Title: Pop Culture Universe: Icons Idols Ideas
Publisher: Greenwood Press
Cost: subscription price depends on type and population of library
Tested: February 10-27, 2009
I can’t and don’t even try to explain in a paragraph or two what pop culture is. There have been long articles and chapters in books and many monographs dedicated to describe, explain and interpret pop culture. It is certainly not enough to say that it is a combination of works and acts of literature, creative and performing arts, presented verbally, in textual, visual and/or audio formats through a variety of media (radio, television, magazines, books and the Web) enjoyed by the masses (i.e. ordinary people).
It is the opposite of high culture enjoyed or pretended to be enjoyed by the “high society” or highly educated and/or highly sophisticated people. This still would not include such important elements of culture as sport, especially non-stadium sports, cuisine (especially street cuisine) and fashion (especially the prêt-à-porter type). It is this latter where the adjective “high” is used to distinguish the two stratospheres of cultures, using - bien sûr - the French term haute couture that the average John and Jane, Juan and Juanita could see only through the video snippets of Fashion Week in Paris or of its brutalized version on Oscar night in Hollywood on television - or rather on the Web.
This latter is getting to be the most important element in the world of pop culture, because the Web has become by far the most important medium forming and re-forming pop culture continuously and quasi-synchronously all around the world – often at the expense of distinct national pop cultures.
The reflection of this in Pop Culture Universe (PCU) from Greenwood Press is one of its most remarkable virtues as I will discuss in the software section. Traditional media, especially television also hopped on the bandwagon and delivers an endless stream of typically cheap programs re-run ad nauseam, mostly with irritatingly mediocre, predominantly loud and excessively assertive and too blond hosts, anchors and guests - with the exception of PBS, which still delivers popular programs without being elitist and without stooping to the level of the rest.
Greenwood Press was quite late among the publishers of ready reference sources that offer an aggregate digital version of their assets. Gale, part of Cengage Learning has been doing this for years through the Gale Virtual Reference Library - which I reviewed four years ago. Since then its collection has grown to 1,400 ready reference titles.
So did ABC-CLIO’s, which recently acquired not only Greenwood Press, but the entire Greenwood Publishing Group, which in turn earlier acquired the assets of Libraries Unlimited and Praeger. ABC-CLIO already has had excellent references related to popular culture in its History Reference Online database featuring nearly 600 items, including the ones in the series on Popular Culture in the Contemporary World.
Taylor & Francis, which acquired the assets (and in the case of the Haworth Press, the significant liabilities) of several publishers in the past few years, has the eight works in the highly relevant series of Encyclopedias of Contemporary Culture of Routledge (which is part of the Taylor & Francis Group) digitized and in May it is expected to offer the much anticipated volume on Japanese pop culture (which has quite a following in the U.S. beyond the manga cult and which I observe often with great interest but as a complete outsider during my long layovers at the now excellent and native context of Narita airport).
Among the third-party aggregators that have substantial numbers of ready reference sources, Credo Reference (formerly known as Xrefer Plus) stands out and above, far above, the rest, with 400 ready reference works. I reviewed in this column Xrefer in 2001 when it had 50 dictionaries and encyclopedias, and Xrefer Plus in 2003 when the set increased to 125 ready reference sources and became (as planned) a fee-based service. Credo is another aggregator that smartly licensed the works in Popular Culture in the Contemporary World series of ABC-CLIO. So did EBSCO, too, among the largest general database aggregators and it has quite a number of databases that provide good coverage of pop culture. In terms of ready reference sources on this subject, the COMPLETE version/edition of its History Reference Online database family is the most significant.
In the open access hemisphere, the wonderful Bartleby site pioneered the idea of making available free high quality ready reference suites in aggregated form. The idea was followed by the splendid Answers.com site (formerly known as GuruNet), that has been constantly enhanced since my review 10 years ago. Excellent as they are none of them have pop culture-oriented encyclopedias and dictionaries.
