Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Time to Think, Time to Work... All Gone!

We live in an information rich society and we are under constant bombardment of information and data. As a student or professor, being able to manage your time and effectively use it is critical to your success. As a librarian, I quickly came to the realization that there is so much that I could learn on a daily basis that I felt overwhelmed. A great resource for dealing with this (currently at my desk, sorry; I'll put it back on the shelf so you can see it) is the "Information Anxiety" series. Information Anxiety and Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul Wurman(link to Literature Resource Center: Biography Info). These are a bit dated, especially in their references to the print and internet industries, but the messages are still very applicable. One golden nugget is:
There is a Danish proverb that the one who is afraid of asking questions is ashamed of learning.
The books cover a variety of angles like, how we learn, how much you know and making sense of information. While there are specifics in every chapter, the primary goal is to help you with all of your information intake and output from academia to your 'real life'.

Another big part of having the ability to ingest all of this information is to have down time. I found an interesting bit on the BBC World News site, "No Time to Think?" that says,"I can say that all great creators, without exception, have taken breaks," says Buzan. "A minimum of two a day." "Leonardo Da Vinci had a bed in his studio and when patrons accused him of wasting time, he said 'If I don't do this, you don't get the work.'"

"I can say that all great creators, without exception, have taken breaks," says Buzan. "A minimum of two a day." "Leonardo Da Vinci had a bed in his studio and when patrons accused him of wasting time, he said 'If I don't do this, you don't get the work.'"

"...You have to disconnect from what stops you thinking - just stop the flow for a bit, not to a hermetic extent. You could unplug the TV or not get a daily paper for a few days."

Friday, July 25, 2008


A philosophy major? Now, what can you do with a philosophy major?
You can think deep thoughts about being unemployed.

from "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story"

Not so, according to a recent article in the New York Times, which says that undergraduate enrollment in philosophy is on the rise due to its interdisciplinary applications.

You can probably imagine what that means for you philosophy majors out there--it means that you've got some stiff competition. So, this is what you've gotta do: cheat.

I kid, I kid.
. . . Well, sort of.
What you really ought to do is dazzle your peers and professors (and future employers) with a little help from the library. So, it's like cheating, but completely legitimate.

Starting with our Philosophy Research Guide, you'll find a comprehensive, diverse list of online databases, print reference materials, and scholarly websites compiled by our subject expert and a Philosophy Department representative. It's basically a list of tried and true favorites.

Then, check out the complete list of subject-specific databases that we provide access to. There's about a dozen.

And if that leaves you wanting more (or on the verge of an existential crisis), you could also make an appointment with a librarian to show you how to use these resources--me, for example. I tell an awesome philosophy-themed knock knock joke.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chemistry and the Political

A big word on campuses these days is interdisciplinary. In seeking grant support, academic blessings from on high, or even in developing new programs of study, there's a real push to create collaboration between schools. You'd be surprised at the creative duets that have popped up in recent years (to stoke your imagination just think of "Dance" and pick your favorite science; it's probably occurred already).

My topic for today is Chemistry. At this point, I'd rather not bore you with what is really a very focused science and the admittedly really cool resources they have at the library (I tried "hostess cream filling" on a few of these with disappointing results -further research required was often cited in discussing this mysterious substance). [Please do talk with Daureen Nesdill, or any of our Science librarians for help with these resources 581-7533.] Instead I thought I'd put together an interdisciplinary project; please steal this idea.

Chemistry and Political Science: Acid rain caused by air pollution in industrialized countries is a huge problem. However, is there a bridge between how the problem is identified between the scientific and political communities? Learning to speak politic would be a priceless skill for a chemist, while having the tools to express the problems (and solutions) in chemistry would make for an almost unreal politician (who would inevitably be pulled into a corporate congressional lobby and vacation 12 weeks every year in Monaco, but lets keep our ideals intact for now).

Just a thought.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A-squared Plus B-squared Equals C-squared

I was over on CNN.com this morning and read an article about frustrated parents teaching their kids math "old school" style. You know, things like long division written out by hand. Apparently, teachers are more about the theory behind math rather than the rote application of it.

