Geoscience Encyclopedias and Their Potential for Classroom Instruction

Article excerpt


Encyclopedias, especially those focusing on a single subject or narrow range of topics, are important but underused library resources. Encyclopedic consultation is often viewed as an academic weakness. It can, however, be viewed as an academic strength and effectively incorporated into instructional programs. Since this article is written from a librarian's perspective, it is not suggestive of specific instructional techniques. Instead, it addresses the difficulties that can arise in identifying titles appropriate for instructional purposes. Using a combination of methods, a list was derived of approximately 250 geoscience related encyclopedias that are available in North American libraries.

Keywords: Geoscience - Literature and Libraries;

Geoscience - Teaching and Curriculum


Encyclopedias comprise a major genre of printed and electronic reference material available in most libraries. The range and depth of subject content, and clarity of the writing style offered in major encyclopedias often impress librarians. Even so, encyclopedias are often underused, especially for instruction purposes. Patrons rarely ask for them by title and few instructors assign or even encourage their use by students. Many instructors discourage or even prohibit their use. However as the introduction to a comparative guide to encyclopedias notes, "Not everyone agrees with this reasoning ... Mindlessly insisting that students not use encyclopedias in the course of their school work is, frankly, a strange approach to education. It suggests a weak and rigid teacher who lacks understanding of the spirit of learning." (Kister, 1994, p.10).

One of the reasons for this under use appears to be a common misconception by both students and instructors that encyclopedias are by definition general and simplistic. All too often, encyclopedic consultation is viewed as an academic weakness. Another reason is that most students and instructors are unaware of the existence of subject specialty encyclopedias that focus on a single subject field or even a few topics within a given field. Usually these sources are prepared for a sophisticated and specialized audience.

One of the purposes of this article is to suggest that the consultation of encyclopedias, especially the subject specialty titles, is often an academic strength not a weakness that can be encouraged by their inclusion in instructional programs. Since this article is written from a librarian's perspective, it is not suggestive of specific instructional techniques. One of the major functions of the library field is to create meaningful order of the literature of various subjects and to suggest meaningful patterns for the use of this material. Therefore a second purpose of this article is to provide a list of recently published geoscience related encyclopedias that are available in libraries throughout North America. The author infers that significant instructional potential for the secondary and undergraduate levels exists in these sources. It is up to the instructors to realize this potential by including these sources in their curricula.

It is relevant to note that this article is an outgrowth of the author's experience in teaching a one-credit university level course in library resources and research methods. The session on encyclopedias proved to be the most popular. Students would sometimes turn in assignment sheets with complementary comments scribbled in the margins. One particularly useful set of questions asked them to browse the library shelves and identify 9 different encyclopedias, 3 each in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.


The term "encyclopedia" has been used since the 17th century to designate publications summarizing large segments of knowledge. (Cheney, 1972, p. 45). Quite logically, the Encyclopaedia Britannien has one of the clearest descriptions of modern encyclopedias. …


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