The title and subtitle Popular Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas perfectly reflects the universal topical scope of the database – at least from the American and British perspectives. The one-page flier summarizes well the highlights of the impressively rich content, but atypically, it “undersells” PCU in more ways than one. It says that it enriches the school and public libraries, even though it is excellent also for the academic library world serving the undergraduate and graduate students and faculty who teach and take cultural studies and other social science courses.
More importantly, it under-reports the sources covered, by saying that it “includes more than 250 volumes of reviewed, published material”. This may be due to the fact that the flier was made more than a year ago. But the log-in page does not have that excuse in grossly under-claiming that you “get more than 250 full-text volumes of material” and does a disservice to PCU. As of now, it is much closer to 500 volumes, considering that many of the 360 print publications covered have several volumes, such as one of the backbone works of PCU: the Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Popular Culture which consists of 6 volumes, comparable to the 5-volume St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture from Gale.
When it comes to numbers, caution is always advised. I keep saying that the best indicator for such databases is not the total number of titles, volumes and page numbers, but the total number of records and words for realistic comparison. The former may have one more volume than the latter, but the Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Popular Culture has somewhat less than 2,000 articles and biographies and 400 images while the most recent, 2003 edition of the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture has 2,700 articles/biographies and it also has more images (about 1,200).
According to the current “report card” at the top of the excellent title list page of PCU (sortable by topic, title and year), PCU 5,045 book chapters, 17,707 encyclopedia articles and 7,520 images from 367 books. According to my own test there are 23,870 full text items (including 5,409 biographies), but “only” 1,846 images. There are additional types of records, such as feature stories, blog entries, lesson plans and research guides that are not counted in any of the categories in the report card.
The only digital source that is in the same league in terms of pop culture coverage in ready references as PCU is the Gale Virtual Reference Library. However, the two are not easily comparable, as Gale Virtual Reference Library has about 1,400 encyclopedias (many of them with large number of volumes), almanacs and other ready-reference works on a variety of topics, including many related to pop culture that a library may choose from. In PCU, practically all the works are related directly or indirectly to pop culture.
The set of 360 reference works, which are listed in a file, is more than mouthwatering for anyone interested in pop culture. This is the case when quality comes ahead of quantity and you can stop agonizing over the number of volumes and pages and articles (with one exception that I discuss in a separate section).
Doing this review took quite some time (and the review became twice as long as my typical reviews), as I got drowned in PCU in a good way, browsing, searching, reading hundreds of articles and getting interested in looking up topics, much beyond my usual set of test-queries used for evaluating encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs and other ready-reference sources. After all, I was an avid participant and willing target of many (but certainly not all) facets of the pop culture from the mid-60s for almost four decades, deeply immersing in the ocean of pop culture in Europe and the U.S. and tipping my toes into it in Southeast Asia.
PCU has practically all the encyclopedias and dictionaries that two of the Greenwood Publishing Group (Greenwood Press and Praeger) members have about pop culture. Probably the few missing items, such as the ones from the Cooking Series, also will be available soon as they represent a highly pertinent angle of pop culture, even if the term obviously did not exist in the eras addressed by Cooking with Shakespeare or Cooking with the Bible. There were clearly popular types of foods and drinks enjoyed by the masses beyond their essential nutritional values.
The most impressive feature of PCU is the currency of the underlying print publications. It gives good impression that in mid-February, 2009 there were already seven encyclopedias of 2009 imprint in the collection, but the real stunning fact is that 57% of the sources are less than 3 years old. I was so impressed by the currency of the sources that I made not only a simple bar chart about the distribution of sources by publication year, but also a cumulative bar chart to visualize the age of the 359 sources combined (leaving out the one outlier, the 1985 edition of America's Musical Stage).
