Monday, 1 October 2007

Te Ara - the conversation continues

The Te Ara conversation has turned into a rich seam, especially from the New Zealand Library community. Last Friday I posted to a couple of the library listservs - who in turn got busy. I offer a sample of their contribution below from Anne Ryan.

"Well, having a bit of time on my hands, I've had a good look at Te Ara today & at Paul's initial blog entry & response. Not working as a "front of house" librarian, I can't comment on how useful it may/may not be as a reference source for the general public. But here's what I found.

First the good points:
* It seems to provide some of the most comprehensive online information on a range of specifically NZ topics. This has to be a 'good thing'.

* The thematic approach appears to be attractive to many users (and there is a reasonable search interface to assist with finding specific topics which are not apparent within the thesaurus structure). This is likely to be attractive to users.

* The option for full or short articles is a good approach (clearly intended for junior users and those wanting a quick answer)

*Good instructions on how to cite articles (obviously targeted to the school researchers)

Now the not so good ones:
*Thematic search approaches also have weakness: Where users don't think of a specific topic as being associated with the larger one -- e.g. Takahe, appear under Large forest birds (these are better known in their habitat of alpine grassland -- and I, for one, didn't think of looking for them under this heading). Another weakness is that there is no cross reference structure under the A-Z search approach (searching for 'Greenstone', I find nothing; I must instead know to search under 'Pounamu'). While this is remedied by use of the keyword search facility, it is still a weakness.

* There appears to be no internal cross-linkages within the individual articles. One of the good features of Wikis. While these linkages are not always useful, they do facilitate a much wider information gathering approach & are more typical of mature internet sources. Basically this looks like a print encyclopedia online. A rather dated approach.

* While the articles are relatively comprehensive, they are not (and cannot be) the entirety of knowledge on a topic. There appears to be little or no linkage to online resources maintained by other organizations or to the 'real world' should the user want to track down 'live' information. For example, in the takahe article there are text references to Tiri Tiri Matangi island (a wildlife refuge where Takahe breed), but no links. The selection of print resources (under 'Further sources'), appears to be eclectic, and there is no indication of where the user might be able to track these down (link to Te Puna?)

*It is clearly a work in progress. It would be useful to have place-markers (once again a wiki concept) to indicate where articles will eventually be written/placed. It would give users an idea of the planned extent of the resource (i.e. whether a topic is in or out of scope)

*Dating online resource information is always a pain.
There is no indication as to what the "updated 21-Sep-2007" actually means. Is this a publication date? Or simply the last time a typo was corrected. While this is not of major importance at the moment (while everything is so new/current), it is likely to cause problems further down the track, with the inability to tell what is current or dated information. I'd like to see publication dates & revision dates indicating intellectual work/review, rather than minor tweaks.

*Finally (and getting back to the blog reaction), the articles are written from a definite perspective (as is all information...), and this has the potential to polarize readers & be perceived as elitist.

A stronger policy of online linking to alternative views, and toning down some of
the rhetoric might be more appropriate (e.g. the statement that "Greenstone is a common term, but increasingly it is being replaced by pounamu" -- is only true within a subset of NZ society -- regardless of whether or not we think it ought to be true).

On the other hand, this is an official, government, source, and perhaps will always demonstrate an official perspective. I'd like to see a much more wiki approach, but understand that this is not the vision of the Te Ara project. Perhaps Paul's vision of pages exported to a study space, may be the way to address the different Perspectives that can be brought to all information topics.
I, too, would be interested in other people's views - and perhaps an analysis of Te Ara as a reference source by an expert (challenge to you reference types out there) "

I also advise that John, who started the conversation with his spirited blast on his trumpet- has also responded to my post with a more mellow saxophone. It's an interesting, and thoughtful riposte to my comment, and well worth peoples attention. Inevitably, given my own acknowledged bias, I was especially taken by this part:

" I was arguing this is an old-fashioned approach to the web - it's one that I think Paul you have been sceptical of. Web 2.0 didn't rise because someone thought it was a good idea. It arrived as a better alternative to knowledge aggregation and creation.
Maybe that is all I was raving about: Te Ara is so Web 1.0. (I'm not geeky enough to use a statement like that, but you started it...). You get the feeling in another 15 years Te Ara will be the same as it is now - a high-spec brochure sitting on a shelf, waiting for someone to pick it up and browse. Maybe trying ever harder to be more inviting and logical when that user picks it up. But still a brochure written by people who think they know a lot for people who don't.

I am fully in favour of taxpayer funding for stuff that grows the total body of knowledge. But Te Ara doesn't do that.

That's because it is not a source of information unavailable elsewhere. If it added stuff you just can't get elsewhere, then it would be sensational. How would it do that? Maybe it would hand pick its way through links, and it would write original commentary about that material. Plus it would make available source documentation from NZ's archives, museums, libraries and other sources that are currently difficult to access ".

Given the amount of interest this topic has provoked, you should read his whole post. It's here.

Finally, can I report that I am having a session with the editor of Te Ara, Jock Phillips on Wednesday. I will be happy happy to report - he in turn has already said he has found the exchange "hugely interesting". I might even ask him to write a guest post!

In the meantime, I seem to have achieved what I've always hoped for in this blog - a conversation!


Anonymous said...

I think that Te Ara is a great reference - the articles are well written and authoritative. Yes, I know that its Web 1.0 - but not everyone is sold on Web 2.0 as being a reliable source of information. If you haven't already seen it, have a look at the entry called "The Bush", which is an interesting account of what this term means in New Zealand, with some community contributions added - its a great way of imparting information with added value from public comment.

One grizzle - Te Ara is an incomplete encyclopedia, in progress. Why on earth don't they say so on the home page. Many of the complaints in earlier correspondence have been about things that will probably come later.

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