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What are Reference Works Good for in the Google Age?

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.

Term harvesting
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?

Published inSearch and Discovery


  1. Martha Hardy Martha Hardy

    Heya Iris,

    I think you are right on the money about mining reference works for references and for search terms. And, I hadn’t thought about using them to model how to manage a results list, but I think you might be onto something there as well. Here are a few additional early morning, under caffeinated thoughts:

    – Specialized subject dictionaries are a huge help to me. Good definitions for medical terminology are not always forthcoming with a quick Google search. Sometimes, the Spine Dictionary or whatever is exactly what I need.
    – I still use subject encyclopedias and text books to find background information on a topic (and to find search terms, of course). They are also quite useful to use with patients and health care consumers, who need information that is already distilled for them.
    – I increasingly find myself using online reference sources, not only Web sites but also ebooks. They are handy, they don’t weigh anything, are accessible from anywhere and, most importantly, they are keyword searchable, which can be a absolute lifesaver.

    We will be embarking on print reduction project this summer, so I’m sure I’ll be giving this some more thought as we develop our weeding criteria.


  2. Mark Mark

    “… 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.”

    I adore having brilliant friends who can state the obvious which many of us still manage to miss.

    I think this has always been one of the prime roles for many reference works and we have been either too blind, too naive (hoping instructors were imparting this info), or too something to just get this and to vocally pass this info on to others.

    Andrew Abbott made some similar comments in his Windsor lecture at UIUC this past week. [I need to get that blogged and the link to the audio up.]

    Thank you for the (what should be) obvious, Iris.

  3. Courtney S Courtney S

    The reasons you give here for students using the reference collection are the same ones I use when I do instruction. I let the students know that the specialized books in reference *will* help them with the terminology and background information they need in order to understand their search results.

    I’m glad to hear that students are indeed still using print reference :)

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