The source items are assigned to 14 major subject categories. Not surprisingly, Music and Film has the largest shares with 23% and 21.5% of the content, respectively, followed by TV & Radio (10.8%) and Sports (10.3%) and the Ethnic & Group Culture (8.4%) categories and Articles and biographies related to Arts & Visual Culture (5.5%) get somewhat lower share than I expected. The same is true for the share of Literature (4.5%), Fashion & Appearance (3.5%) and Recreation & Leisure (3.4%) are neck to neck and so are Politics (3%), Technology & Media (2.8%) and Food & Drink (2.5%). The last two categories, Religion & Spirituality (0.7%) and especially Business & Advertising (0.07%), have almost negligible shares of the content. This is somewhat surprising considering the role of religion/spirituality and advertising in America, the great number of idols, icons and ideas, not to mention the assertiveness of the prostelyzing and prostelyzers in these areas.
The 14 main subject categories are further divided into 162 sub-categories. The Film main category, for example, has such sub-categories (beyond the usual ones) as Gangster and Mob Films, Espionage, or Film Noir (but surprisingly no New Wave, Cinéma Vérité and Neorealism that were so much defining the pop culture in the 1960s and 1970). All these may provide a good way to drill down to a specific sub-category and see the list of encyclopedic articles, biographies and images on the special topics of interest, such as bluegrass within the music category, as well as the title of the book (or the web site) in which the detailed record appears. However, it must be borne in mind that not all the articles, biographies and images have subject categories/sub-categories assigned.
Until this point, all the information is freely available to anyone, only displaying the full article, the biography and/or the picture requires authorization. This is a novel approach in the case of subscription-based services which require authentication through user-id and password, or IP-address even to start browsing or searching such databases. In case of PCU, the result list of a search provides additional snippets that is free and can be very useful. For example, the search for "bluegrass" as a keyword in the full text of the 23,870 documents yields 256 hits and shows informative snippets.
In case the library does not have a subscription to PCU, the free information may be sufficient to try to find the print edition of the most promising books on the result list. I applaud Greenwood Press for this generous approach. The free part of PCU much enhances the Greenwood Press and Praeger encyclopedias by virtue of making their content full-text searchable, even for non-subscribers. It also is far the best PR for the product.
The articles and the biographies that I looked at were good and very good and ranged form half a page to 8-10 pages. I had mixed feelings about the images, but as a principle availability of images are very important and I recall the disappointment of users in the early 1990s when Grolier and World Book had no images on the CD-ROM and online versions of their encyclopedias.
With so many sources on pop culture, there are obviously overlaps between the sources. Even when there are redundancies among two or more encyclopedic articles and biographies from different sources, these are most often offset by the additional information that one source provides but the other does not. This is true even if it is an opinion of the author of one of the articles – after all, these encyclopedias are written by experts rather than less informed and biased fans on an enthusiast page. For example, there are nearly a hundred articles and biographies and 4 pictures where Jack Kerouac’s name appears. Four items are about him, i.e. are main entries in librarians’ parlance. Two of them are from the two volumes of the same series. Still, there are sufficient additional information/opinion in both that make it worthwhile to look up the one from the volume covering the 1950s, then the other covering the 1960s .
Interestingly, in this case, I found the biography from Poets for Young Adults to be the best. It has more comprehensive information about him, a good bibliography and a much more appropriate photo than the rather unfair one in the fourth source, American Icons. This illustrates the benefits of having such an aggregated collection, to see both sides of an issue, or both faces of an artist as is the case with Kerouac in his best years and not so good ones. Not being exactly a young adult, I would not have searched on the physical shelves the Poets for Young Adults book, but in PCU its digital version was just a click away and a very rewarding click at that. In this case I look at the partially overlapping, redundant information from a positive side. It has the advantage to corroborate information, which is an essential criterion for good ready reference service.
This was a disappointing aspect for me, but would not be such necessarily for the average U.S. and U.K. users. I could find relevant and accurate information for about 80% of my reasonable test queries, i.e. ones that were not related to my Hungarian pop idols, icons and ideas. The huge and unreasonable gap for me is the insufficient information about the group of iconic artists and authors of the Italian, Spanish (Iberian-Spanish) and French pop culture.
