Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's all about RefWorks!

Here comes Thanksgiving and papers and finals and ...

Well, we'll focus on that in just a minute. First, I just finished Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six following the Collapse of the United States of America by Brian Francis Slattery. Lengthy title notwithstanding, this book came to us after weeks of enthusiastic recommendations from various directions, and after reading it, I can understand why. At its root, it's a science-fiction (SF) novel, a genre which doesn't always get the respect it deserves in certain quarters. Some forget that fantastic writers like Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, HG Wells, Mary Shelley, Michael Chabon, and Kurt Vonnegut (to name just a few) were or are all SF authors. That's without including Isaac Asimov, who alone occupies 9 of the 10 major Dewey classifications (except the 100s, philosophy and psychology) and ... well, that's another post. The point is that the SF label isn't sufficient justification for dismissal.

Liberation is a good example of SF that works well as a piece of literature on a par with The Road or Oryx and Crake; as the title makes obvious, this is the story of an America crushed beneath the falling dollar and the flight of foreign investors, leading to the bankruptcy of the government and the total collapse of American society. This results in an landscape that's been peculiarly changed; after the initial flurry of riots and small wars dies down, people are more or less intact but incredibly poor, so they make do with the junk left over from their former lives.

Families take up residence in stripped station wagons and spin thread for textiles on wheels mounted on car axles, children gather junk from the shore and refashion various useful multitools to hawk on the streets, a single individual gathers all the information from around the country and sends it out in weekly digests via telegraph, fiber-optic cable, and the few remaining American-owned satellites, and other small-but-brilliant indications of the ingenuity and vibrance that's still left even after the death of the government. There's no real political organization larger than, say, Asheville, North Carolina, the last place on the continent south of Canada that's still free. Economically, though, most of the financial activity in the former United States is run by the Aardvark, a criminal-turned-king who rules from New York and runs most of the revived slave trade.

Enter the Slick Six: a band of thieves before the collapse who pulled off unimaginably huge heists using the members' strange skills at accounting, electronics, information dissemination, being charming, being smart, and killing people. One of them was shipped off to jail -- literally, on a prison ship somewhere in the North Atlantic -- before the end of society, and when he returns, he finds himself determined to bring the Slick Six back together and bring down the Aardvark and end slavery for the second time in American history. Whether he's successful or not, of course, is a matter of perspective. It's a narrative that reminds me strongly of Thomas Pynchon and other authors who can easily occupy an entire page with a single sentence that can take you halfway across the continent before you realize the subject's been changed.

It's highly recommended, especially if you're worried about the economy. It's pure speculation, of course, but it's still a terrific read!

After that lengthy synopsis and brief digression on the nature of SF and its awful treatment at the hands of literary snobs, let's focus on something more practical, especially as the semester winds down: RefWorks. I'm going to do this all in a Q&A format, mostly because I'm tired of writing long narrative posts and because there are several questions common to each student encounter with RefWorks.

What is RefWorks?
Why, that's simple. It's a bibliographic content management system!

By which I mean, of course, that it can store all the citation information from the articles, books, Web sites and other sources you come across while you're doing your research, organize all those articles, and then automatically create a "Works Cited" list for you to insert in your paper or project. Or a "References" list or whatever else is prescribed by the style manual you're using (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.).

Cue heavenly glow. Cue angelic choir. That's what I see in the faces of most of the students whom I introduce to RefWorks when I mention that last. It's crazy. I'll explain more about that later; suffice it to say that RefWorks does a lot of work for you while you're researching.

How do I find it?
Go to and look in the middle box in the top row on the page with a sort of burgundy/maroon-colored header bar that says "Research Help." You should see a link third from the bottom that says "RefWorks." Click on it.

Next, you'll see another page, this time with a bunch more links. This is the Library-RefWorks page. To go straight to RefWorks, just click the link at the top, the one saying "Link to RefWorks." However, if it's your first time, I do strongly suggest that you read the rest of the page.

Why? Well, we have two videos created by Jane Rutherford, one of our Instruction & Reference Librarians, that walk you through the fundamentals of using RefWorks; both videos are identical, one just has voice added. They are terrifically useful, and having them means I can skip the details here.

