Friday, September 18, 2009

Meet Credo, your new best friend

Back in July, I was riding the Metro home from a game at Nationals Park (thanks to my boss, Sarah Hamrick, who is a true baseball fanatic; she doesn't care about winning or losing, if you can imagine that). I wound up sitting behind a mother-son pair, both of whom were reading books.

Now, I happen to be one of the worst kinds of Metro riders: I have no problem with looking over the shoulders of people in front of me to see what they're reading. In this case, the son was reading Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky, which looked interesting, so I mentally filed away the title. A couple of weeks later, I remembered that night and checked our catalog. Imagine my surprise when I found out we had it! So I checked it out and began to read it.

Rules for Radicals is sort of a primer for people looking to get involved in community organization, which also happens to be part of our Social Work program's curriculum (SWK 482: Social Work Practice III: Organizations and Communities). It's an interesting historical text in one way: It was published in 1972, a time of particular upheaval in American history. It's right around the time, in fact, that the word "radical" came to be associated not simply with union organizers and peaceful community protesters, but with more violent methods of social protest, such as those undertaken by the Symbionese Liberation Army (the folks who kidnapped Patty Hearst) and other organizations.

In Rules for Radicals, it's definitely the older association -- Alinsky is an old-school radical who was active from the 1930s all the way up the early '70s, and talks about the importance of communication, understanding your community's needs, and various tactics to, for example, get large corporations to accede to workers' demands or to persuade city governments to meet the needs of underserved minority groups. It's a thoughtful, funny book that also offers a new perspective on American history and how radicalism has had its part to play in the world we live in today; it sort of makes you reexamine things like the recent Obamacare town hall meetings that erupted in shouting and recriminations.

The book actually showed up kind of coincidentally: I found out last week from one of my good friends that the Free Library of Philadelphia -- where she works -- was to be shut down indefinitely as of October 2nd, because of a budget crisis. It's a pretty un-American thing, mostly because the first lending library in the US was established there by Benjamin Franklin himself in 1731 (The Library Company of Philadelphia). This news caused ripples as far away as Spokane, Washington. It was covered by the Huffington Post and BoingBoing (written by one of my favorite authors, Cory Doctorow -- he wrote Little Brother, which I reviewed a few weeks ago).

The whole thing was pretty awful, but Rules for Radicals made me very curious about how the community would behave as October 2 drew nearer. Last night, though, the state legislature finally passed a bill that'll infuse more money into Philadelphia so the city can survive another year without massive service cuts. So that's okay.

Now that the giant sigh of relief has come and gone, I'm gonna introduce you to Credo Reference. We're all excited about this! We just got it set up a few days ago and had a guy from there come in and tell us all about it. Here's the basic concept: It's like Wikipedia, only better.

Let's clarify this claim a little bit. What Credo Reference does, basically, is work as a research database for hundreds of specialized reference books. Here's one book from each subject area covered by Credo:
  • An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films: 1895-1930
  • The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists
  • Encyclopedia of the History of American Management
  • Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition
  • Britannica Concise Encyclopedia
  • Cambridge World History of Food
  • The CIA World Factbook (including customizable data tables)
  • Encyclopedia of African History
  • Who's Who in Gay & Lesbian History
  • Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics
  • Great American Court Cases
  • A Dictionary of Literary Symbols
  • Collins Dictionary of Medicine
  • The Harvard Dictionary of Music
  • Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained
  • Handbook of Forensic Psychology: Resource for Mental Health and Legal Professionals
  • Chambers Classic Speeches
  • Critical Terms for Religious Studies
  • Atlas of the Universe
  • Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs
  • Encyclopedia of Computer Science
  • McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms

That's the merest taste of the pages and pages of listed resources we now have access to. I say Credo is much, much better than Wikipedia, because Wikipedia relies on basically anyone who knows how to use a computer for its information, which makes it A) academically suspect (you have no idea what sort of unqualified laymen have had their fingers all over that article about coffee) and B) unverifiable in most cases (sources aren't always listed, which makes it difficult for you to go to that source and make sure that the information in the Wikipedia article accurately reflects it -- plus the whole process of verifying sources kind of defeats the purpose of Wikipedia to begin with!). Credo Reference is super-trustworthy and amazingly comprehensive.

Seriously. Try it. Go to, look for the link to ALADIN in the green header bar of the box labeled "Shortcuts to ALADIN," then when ALADIN comes up, click on "Databases by Title" in the top row, and search for "Credo." You're good to go!

Now that we've gotten the basic introduction out of the way ("Gallaudetian, meet Credo. Credo, meet Gallaudetian."), let's get into the nuts and bolts of exactly what Credo is good for.

First, it needs to be said that Credo is not a source of articles from academic journals! It's for reference only, like a dictionary or encyclopedia; the stuff you find therein (whether text, images, or videos) can be cited in an academic paper, though. For example, let's say you want to do some research on widely-used foodstuffs that have been found to have medical benefits and decide you want to look at caffeine. It's a chemical that has a lot of associated meanings, a ton of history, and some fairly complex chemistry.

One good way to use Credo in your paper about caffeine is by establishing what caffeine actually is right at the beginning -- whether a drug that's been instrumental in the rise of leisure fiction, a chemical that slows heart rate, or a medicine that can protect against most types of cancer; Credo can be cited in order to back you up. This also applies to basic biographical facts, summaries of important scientific theories, and descriptions of known mental illnesses, among other things. Still, you'll come across a lot of jargon -- highly-specialized vocabulary that may mean something different in different fields, or only actually be a word in a single field -- which can get in the way of actually learning something.

This is where you come across the second part of Credo's real utility: conceptual linking. By 'conceptual linking,' I mean something really simple: finding other words for what you're looking for that will enable you to both understand your topic better and find more information about it. In a lot of cases, a single word for a topic will only take you so far in your research; the best word to use is one that's part of the jargon in your field, but it's not always easy to figure out. Credo will help you with that, especially the dictionaries for terms used in various disciplines. It's a fantastic starting point for your research.

Credo also provides a feature called the Conceptual Map to help with this process. If you've ever used ALADIN Discovery and noticed the little web of words on the left-hand side of the screen that starts swirling around when you search for something, you'll recognize the Conceptual Map. Clicking on a word in the map centers it, and adds and removes linkages accordingly. Also, when you hover the mouse arrow over a given word -- but don't click on it -- a little box pops up that gives you the first few sentences of that word's entry in a given book. Caffeine actually yields a surprisingly large map that spans various psychological disorders, aspects of neurochemistry, the history of Honore de Balzac and European coffeehouses, and the "methylxanthine" family. So you click on "methylxanthine" to figure out exactly what it is. The entry you get to -- the one from Taber's Cyclopedia Medical Dictionary, of all things -- tells you some basic stuff: methylxanthines are stimulants that occur naturally in certain plants, and they have specific medical effects on the human body.

So far, so good. Now you can get started on finding helpful books and articles about methylxanthines, their recreational uses in the forms of coffee, chocolate, and tea, and their medical effects. Credo's gone ahead and made the process of searching for books and articles much easier: take a look at the sidebar on the left. The first thing that should pop out at you is the list of "Related resources." You see stuff like "Library Catalog" and "Academic Search Premier" (Ebsco).

Yes, clicking on one of those links will automatically take you to a search for "methylxanthine" in the linked resource. This means you get to a library book or academic journal article that much more quickly and saves you quite a bit of time and effort (although you will still have to do some actual legwork after this point).

Seriously. Try it. Learn it. Love it. Live it.

Question of the Week
What happened to the stapler you used to keep by Printer 2?
It's broken, and we don't have a spare. This was an easy question!

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