There are no main entries in any of the sources about the most outstanding performers, movie stars, directors and soundtrack composers, such as Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Vittorio Gassman, Alberto Sordi, Nino Manfredi, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone from Italy, or Pedro Almodovar, Juan Antonio Bardem, Carlos Saura, Antonio Gades, Paco de Lucia from Spain. The same applies to the music world. There are no articles or biographies about Domenico Modugno, Rita Pavone, Adriano Celentano, Gianni Morandi and others who were great pop stars in Italy and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s.
The best French artists are not much better off. Francois Truffaut does have a main entry record, but Jean Luc Godard, Jean Gabin, Yves Montand, Annie Girardot, Catherine Deneuve, Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Becaud do not.
They are mentioned in biographies and encyclopedic articles of other artists, or in topical articles, but there are no articles and biographies about them, even though they had or have much more influence on the pop culture than some who have a main entry in PCU - not only in their countries but also in the U.S. and U.K. Think of such blockbusters as "Once Upon a Time in America", "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", "a Fistful of Dollars" and many other spaghetti westerns – they were directed by Sergio Leone and their unforgettable soundtracks were composed by Ennio Morricone. Neither has an article or biography dedicated to them.
My biggest disappointment was the lack of a main entry, an article and a biography about Luciano Pavarotti, who contributed the most to make opera more popular and who was enormously popular across the world, having sung together on his always sold out concerts with many of the biggest pop stars, such as Sting, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Bono, Bryan Adams, Andrea Bocelli, Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Celine Dion, or Lionel Richie. Of the Three Tenors, only Placido Domingo was rewarded with a main entry, actually two.
This insufficient treatment extends also to such stars who came a little late in their career to the U.S., or still split their time between their home country and the U.S., such as Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem (whose name does not appear in any of the sources; his father’s does). True, there are many works in PCU that address the culture of regions and countries beyond the U.S. and U.K. but the major geographic emphasis in PCU is –understandably- on the American and British scene and the coverage of most other countries is more from a global academic standpoint (that I should and really can appreciate ex officio, even on pop culture topics).
This low level treatment sometimes penalizes even American, Canadian and British authors and artists who have been widely popular, such as Harold Printer, John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and John Barth, whose novels and dramas have represented the best and most popular in the literary world. It is hard to believe but there is no main entry article or biography in any of the 360 resources about the Dire Straits band, or Mark Knopfler who was its founder, phenomenal lead guitarist then had a splendid solo career and composed many soundtracks for movies on the side. I was equally disappointed about the lack of a main entry for Leonard Cohen. It tells you something about him beyond my subjective opinion that he is mentioned in nearly 50 articles and biographies, but there is no article or biography about him.
As long as they lived and performed in the U.S. and U.K, there is some information about almost anyone who matters or mattered in the pop culture from the Norwegian band A-HA to Zsa Zsa (as in Zsa Zsa Gabor, who had very limited acting talent, but she certainly made many laugh and made herself laughable and undeniably was a pop culture figure for decades with her salacious talks and actions). To the credit of Greenwood Press, the encyclopedia articles and biographies warn the reader if a piece of widely circulating information could not be verified and is more likely to be an urban legend, such as the banter between Zsa Zsa and Johnny Carson on the Late Night Show, which is quoted in two of the PCU sources (but not linked to or reproduced in this column).
There are useful additional information in the Skills Center section of PCU for students and teachers with lesson plans, documents about plagiarism, information technology, etc.
PCU is not a static, digitally frozen file as the print format was at the time of digitization. Not only is the text updated, but links are provided from many of the articles to a Web site, referring to current events/developments , such as from the feature article about Alex Rodriguez to the piece published in the Boston Globe while I was working on this review. In my estimate more than half of the records have one or more online link, mostly to highly relevant and reliable sites, such as this link to a hub page of TIME magazine with summaries and links to articles about the early days of television. This is an excellent idea and the choice is very intelligent. I wish such a link would have been created for many of the pop-culture related topics and figures from the superb special collections from the archive of TIME magazine (that I am to review again soon exactly for these features). Most of the links are merely to a specific article but even those show signs that much effort went into designing PCU, which has one or more links to the Web in about 15,000 articles, biographies and images.