In the end...it's kind of all the same to me.

I hate math. No, I mean I really hate math. A lot.

And I don't think I'm alone.

I can't balance a checkbook without a calculator. I'm grateful every day for online banking that means I don't even need to do that now. All throughout school, though, nothing about math made sense to me. I just. Didn't. Get. It. Math did not compute. Don't even get me started on the time I walked into a calculus class to find the test I thought was the following Wednesday was, in fact, that Wednesday. As in, three minutes from when I walked into class. I almost fainted, and my ears buzzed. It was like every teenage nightmare of showing up to school in your underwear from every bad high school movie.

For a chronic honor roll student, being bad at math was seriously bad news. Math was consistently my lowest grade, right down there with my Physical Education grade. Yeah, I'm not athletic either.

The fact is, a lot of students have math anxiety. It's something teachers have to deal with all the time. So, I was wondering what, exactly, do teachers learn to cope with this phenomenon of evil (aka mathematics).

For the geekly librarian that I am, that means looking it up. Searching for online articles in education databases. What have teachers written or said about math anxiety? How do they cope with it?

To find out, I could go to the Marriott Library homepage, clicking on Article Databases under Research Tools, and then using the drop down menu for Select Database by Subject and selecting Education.

Now there are a lot of Education databases to choose from, and many of them would probably work, but I'm going to go for ERIC. Once I click on that database to access it, I can type in my search for education and mathematics anxiety.

I get all kinds of articles and conference reports about how teachers cope with math anxiety and how to help students get past it so they can grasp the topic more easily.

Interesting stuff. I'm not sure it'll ever make me like math, but it's good to know that the education field recognizes the issue and is making strides to help students overcome it. There are all kinds of articles in education databases, on everything from teaching and learning foreign language skills, arts in school, special education, and a lot more.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mathematic Bliss

Every night after work, I bike home past the Math Department's LeRoy Cowles Building, which is connected to the T. Benny Rushing Mathematics Center on the northwest side. From the outside, the Center is pleasant enough: a light-filled, red sandstone structure that complements the original building, with a contemporary University of Utah architectural style (an example, another, and another).

I rarely stop to look inside, which is a shame because within is a magnificent, multi-storied installation of math-related artwork by Utah artist Anna Campbell Bliss. It's visually engaging, intellectually stimulating, playful and whimsical, even. This got me thinking about the relationship between math and art in general.

So, I did a library catalog basic (general keyword) search for math and art. One title in the results, "Fragments of Infinity: A Kaleidoscope of Math and Art" caught my eye. In the catalog record, in the left column, I saw the subject heading mathematics in art. When I clicked on that link, the catalog brought back five more books, including "Art for a House of Mathematics", a book about Anna Bliss' installation. Jackpot!

While looking at the catalog records for those six books, I continued to click and follow lots of interesting subject headings which led to more subject headings (and so on). I never would have come up with all these concepts on my own:
  • mathematics--pictorial works
  • mathematics in architecture
  • geometry in art
  • art--mathematics
  • symbolism of numbers
  • Islamic art and symbolism
  • decoration and ornament--mathematics
  • repetitive patterns (decorative arts)
  • fractals
Really, I could go on and on. Following subject heading links is a fantastic way to find additional, related resources. It can also help to build your vocabulary about a topic.

Now I'm going to curl up with a good book I found, "Gödel, Escher, and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid".

Friday, July 11, 2008

David Bowie Likes It Scholarly.

I was on Wikipedia the other day, reading about bonobos, when it occurred to me, holy cow, I look things up all day long on Wikipedia.

(FYI, you should check out section 3.1 in the bonobo article. Prepared to be wowed.)

Like a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't remember the name of this pictorialist photographer who I like, so I hit Wikipedia. Before that, I wanted to find some quick background information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And then prior to that, it was something very academic like, "What's David Bowie's real name?"

As a librarian, I know that it's not the most reliable source, since anyone can create and edit the content. But, hey, it's online, and it's easy to use. And most of the time I just want a quick answer. The truth of the matter is that I love Wikipedia, and I will fist fight anyone who doesn't.

