaining how to use it or where to put it. Bates suspected that "file structure" was an inherent quality of a reference book, and the research she conducted[2] appears to support her assertion. This distinct arrangement of information (fields within records, and records within files) is the attribute that leads a librarian to place a reference book within a special section of the library, the property that causes readers to refer to it instead of studying every page. 

But you already "knew" how reference books are organized, didn't you? So did I, and so did Bates's colleagues. Many who read early drafts of her essay commented that her thoughts were "obvious" rather than innovative. I enjoyed her gracious response to their lack of enthusiasm: 

"The ideas may seem obvious because we have an intuitive awareness of the structural and organizational characteristics of reference books, even though we do not discuss them in analyses of reference work and searching techniques. We know it but we do not."[3] 

This idea of knowing-but-not-knowing leads me to a question that's been on my mind for some time now:

What's a resource

The word shows up often in the popular genealogical literature, both print and electronic. Perhaps someday I'll have the time (and the funding) to gather empirical data in a rigorous fashion the way Bates did with reference books. In the meantime, a quick search performed on Big G using the terms "resource" and "genealogy" or family history" will have to suffice in my efforts to pin down a definition.

My search came up short. It seems that people recommend a wide variety of . . . things, for lack of a better word, to others who practice genealogy. These so-called resources typically take the form of:

- Books
- Databases 
- People 
- Record groups 
- Repositories

But examples don't constitute a definition, do they? Allow me to take a stab at it, if you will:

resource:  (noun) 1. an entity, location, or object with the potential to supply, possess, or contain information relevant to our search. 

My attempt to define resource as it applies to the genealogical realm is certainly open to revision and debate, so please, feel free!


[1] Joan M. Reitz, ODLIS: Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science; (http://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_r.aspx : accessed 12 Mar 2012).

[2] Marcia J. Bates, "What Is a Reference Book?" in Howard D. White, Marcia J. Bates, and Patrick Wilson, For Information Specialists: Interpretations of Reference and Bibliographic Work (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1992), chapter 2, pp. 9-26.

[3] Bates, "What Is a Reference Book?" p. 13.

Copyright © 2012, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.