The Context Paper
[for teachers of English 105 and 107;
supplement to the
Composition Library Experience]
The main purpose of the context paper is to learn how to find basic
background information on a topic. Finding out general background
information is an early step in determining a final topic for a
paper, which will have a more focused subject. Traditionally, this
information was found in ‘reference books’, and reference books were
print and 2) located in a library’s reference collection. This is now
true and untrue. For many students in freshman composition, this will
first true assignment requiring use of the university library. For
this will be the first time they use a library of any real size and,
unfortunately, for some it will be the first time they have ever heard
reference source. You may find that you have to address this on a more
step-by-step process than you thought.
WHAT IS A REFERENCE
There are several definitions of a reference source:
Library of Congress: "Any publication from which
authoritative information can be obtained."
Reference and Users Services: "A work compiled
to supply information on a certain subject or group of
subjects in a
form which will facilitate its easy use."
American Library Association: "Any source used to
authoritative information in a reference
Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science:
publication used by a reference librarian to provide
information in response to a reference question, including but
limited to reference books, catalog records, printed indexes
abstracting services, and online bibliographic
As a professor, how do you define "reference sources"
to your students?
If the point of the Context Paper is for the student to become
of the Reference section, why not designate certain types of sources
student must use? This would ensure the students become familiar with
variety of sources; rather than three or four from the "reference
Approaching the assignment in this manner would give the student an
opportunity to use a variety of sources to locate information.
For example, if a student chose the Grand Canyon as the
what sources would be appropriate for use?
The student could use encyclopedias (print, electronic)
general information on the Grand Canyon and an atlas or
gazetteer to find geographical information. Using travel
(Fodor’s) would provide additional information on sites to see
the Grand Canyon plus historical and current information on the
Canyon. Using the Internet to access U.S. government sites
as the National Park Service would provide additional information
not forget print U.S. government sources). An additional source
geological and/or geographical sources for information on
area. The above do not mention the general sources found in the
areas of libraries. Some of these sources may not be considered
"reference" sources, yet they are sources the students
should be aware
of and be able to use in a competent fashion to locate
Do the students know why a source is considered a reference
Perhaps initiating a discussion on what students consider a
source would be valuable. Within the discussion, the professor could
the above definitions for further discussion with the students.
Students could be instructed to locate information (perhaps a
their topic if necessary) in the following sources:
- Encyclopedias (paper, electronic, general, subject
Students could further be instructed (as the assignment progresses)
locate general information sources (commonly considered a book from
stacks); a source from an electronic journal, magazine or newspaper;
Internet source, etc… . This would be an excellent assignment to segue
into how to evaluate sources as to their content and value for an
DIFFERENT WAYS TO APPROACH THE CONTEXT PAPER:
- Create a list of sources, which the student must have as the
progresses (electronic, Internet, dictionary, etc…). Have students add
that list. [see example below]
- Develop a website with a list of sources which are defined as
Perhaps include a checklist with the characteristics of reference
the student can understand why a source is considered reference
(encyclopedias, handbooks, etc…).
- Students would probably benefit more from having a list of types
materials to use in locating information. If librarians cannot agree
definition for reference sources (I know it when I see it), we may be
expecting too much for the students to determine what a
is without any guidance. Rather, exposing them to several different
with a criteria for evaluation and critical thinking skills would be
more beneficial to the students.
FIND REFERENCE IN THE
Many of our database also include
‘reference’, 'book' or 'primary source document' materials,
Beyond the Library:
Examine Guide to Reference Books
[Reference Z1035.1 .G89}. Also, look at lists of examples of
different types of reference
books that are often included in ‘how to use the library’ books and
to research' in [discipline] titles.
- Finding a print reference source, located in the
reference collection: use Keyword in the Online Catalog to narrow the
location of the item
[choose Keyword search --> Set More Limits --> Location:
Area --> Set Limits].
- Search broad word/phrases. Use Keyword searching
in the online catalog to
combine the topic with words that might appear in the title of a work,
as encyclopedia, dictionary, handbook. Use keyword to search
for the word
‘introduction’ in the Title field.
- Locating online reference materials. Connect to
especially mega-sites, and
One of the largest potential links is to
Oxford Reference Online.
- Unbeknownst to many, a number of titles on our
Database lists are
e-texts, such as
LIBRARIAN’S ROLE IN THE
- Assist in developing a source list for students to use.
- Discuss why a reference source is considered a reference source
to generally define a reference source.
- Provide instruction on how to evaluate print and electronic
- Provide instruction on types of journals and magazines.
- Provide instruction on how to find viable reference-level
STANDARD REFERENCE CATEGORIES
[teachers can copy and use]
Subject Specific: The encyclopedia deals with a single topic.
are a sports encyclopedia or a food encyclopedia.
General: Encyclopedias cover a variety of information. Usually one
of the alphabet for each volume.
Subject Specific: May cover only a particular geographical feature
(rivers, mountains) or a specific country.
General: Cover every country.
Subject Specific: Cover one subject (sports)
General: Cover numerous aspects of information.
Subject Specific: Deals with one subject (sports) or one language
General sources from the library stacks (the book collection)
Magazine, journal and newspaper articles from print and electronic
Internet sites: Could limit to government or other
"official" sites for
information. Use the Library's
Search Tools and
Discuss your library instruction needs at any time with members of
Instruction Team. Additional resources for all teachers are
Resources for Teaching Faculty page.