There I was in the midst of this major internal conflict, when I got an email about one of our new online databases--Encyclopædia Britannica Online. (Remember those sweet Encyclopædia Britannica commercials in the 80s? A: Yes and fondly.) While it doesn't offer the same democratic, social network-y style as Wikipedia, it's accurate, authoritative, current, scholarly, and it's pretty.


I mean, it has a "user-friendly interface."

So, the next time I want to know about the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Bastille Day, or Epicureanism, I'm going to try Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

And so should you. Just go to the library's website, click on the "Article Databases" link under "Research Tools," and hit the "E" button.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Me Talk French One Day

Growing up in California meant I was destined to take Spanish in high school. Just about everyone did, and I took three years. I didn't learn much. I pretty much hated every moment of it. As an academic over-achiever, I found myself slumped in the back of that class with the other slackers passing notes. No, I'm not proud, but I decided when I got to college that I'd try something different. I had a language requirement to fulfill to get my degree, and with the number of native Spanish speakers in California, the Spanish classes in college were a great deal harder than I was willing to handle. I envisioned myself never graduating and still slumped in the slacker back of my Spanish class passing notes twenty years later.

I looked over my catalog options and came up with French. It made sense to a History major because a great deal of legal documents in Europe used to be written in French.

French, I found, was more engaging than Spanish. Or perhaps I was more motivated in college than in high school. I'll never know. But in my quest to learn the language, I needed to find more than my text books to read.

As a librarian now...if I wanted to find out what material University of Utah students could get from the library in French, I could look that up specifically by going to the Marriott Library homepage, clicking on Library Catalog under Research Tools, and then clicking on the box for Advanced Keyword searching. In the search box, I could type in a topic I was interested in, like politics, and then at the bottom under the Language menu, I could limit to just those item written in French.

As amazing as it was to realize I didn't have to buy a new collection of books for myself to get novels in French, I soon found myself bogged down in books that were far too complex for me to read. I had no idea what they were saying, let alone grasping the complexities of French political satire.

To feel a bit less like an insane dunce, I became addicted to the free translation sites online. Most of the students in my classes would swap urls the way kids swap baseball cards. Or at least they did when I was a kid. No idea who swaps what in elementary school now.

The two that seemed universally popular were FreeTranslation.com and BabbleFish.com, but even they, for all their free language swap beauty, could not help me with my French political satires. I just didn't have time to put every sentence into a website, and my vocabulary wasn't sophisticated enough to get past where the author wrote "Je pense que"...for a beginner like me, knowing that that meant "I think that" was a major accomplishment.

So, I found that I had the vocabulary of a toddler. And the frustration of not knowing how to communicate what you want can often make you ready to throw a terrible-twos style tantrum.

But, one of the things I learned was that I might not be able to read a novel in French, but I could read French children's books. Hey, don't mock me, it's a good way to enhance your vocabulary and has pretty pictures, which is more than I can say of the French-English dictionary I own. Or the French verb book. Or the French grammar book.

One of my favorites is Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

And lo and behold, I found we have it in the Juvenile Collection in the library. The basics of finding a specific book in the library is by going to the Marriott Library homepage, clicking on Library Catalog under Research Tools, and then clicking on the box for Author, Title, Journal, etc. From there, I type the title I want into the Title Keyword box and voila, I have a list of the closest matching titles to what I searched for. Luckily, we have the book I want, so it was right on top of the list.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Casual Friday Forever? or
Putting the Kibosh on Couture

Looking at the news today I read a brief article about Iran’s leader President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iran Leader Plays Down War Talk) and I noticed he wasn’t wearing a tie. I had heard it mentioned in casual conversation that Iran wasn’t keen on ties as they were a symbol of Western decadence. Was this coffee conversation true? (-and what's up with the fella on the right; is he crazy or something!? -Quick! Take off the tie!)

First Stop: Web search for information that is primarily unverifiable, but ‘good enough’.
Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necktie mentions (down the page near the bottom) that there is an “extreme anti-necktie sentiment” in the country of Iran, but there is also a ‘citation needed’ note. This means the statement is unverified.

