Monday, March 15, 2010

Pathfinders: A way to boost your information handouts beyond booklists and bibliographies

by Alice Sizer Warner

My introduction to “Pathfinders” came in Prof. James Matarazzo’s class in Literature of Science and Technology at Simmons library school. Matarazzo handed around a hat containing slips of paper and told us to choose one at random. Each was inscribed with a technical topic quite foreign to most of us. My slip read, “Computer Aided Design,” something I considered quite daunting in the early ‘70s. I swapped with another student for “Reinforced Concrete Boats”.

The assignment was for each of us to compile a pathfinder – a bibliographic tool designed to get patrons up to speed fast in finding out by themselves what they want to know. We were to use the Massachusetts Institute of Technology library collection as a base. Pathfinders that passed the scrutiny of Matarazzo and MIT librarians would actually be used for the benefit of MIT patrons. Winning pathfinders would eventually be published by Addison-Wesley – a heady prospect for mere students.

Those early pathfinders, “designed to help users begin to locate published information in specific fields,” were developed under a grant from the Council on Library Resources by the staff of the Project Intrex Model Library Program at MIT. Topics were not limited to the purely technical; other pathfinders covered subjects ranging from “Apartheid” to “Juvenile Delinquency”.

Setting the pattern
MIT pathfinders covered two pages, two columns to a page, and followed a rigid pattern:

  • “Scope” (A definition. The scope for “Juvenile Delinquency,” for instance, was, “Those social acts of nonadult persons that are prohibited by law or are socially disapproved.”)
  • “An introduction to this topic appears in…” (Usually the best introductions were in encyclopedias or specialized dictionaries.)
  • “BOOKS dealing with… are listed in the subject catalog. Look for…” (Usually three descriptors were indicated, “highly relevant,” “also relevant,” and “more general”.)
  • "ENCYCLOPEDIAS and HANDBOOKS which contain information on… are…” (Specific references.)
  • “BIBLIOGRAPHIES which contain material on … include …” (Source listings too long to include in the pathfinder.)
  • “JOURNAL ARTICLES and other literature on… are listed primarily in these guides” (Specific reference to indexes, including relevancy of various subject descriptors. These varied amazingly well from index to index, as well as year to year.) This was followed by, “Other indexes, listed here, should be used for an exhaustive search. Only a limited return can be expected for the time spent. Directions are generally given in the front of each issue.”
  • “JOURNALS that often contain articles relevant to … are …” (This led users to magazines appropriate for browsing.)
  • Appropriate sections on reviews, symposiums, conference proceedings, U.S. Government documents, United Nations publications, or other international documents.

    Project Intrex is a decade gone, but the pathfinder concept remains timely.

Spreading the world
Pathfinders can be teaching tools. For the last three years I have taught a one-day seminar called “Women and Business Ownership,” using a six-page pathfinder now in its sixth edition. Following the pattern, I start with a scope: “U.S. women own and manage a growing number of businesses, most of them small. Many of these women face special societal, personal, family, and business challenges because of their womanhood. Yet no woman is exempt, nor should she be, from the legal, fiscal, managerial, planning, and profitmaking responsibilities inherent to all businesses.” The pathfinder shows “Women in business” to be the most relevant catalog heading, while “Women entrepreneurs” serves in Readers’ Guide. I suggest books and articles from the 1980s, and list those still useful from the 1970s.

The pathfinder then moves outside the library, and addresses the Small Business Administration, small business trade groups, and seminars. Information is given on pertinent, self-teaching, computer-aided courses, and on loans, counseling, networks, women-owned businesses, and business newspapers.

Compiling this pathfinder took a good deal of time, but the time it saves now is enormous. As a teaching crutch, it is invaluable. I print the pathfinders with deliberately wide margins, so students can take notes as we go through, item by item. Also the text is on a word-processing computer, so updates are easy to produce.

The one-page pathfinder on “Finding Information In a Library on Personal Financial Management” (see below) was first compiled for an Air Force course I taught on how to become a personal financial management counselor (yes, we librarians do get off assignments!). Later revisions are being used for community college seminar and adult education groups.

An Information Guild pathfinder:

Finding Information on Personal Financial Management

BOOKS are listed in the library catalogs. Look for:

  • “Finance, personal” (most relevant)
  • “Home economics – accounting” (also useful)

BROCHURES, PAMPHLETS, etc., may be in the “Pamphlet file” or “Vertical file”. Ask a librarian for location and look under:

  • “Family finance”

ARTICLES and other items are indexed in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Look for:

  • “Finance, personal” (most relevant)
  • “Budget, household” (also useful)
  • “Credit”
  • “Debt”

REGULAR COLUMNS appear in many magazines. A few examples are:

  • Money Magazine (probably the most useful), containing:
    “Money helps: questions and answers,” “Love and money,” and “One family’s finances,” which details how real-life people make specific financial decisions and why
  • Newsweek – Jane Bryant Quinn
  • Woman’s Day– Jane Bryant Quinn
  • Better Homes and Gardens – “Money”
  • U.S. News and World Report – “Managing your money”
  • Parent’s Magazine – “Money Lines”
  • McCall’s – “Money talks”
  • Esquire - “Personal finance”
  • Ladies’ Home Journal – Sylvia Porter’s “You and your money”
  • Redbook – “Mostly money”
  • Good Housekeeping – “Your money”

    Public library possibilities
    Public libraries are a natural place for pathfinders. Some special suggestions:
  • Establish a standard format. There is no single “right way,” but pathfinders should be uniform.
  • Limit the length to two pages printed on both sides. Avoid the temptation to use legal-sized paper; it can cause copying problems and doesn’t fit conveniently into file folders and school notebooks.
  • Choose both universal and regional subjects – pet care and Christopher Columbus, as well as local heroes. Reference librarians know needed topics.
  • Communicate with local schools to determine upcoming assignments. Assure authorities that pathfinders enhance student research skills and do not do their homework for them.
  • Give specific instructions. Use call numbers and exact directions, such as “File cabinet under big window” and “Paperbacks in front hall.”
  • Add “Outside Sources”. Suggest visiting museums and town halls, writing legislators and trade associations, telephoning local offices or 800 numbers.
  • Try to prepare the final draft on a word processor. A 12-pitch type setting allows more words to a page than does the common 10-pitch.
  • Distribute your pathfinders only after two or three dozen topics become available. Too few can produce unreasonable runs on cited library materials.
  • Share with other libraries and adapt others’ pathfinders to your own library. Adapting is important, because the most useful pathfinders are local. My own “Women and Business Ownership” has a very New England slant.
  • Investigate the use of volunteers to complete pathfinders. Prepare a job description, perhaps listing available topics. Interview applicants carefully. Be sure volunteers know they will have their work edited. Print compilers’ names on each pathfinder.
  • Consider cooperating with a school of library science. Student volunteers could be rewarded with school credit as well as publication, which could be cited on resumes.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? Yes, it does, and it is. The concept of pathfinders may be hard to sell to an overworked staff. Once the project is underway, however, benefits to staff and patrons alike will be evident – time saved, heightened awareness of reference tools, creative achievements, increased interaction between staff and patrons, and great public relations.

Pathfinders. By Warner, Alice Sizer. American Libraries, Mar. ’83, Vol. 14, Issue 3, p.150 2 p. Academic Search Premier.

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