There are Web 2.0 features, which are the most viewed pages and the most often used queries. There is a very good looking blog site related to PCU. Although I am not a blogger,I find it useful, especially its very good structuring of the archive by date, topical category and contributor. There are links to about a dozen external blogs. One link (Real Country Music), produced a broken link error message, but the others worked and students who blog all day will find it very appealing. I found TV tattle, Pop Candy and especially the Pop Goes the Library blog by pop culture librarians and mavens (who wrote also a book with the same title published by Information Today) to be very appropriate to enhance PCU.
The Help file is exceptionally well-done with good text and very good screenshots and I appreciate the option to turn off certain audio functions and the ticker line. There is a browsable index of terms that appear in the subject, people, movie and TV program title fields of the records and one that combines all of these. It is presented very well in a tabbed format and on the other half of the screen the list of images and links related to the selected index terms are listed. The side bar on the decade pages showing the best of the decades in terms of movies, plays, songs, books, TV series and performers also is an excellent idea that was pioneered by the Information Please Almanac and much praised by me in this column. Once again, this is good pop design.
However, the software has its dark side. The “did you mean feature” inspired by Google’s very good idea and implementation is very poor in PCU. Even when there are numerous good matches it keeps asking the “did You Mean” question and makes non-sense suggestions, such as sophomore for Sophia Loren, madman for Matt Damon, angora goat for Annie Girardot, benelux for Penelope Cruz, lagos for Lugosi, overburden for Javier Bardem, matron for Mastroianni, warmed-over for Almodovar, blond for Belmondo, interprenetrate for Antonio Banderas, skyscraper for Zsa Zsa Grabor. I don’t know about Banderas, but I think not even Zsa Zsa would have such nonsense associations at age 92. This is ridiculous, distracting and should be suspended until reasonable suggestions are made by the software.
The total number of hits (documents found) reported by the software is wrong. The hits for full text articles and biographies and images are reported and linked to under separate tabs (which is good), but these are added together, even though biographies are subsets of the full text articles and thus should not be added. For example, for Kerouac the number of documents found is reported as 111, but the 13 biographies are already counted in the 94 full text documents. The images also are part of the documents but they may be stored in a separate file for technical reasons. Once again reporting the number of matches for the three types is good, but the numbers should not be added when calculating total documents.
There is a Quick and an Advanced search option. Searching is possible by keyword, title and subject. In the Advanced mode there are list of terms in scrollable windows to search directly or filter a keyword or title search by personal name, subject terms, year/time period and country. It is appealing, but somewhat dangerous by the last criteria, because these are not consistently present in all the sources as tagged data elements.
According to my test, 14% of the records have no subject category or sub-category assigned. About 32% of the records have no year or time period tag and 86% of the records have no country tag. This means that choosing one or more country code(s) would absurdly reduce the domain of PCU and combined with any keyword it would guarantee zero results. The idea of using country names is noble, but the international coverage of PCU and its geographic tagging limitations do not warrant it – to start with. In addition, there are many among the nearly 200 countries listed where there is really no pop culture. The first country listed, Afghanistan, pops up in my mind as an example, where there is again very intense poppy culture, but very vapid pop culture (for males only) - if any. I know, kite flying is getting popular again there, but the search/filter option by country name should be really removed as it has more disadvantages than advantages.
All in all, PCU is a very current and highly relevant resource for cultural studies, not just pop-cultural ones, as long as the users realize that its focus is the U.S. and the UK and the Latino and Asian pop culture primarily within these two countries. Its content and software is state of the art even if this is not reflected in its poor logo whose rendering –without intentional intellectual association- looks like as it had been Xeroxed in a convenience store at a Greyhound stop when Jack Kerouac was still "On the Road".
Given the much-appreciated option that it can be browsed and searched by anyone free (without being able to display the records), librarians and teachers can explore this database without time pressure to find out how well it covers the topical and geographical areas relevant for their user community.