Over the last couple of years, my co-workers and I have noticed steady and possibly even increasing use of our reference collection by our students. And while I love this (I mean… obviously… cuz I’m a reference librarian), I’m also always just a little bit surprised by it. I mean, they’ve got Wikipedia and Google, and goodness knows they use them for everything. Hey, even I use them umpteen thousand times per day, so I certainly can’t fault anyone.
Well, we recently had a meeting of area librarians at which we discussed the future of reference collections. Will they go all electronic? Will they become obsolete altogether? And how will our physical spaces in the library change over time? And all this got me to thinking about what the actual value of a reference collection is these days.
With a few exceptions, I think the value of a reference collection is not in the ability to locate facts. That’s what it used to be good for, but unless I’m looking for pretty specialized facts that I don’t think would get published on the web, or that would be hard to digest on a screen, I generally go to my friend Google. And while I’m sure that reference collections were never just about finding facts, that was one of their key roles before, and continues to be their perceived function. But, for me the reference collection is valuable in a completely different way these days. It’s not about discrete facts; it’s about context. It’s not a place to find what you need; it’s a place to find a beginning and get help interpreting result lists.
Built in bibliographies
One of the things that seems to resonate well with students is that they don’t have to dive into topics and build initial bibliographies from scratch. Just like they can consult their professors for starting points, they can consult an expert by turning to a subject encyclopedia and gleaning citations from there. Scholarship is all about building on other people’s scholarship, so take advantage of it an jump in like the real scholars do.
I’ve already talked about how terms are crucial to search. While encyclopedias and dictionaries can’t help every time, they can be treasure-troves of terms, and they can help students deploy new terms by providing some disciplinary context for each new concept.
Managing result lists
And this brings me to the way that reference works serve us in this online age: they provide context that can help students look at a database result list and pick out likely items to open and explore further. We’ve all seen students who get overwhelmed by massive result lists and either just scrap the whole effort, open random items, or start doggedly opening every single result. (We have growing numbers of students who simply will not search things like ProQuest or JSTOR because there are too many results.) Disciplinary experts, on the other hand, scan for likely looking results and only open those that are related or that they’re pretty sure will help them figure out how to tweak their search. And reference works can help students develop the capacity to inch toward a more intelligent interpretation of and navigation through result list.
What else? As we think about collections and information needs shifting, where do reference collections fit?