Pros: easy and quick
Cons: who wrote this? is it realiable and fact-based?

Second Stop: General coverage database for information that may not be scholarly, but is likely to be credible.
Academic Search Premiere (my search for iran and neckties) yielded a couple of interesting notes.
Michael Theodoulou of the Christian Science Monitor (7/12/2001) notes that neckties had been drummed out in the late 1970s following the revolution, but in 2001 were making a careful comeback. However, Andrew Higgins in the Wall Street Journal (5/12/2007) reports that not only are neckties out again, you can be punished for wearing one.

Pros: Some facts and I can check up on the author and when it was written.
Cons: Is it scholarly? What are their sources of information?

Third Stop: Specific database for scholarly information and verification.
Encyclopedia of Islam: probably not the right place to look for social commentary, but I tried anyway. Zero results. -Don't give up, it is all part of the search.

JSTOR: This database has a variety of subjects and heavy on the scholarly works. There were a few misses, but I found a definitive (and brief) description on p362 of Revolutions, Samurai, and Reductions: The Parodoxes of Change and Continuity in Iran and Japan by Fathali M. Moghaddam and David S. Crystal in Political Psychology, (Jun., 1997). This article was by far the most interesting of the lot since it had a great deal of depth and commentary whereas the other searches yielded mostly matter-of-fact reports.

Pros: Really great in-depth info and scholarly too! Lots of citations, lots of credibility.
Cons: Maybe too focused for my needs to verify a casual conversation fact?


So wearing a necktie in Iran probably isn't a good idea these days, but don't throw them away -you may be able to bring them out again after a while. Your results may vary, but this is a good way to go about research. Look for the quick information first and then wend your way to the scholarly and credible.

Monday, July 7, 2008


This week marks the 2008 Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, made world-famous by Ernest Hemingway's description of the running of the bulls in his novel "The Sun Also Rises." Watching news coverage of crazy men getting trampled by stampeding other crazy men (oh, and bulls) always reminds me of my own time as a bullfighter!

[cue the Wayne's World flashback sound effect and wavy image]
At the end of my year-long student exchange in Mexico, I spent a week at a bullfighting ranch where I got to try out my matador skills with a real bull. He was only 3 months old but those little horns caused quite a bruise.
[flash forward to the present]

Anyway, this week's festivities sparked my interest to find other literature that mentions bullfighting. Since I saw my first bullfight in Mexico City, I decided to check out the Latino Literature database to see what it could offer. (If you're not on campus, you'll need to authenticate your browser session by logging into my.utah.edu on the Marriott Library homepage to see this database.) It's filled with fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays by Latina and Latino writers working in the United States. Because it's a full-text database, I can search for even a single instance of my topic within a work of literature.

My first search for bullfighting was disappointing: only 10 results. But after looking in the Help tab menu, I saw that this database supports both Boolean and truncation searching.

Boolean searching includes using AND (to connect different concepts, such as bullfighting AND Spain), as well as OR (to connect synonyms and related concepts, such as bullfighter OR matador OR toreador).

Truncation searching means that I can search for a root term and get results based on all its variations. The most common way is to end the root term with an asterisk (such as bullfight* which will bring back all results with the words bullfight, bullfighting, bullfighter and bullfighters).

A search in Latino Literature for the truncated bullfight* brings back 69 results (yay!). But a complex search also using the Boolean operator OR -- I searched for matador OR toreador OR bullfight* -- brought back 93 results. ¡Olé! These results include a nice mix between fiction, non-fiction and poetry. The Latino Literature database has recently converted to a new interface but has not yet moved the plays over. A duplicate search in the old database found 21 plays, too.

The best part about learning these two search strategies -- Boolean and truncation -- for the Latino Literature database is they can be used in most every database the Marriott Library subscribes to. ¡Andale pues!

Friday, July 4, 2008

To Cite or Not to Cite: It's Never a Question

A lot of what I'm about to tell you may seem like review, but I get more students who miss questions about plagiarism than most people would believe. It seems easy, doesn't it? If an idea isn't yours, you cite it. If you pull a sentence from another person's work, you cite it.