You'll also see a list of "Import Guides" along the right-hand side of the screen. These are important for two reasons. First, they relate to one of RefWorks' most useful functions, which is the ability to automatically transfer all citation information from the database articles of your choice right into RefWorks, saving you all the time it'd take to type a single reference into the online form provided by RefWorks. This is awesome.

Unfortunately, not all databases are created equal; each one transfers citations into RefWorks by different methods. This is the second reason why the import guides are important: they all include step-by-step instructions for getting citations into RefWorks for each database (including our catalog, ALADIN Discovery). Because of that, this is one window you'll want to keep open while you're doing your research.

Do I really need to create an account?
Yup. It's free, doesn't ask for much personal information, takes very little time, and is definitely worth it.

Okay, I kind of get what you're saying. But ... how do I really use it?
It varies according to your needs. Here's an example of the research process I'd use for articles by themselves:
  1. Open RefWorks, sign in, and keep it open the entire time. Just leave it alone
  2. Open the Library's RefWorks page (with the links to all the import guides on it) and leave that open, too
  3. Get started on researching by picking a database
  4. After deciding which database you want to use, go back to the list of import guides and open the one for the database you're using. Leave it open while you're searching.
  5. Search and find whatever articles you'll need in that database
  6. Follow the instructions on the import guide to get all the citations you want to use into RefWorks
  7. Once the citations are in RefWorks, you get to decide what you want to do with the citations:
    1. Leave them where they are (RefWorks puts them into the 'Last Imported' folder)
    2. Put them into a folder specifically for this topic (you can create it before you start researching or do it at this point, using the Folders menu in the RefWorks menu bar)
For, say a book that doesn't come from a Consortium library (remember, RefWorks can work with information from ALADIN Discovery) or a Web site or, really, anything else, you'll need to create the reference itself. It's less of a pain than you'd think in RefWorks, though:
  1. In RefWorks, open the menu named References and select "Add a new reference"
  2. You'll see a big form full of what seems like hundreds of blank fields. Don't worry about those -- just look at the top of the form
    1. Make sure that the right style is selected in View fields used by: drop-down next to the "Save Reference" button
    2. If you want to put the reference in a specific folder, select that in the next drop-down
    3. Now you'll need to figure out the Ref type. Fortunately, RefWorks' options are pretty straightforward; pick the one that applies
  3. When you pick the reference type, the form will automatically reload with green checkmarks next to certain fields.
  4. Fill in as many of the green-checked fields as possible
    1. Those are the fields that will be used in whatever reference type and style you picked
    2. If the information for a specific field simply isn't available (if your book has an author but no editors, for example), don't worry. A green check mark next to the field doesn't mean it's required, just recommended.
  5. Once you've filled in as much as you can fill in, click on "Save Reference"
  6. That's it.
Now for the grand finale! After you're done with all your researching, you can now create a reference list for your paper:
    1. Click on Bibliography in the Menu bar
    2. Pick your style (APA 6th Edition, maybe)
    3. Pick the format you want the list to be in (usually "Word for Windows (2000 or later)")
    4. Pick the folder you want the references to come from
    5. Click on "Create Bibliography"
    6. A page will come up, saying something like "Formatting ... " Just wait.
    7. Then a download window will pop up. Save it to your computer first.
    8. Open it and make sure it's complete and nothing's gone horribly wrong (computers can be funny, huh? Real funny)
    9. Copy and paste away to your heart's content.
Wow. It really does make a reference list for your paper.
Yup. You okay?



Well, anyway, it's a fantastic tool to have. It removes a lot of the strain involved in keeping track of large numbers of articles while you're working on your project or paper. And we provide it for free!

The only real downside to using RefWorks is the time it takes to learn a new way of doing things, figure out the interface, and get used to it all. Fortunately, it pays off big in the end.

If you have any further questions about RefWorks or could use some more in-depth training, feel free to get in touch with us to set up an appointment -- whether through e-mail at, via IM through, or by just plain old droppin' by.

That ends this week. This blog will be taking Thanksgiving off -- it could really use some turkey and stuffing -- so we'll see you again on December 4!

Question of the Week
What are your hours over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend?
Here they are:

Tuesday, November 24: 8 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Wednesday, November 25: 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Thursday, Thanksgiving Day: Closed
Friday, November 27: Closed
Saturday, November 28: 1 p.m. - 5 p.m.
Sunday, November 29: 12 p.m. - 12 a.m.

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