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Integrating scholarly ideas into popular websites

November 11, 2014

It seems like one of the most common pieces of advice for librarians is that we should try to “be where our students are,” or more generally, “be where our users are.” This can be accomplished in countless ways, whether it’s reaching out to students with your library’s Facebook page or embedding reference librarians in online courses. Even though it’s an ongoing effort, I feel like librarians have been pretty good at making themselves present in such environments. But what about information itself? That is – good information? Should we try to make that “be where our users are,” as well?

I’ve noticed a few trends that have made me think a lot about this lately. One is the rise of websites like BuzzFeed and Reddit which are increasingly being used (especially by young people) as information sources. According to a Chronicle blog post, one USC professor believes that we can harness the popularity of these sites in order to introduce students to more meaningful, in-depth topics; he’s even created a manifesto for “BuzzAdemia,” a new journal intended for ‘BuzzFeed-style scholarship.’ Rather than sharing ideas in the traditional scholarly format, authors would create a short, readable piece which incorporates the features that BuzzFeed is so popular for – humor, memes, “listicles,” and so on.

One example of what a “BuzzAdemia” article might look like is grad student Chris Rodley’s “Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards,” which has apparently gotten over 220,000 page views.

Another trend is students’ attraction to sources like Wikipedia which contain user-generated, easy-to-read content. One website that is rising to popularity is Genius.com, a place where user-generated annotations act as a supplement to various forms of text or media: lyrics, articles, audio scripts, book chapters, poems, medicine bottle labels, etc. Consider a TED talk given by physician Atul Gawande in 2012. Although TED talks are potentially rich sources of information, students could have trouble comprehending Gawande’s ideas for several reasons. If he uses the word, “digitalis,” how do they know what that means? If he claims that 2 million people per year are inflicted with hospital-acquired infections, how do they know that statement is true? And what kind of infections? By reading the annotations — which could consist of text, links, images, video, or all of the above —  the Genius platform provides an opportunity to learn such details.

(See Gawande’s TED talk on Genius.com. Click the highlighted passages for annotations.)

I think concepts like “BuzzAdemia” and Genius.com definitely provide potential for integrating scholarly ideas into popular websites. But I admit that I have some mixed feelings about it, too. Would students be any more receptive to scholarly content if it’s mixed in with popular content (or resembles popular content)? How would we determine if it had a positive impact on their learning or research processes? Would they even notice it?

What do you think?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Christina Steffy permalink
    November 13, 2014 4:59 pm

    Katie, this is something I never thought about before. This is definitely something to keep an eye on if you’re involved in scholarly communications. I think it’s also a good example of why the library skills of evaluating, creating, and ethically disseminating information are so critical for users now. If this trend sticks around and becomes rather popular, I think it will be a huge step toward blurring the lines between scholarly and popular resources. I wonder if that’s the best thing to do now. People are already grappling with the blurring of format types and they have trouble determining what is scholarly and what is popular. Perhaps in the future as we (hopefully) see more open access resources and (again, hopefully) more self publishing of and/or repositories for scholarly resources, the distinction will change from scholarly vs popular to credible vs not credible. Regardless of what happens, this trend shows how the information landscape is changing and why library skills are crucial.

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