The problem is that with the proliferation of information online, it becomes easier and easier to steal ideas and not get caught. It also becomes harder and harder for students doing creative writing to know when they're taking an idea and putting their own unique spin on it and when they're stealing someone else's idea. It's a thin line students tread, and there are many pitfalls along the way. I don't have a quick fix for you; I don't have any easy answers. What I can give you is a quick guide on how not to end up accused of plagiarism or unethical academic practices.

Plagiarism is theft of intellectual property. Or more specifically, to plagiarize is "to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." I took this definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online. This is how I would cite my source:

"Plagiarize." Merriam-Webster Online. 2006. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 25 Feb 2007 .

The Internet is Copyrighted

The internet may seem like a free-for-all of information and ideas, but it is not. The information on the internet belongs to website authors just like book and article authors, so you have to cite it. Here's an example that might bring this point home to you. If I write a book about how to conduct library research, I might have a personal website to promote it. On my website, I might have blurbs and excerpts for my works in progress. This lets my readers know what might be coming out and what books they might want to read of mine. That information is copyrighted. I wrote it, I own it, and if someone uses my idea or takes my writing from my excerpts and uses it in their writing, that's plagiarism.

However, there is public information that you don't have to cite, such as historical dates. You can read a book or website about the Alamo and use the historical data found there, such as when the Alamo happened and who was involved. You don't have to cite that information if you use fact as a base for your term paper. What you do have to cite is if you use the book or website author's unique political theories to fuel your work. That information is owned by the author.

I'll be the first to admit there is a lot of gray area when it comes to citation, but if you're ever in doubt: cite. You can never get into hot water if you cite a source when you don't have to. You can get into some serious trouble if you don't cite when you should.

Citation Station

There are many ways to cite your sources. These ways are called citation styles. The style I used to cite my definition of plagiarism is the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style. Any citation style will work, but you should be consistent if you cite more than one source in your college papers. Also, many of your professors might require you to use a specific style. Many different websites exist that can assist you in citing sources, so I'll give you a few of my favorites:

All of these sites can give you a basic explanation of how to cite sources. If you don't have time to learn, but know you need to cite a source, you can take the quick and easy way out. I'd suggest using a citation generating program. My favorite is available free online.

Citation Machine, and other programs like it, allows you to pick your preferred citation style, type in the information about the book, article, or web page you want to cite and it will generate a citation for you. None of these programs are perfect, so learning how to cite is well worth your time because many professors deduct points for incorrect citations. Knowing when a citation is incorrect and how to fix it can be a valuable tool during your tenure at the university.

All's Fair in Love and Literature

You can use a small percentage of another person's work as long as you cite it, and it's not a legal issue. A few sentences from a book or website aren't a problem. When it becomes a legal issue is when you use a large percentage, or even all, of someone's book or article. This violates fair use. It is not that you cannot use some or all of an author's work, but if you use more than a sentence or two, you have to contact the author and obtain their permission. Please note that I'm a librarian and not a lawyer, so consult an expert on fair use and copyright if you have any legal questions. This is a simple explanation of what can become a complicated problem. The bottom line is if you use a lot of someone else's work, just a citation isn't enough. So, either limit your use of other writers' work, or be prepared to contact the author and possibly a lawyer.

And yes, mentioning lawyers is a scare tactic on my part. Plagiarism and fair use are serious legal issues. I would hate to see any student get in trouble over what may have been a mistake made out of ignorance. Be aware of where you get your information, and know when and how to cite a source if you need to.

The Biggest Gray Area

The big gray area I'm talking about here is your brain. So, I've talked about citation and fair use of other people's work, but what about your own work? I'm certain we've all done this...you have a class that asks for a term paper, and you wrote a similar paper to what is being required for another class the previous semester. It's your work, you own it, so it's not plagiarism, right?


It's not plagiarism.

But what it is is unethical. Plagiarism is obviously unethical, but so is recycling your own work. Think about it this way, what if a student wrote an amazing paper in their freshman year. They got an A. Then, they managed to make a few tweaks to that paper and turn it in every single semester until they graduated, always getting A's. Is that fair to other students who worked hard and wrote original work for every class? No, it's not. Also, is it fair to the student who was supposed to be reflecting on what he had learned in each class for those final papers? Did he actually get the same level of college education as everyone else? Or did he cheat himself in the end?

