Books, Collection Development

The Future of Reference – #ljwikiage notes

Yesterday I “attended” a webcast hosted by Library Journal entitled  Authority, Connectivity, and Discovery: The Evolving Role of Reference in the Wiki Age.  I was interested because over the past few years, as I rethought the layout of the “old” (aka “pre-fire”) library and how we would do things in the “new” (post-fire) at Hackley, my thoughts about reference materials have changed.  I’ve even presented on it:

Rethinking reference resources

View more presentations from Laura Pearle

So, what did we participants learn?

  • Reference is mostly for context: an initial point of entry/contact for that topic, helping researchers (formal and not) build keyword lists and get an overview.
  • Currency is still very important (because of the role of reference as an entry point)
  • Convenience is critical: what are the access points? how do we inform patrons what we have and how to use it?
  • We all use Wikipedia – even experienced scholars – and we all understand the risks (I’d argue that in K-12, we teachers tell students the risks but they don’t listen or care!)

It was suggested that well-known, well-respected references works (OED, Encyclopedia Britannica, Gale, etc.) have a certain character and trustworthiness.  That’s true if you’re an older, experienced researcher.  But to my students?  The OED is the same as, and the latter is easier to access.  The question becomes, “what’s good enough?” when looking at a resource – the answer isn’t global, as it relies on the individual’s needs and experience.

When talking about Wikipedia v. “real” reference, we need to remind students about the limitations of the former:

  • are there primary sources included? (Wikipedia’s policy says “No Original Research” – which can lead to inaccuracies, as Messer-Kruse proved)
  • neutrality often excludes interpretation, which isn’t necessarily a good thing
  • what is the editorial control mechanism – crowd sourcing is one thing, academic experts another

One thing that we need to remember is that even before the digital age, not everyone who needed to do some research or gain knowledge came into the library – why do we think that this has changed or should change?  The motif should be findability… discoverability, not blind adherence to a possibly outdated format (in other words, divorce content from format).  And the more discoverable, the more useful and the greater reputation that source will have (think about how high Wikipedia’s information appears in search results!).

  • If you don’t know where to find the information, no matter how current/authoritative it is, it won’t be useful. Create guides to popular topics – use webpages to highlight resources (I used LibGuides to point to the best resources).  If you subscribe to GVRL or ORO, do patrons know which of the many resources inside is the best for their needs?  Do they know how to find that resource? Do they know how to search for their information?  Wikipedia makes it easy – all reference sources should use that model.

Is reference dead? Print might be, but the reference desk (in person, on-line, on Twitter, etc.) is still so very important.  The more ways you can reach people, guiding them towards those fabulous resources and helping them become familiar with your collection, the better.  Think about this: there’s a good probability that more people have used Wikipedia since 2001 than have used encyclopedias during their entire history.

  • Why do we still grant that massive reference collection pride of place on our shelves?  We think of them as “royalty”, spending thousands (conservative estimate) on them but… how used are they?  Here’s what I’ve found: students don’t come into a library to casually browse Contemporary Literary Criticism or another of those multi-volume sets.  They come in to use them because they have a defined need (usually defined by the teacher), so they’ll go to those books no matter where in the library we put them.  Pre-fire, we had decided to move them under the mezzanine, a dark place not conducive to lingering and browsing – they’d previously been housed on shelves that ultimately blocked light from coming into the library.  Post-fire, we decided to not replace them but go with digital versions.
  • What about interfiling those books?  Allowing them to circulate?  I’m a huge fan of interfiling because it’s one-stop research shopping.  The Encyclopedia of the Cold War is next to all biographies of Cold War figures and monographs about the various events.  Guess what?  More of the needed resources will be used.
  • Going digital also removes the “one book” problem: reference sources are usually needed by many users at the same time, yet we only have one copy in print.  Digital allows for multiple users (yay!)

It can’t be repeated often enough: print may be dying, but reference help is still very much alive.

What’s important in a reference source, digital or print, beyond the “currency, accuracy, authority, bias” questions?

  • Consistency
  • Quality
  • Ease of Access (entry points)
  • Ease of Access (easy to grasp the important information)

We need different models and approaches because in research, one size doesn’t fit all (although that’s been the assumption/model we’ve gone with for years).   User habits have changed over the years, with some wanting “personal development” (aka “lifelong learning”) and others wanting “just basics”.

To sum up, it’s not quite RIP Reference – just as radio wasn’t killed by the advent of television, text won’t go away (but it will morph).

(ETA: They pointed to this article in SLJ on the future of reference.  Much to ponder over the summer vacation!)

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