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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
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The announcement of the winner of the 2009 Dartmouth Medal marked a milestone in the medal’s 35-year history. For the first time (and some might say it’s about time), the prestigious medal, bestowed each year on “a reference work of outstanding quality and significance,” was awarded to an electronic database, Pop Culture Universe. According to Jeff Schwartz, chair of the Dartmouth Medal Award Committee, “The committee felt that electronic sources are the future of reference. It was long overdue that the Dartmouth Medal go to an online resource, and Pop Culture Universe was the most interesting one of 2008.”
Pop Culture Universe (PCU) was a Greenwood database when it launched but an ABC-CLIO database by the time the Dartmouth award was announced. In October 2008, ABC-CLIO acquired a perpetual license to all Greenwood imprints and publications. Vince Burns, ABC-CLIO’s executive editorial director, says that the Dartmouth Medal win “has been tremendously exciting for all of us at ABC-CLIO. Many of us who have worked in the reference and education space have hoped and dreamed about a Dartmouth Medal.” He adds that the award’s timing “represents a real vote of confidence from libraries in electronic reference.”
The Reference Books Bulletin review of PCU noted its “fun vibe”—and according to Scott Wich, editorial manager for popular culture at ABC-CLIO, “It couldn’t have been more fun to work on.” Wich, formerly editorial database manager at Greenwood, told us in an e-mail. “I think the ‘fun vibe’ that RBB refers to has a lot to do with the great design that our team developed for the home page. Entire meetings were spent discussing the iconic images and catchphrases that should represent each decade across the top of the home page—my kind of meetings! As I’ve told many friends and colleagues, I just love being able to put to good use those ‘wasted hours’ of my youth spent watching MTV, blaring music my parents hated, and overanalyzing John Hughes films. And to have our hard work result in a Dartmouth is fantastic fun for the whole team.”
Wich said that about half of the planning and development that goes on behind the scenes for a database like PCU involves three things: determining what content to include, editing and improving the quality of the XML files for the content, and securing permission to use the content in electronic format. “The other half is the really fun stuff, like figuring out the look and feel of the site. For example, arriving at the final design for the home page was a weeks-long process. We had a wide array of options to choose from, but we all gravitated toward one in particular—a fairly conservative, but extremely crisp and clear, home-page design.” They thought they were done until someone pointed out that people in their thirties and forties might not be the best group to make decisions about how a pop-culture database should look. “So we went back and consulted our fantastic advisory board of librarians and educators, and more importantly, ran all of the designs by a representative sample of high-school and college students. Of course, we ended up ditching the conservative design and went with the one that overwhelmingly connected with our audience—still a pretty bold decision to make, considering how completely different it was from anything that we’d done in the past. A number of these kinds of decisions along the way really seem to have paid off for us in the end.”
PCU has a number of unique features, such as mouse-over decade images and highlights for each decade of the twentieth century. “I think that’s the other part of the ‘fun vibe’ to which RBB was referring,” Wich said. “It was clear early on that we wanted our primary focus to be on the decades—pop culture simply lends itself to that kind of organization. Also, many have pointed out how well this style fits in with the ubiquitous ‘decades assignments’ that so many researchers encounter.” To fully cover each decade, Greenwood commissioned new content to supplement its “deep well of quality reference material” on fads, fashions, new products, films, songs, sports champions, and other pop-culture topics. Another unique PCU feature is a blog with commentary, YouTube videos, and photos. The blog allows editors to stay on top of what’s happening in pop culture, keeps the home page fresh and current, and connects the user to relevant content within the database, which provides context and adds educational value. “Like everything else on PCU,” Wich said, “It’s right in line with our goal of creating an entertaining and educational learning environment in an innovative and fun package. We want to make learning an addictive (in the best possible sense) experience, and it’s nice to know that, with PCU, we succeeded in that mission in a big way.”
Regarding future plans for ABC-CLIO and Greenwood, Vince Burns says, “Barely three months into the combination, company president Becky Snyder and the editorial teams have crafted very exciting plans for new product development. Specifically, at the top of the team’s list is to make our Popular Culture Universe, Daily Life through History, African American, Latino American, and American Indian electronic content available via ABC-CLIO’s award-winning Social Studies Database platform.” Also planned is the release of a unified e-book platform for hosting all of the Greenwood Press, Libraries Unlimited, ABC-CLIO, and Praeger Publishers titles in e-formats. “ABC-CLIO has a passion for building and publishing educationally sound, simple-to-use, and (dare we say) fun databases like PCU,” Burns notes, and the Dartmouth Medal win, coming at the moment when ABC-CLIO and Greenwood have been united, is “extremely gratifying.”
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