It may sound idealistic, but codes of ethics are. They are descriptions of ideal standards of behavior. However, if your motivation needs to be a crime and punishment discussion, imagine what would happen to that same student if a professor uncovered his use of the same paper over and over again. What if every professor he'd ever turned that paper in to decided to re-evaluate the grade he'd received and give him an automatic F for cheating? What if he had to go before a board of inquiry for unethical academic behavior and was expelled from the university? Would it be worth it then to get the easy A? Probably not. But if you reuse a paper, you're not likely to get caught. The scenario I described is within the realm of possibility, but not by much. So, in the end, it's up to individual students to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard.

And just to be fair, some of what I wrote here today I pulled from an article I wrote for a monthly newsletter for a local writer's association after they had a few problems with plagiarizing from the internet (so is it ethical for me to use?). It's not just college students who run into these kinds of problems, it's an issue that everyone deals with.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My secret identity

I am a NERD. I don’t deny this, in fact I occasionally boast about it much to the chagrin of my academic colleagues. There is nothing wrong with knowing who Jessica Drew is in the Marvel Universe, but it does help if occasionally I can back up my knowledge with a little research. So today I am introducing my Marvel Universe to my libraries Reference Universe.

Reference Universe is a great place to begin research and contains links to thousands of works online and in our library. The interface allows you to do a search of authoritative reference works in specialized, subject encyclopedias. I could look into genetic engineering, spiders, or gamma radiation and find multiple resources. Better still are the links and call numbers that will take me right to the resource of my choice.

Something that gets me as excited as I am about the upcoming Avengers movie is responsible research and Reference Universe is the perfect place to start doing just that. Far too often I see Wikipedia being used as a primary source. This makes me angry and I don’t think you’d like to see me when I'm ANGRY!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How Soon is Now?

or How to determine the extent of information needed (for anything!).

In Brenda Dervin's Sense Making the concept of information need is sometimes described as finding a bridge to get over a gap, gully, canyon, etc. (oversimplified, I'm sure). For example, when you need to find a bathroom, you don't need a dissertation length explanation of architecture, plumbing and historical perspectives on politeness. You just need to know where it is. The information in a pointed finger does the trick. You have crossed the gap. When you have a term paper assigned to you, the scope of your information needs are typically spelled out for you; 5 scholarly articles, 2 book chapters, etc.

The trick comes when you don't know how long it will take to get you to the 'other side' of the bridge. Experience plays a big part, but here's a brief primer that should help you determine how much info you need to succeed in any project.

1. Find general information first
2. Then find more specific information
3. Assess what you've found and weed out the unnecessary stuff
4. Process, and cross the gap!

1. Spend 10% of your time doing general information searching. Get a 'big picture' feel for the topic. [Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, the open web (google, wikipedia, etc.]

2. Now that you're an expert on the topic (generally speaking!), narrow your search and find very credible and focused information (scholarly journals, good books and even professional people to talk to (hey, like a librarian perhaps!). In this phase, you don't have to read the articles or books, just the descriptions.

2b. Once you have a pile of information, weed through them quickly. You are now able to read a page or two, but you're determining if this fits your needs or not.

3. You now have your reasonably right-sized pile of articles. Read up and write that paper.


1. Find information that describe all cars (magazines, internet sites, etc.) -from this you determine that you need a compact, fuel-efficient car that costs about $3000.

2. Find information on older compact cars (older magazines, more focused internet sites, personal interviews with people who have owned the car etc.

3. You may do step 2 and 3 at the same time for this topic, but ultimately you'll end up with a sizable set of links and articles about several viable options.

4. Read and interpret what all the information means, as opposed to your own opinions and you may quickly discover what car you should get. If you're like me, however, this last process will be painful and you'll have to cycle through steps 2 and 3 a few more times (not a problem and is part of the process).

(You just meet Standard #1 of the ACRL's Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, which is (again) pretty awesome and academic of you.)