By Alex Rolfe
Reference Supplement 2011
Reference texts were some of the first books to go online and for good reason‚ they offer so much more than their print counterparts. Partly through a decade of purchasing them individually and partly through package deals, the e-reference collections at George Fox University Libraries, Newberg, OR, are bigger than ever before and growing fast. We’ve added 120,000 ebooks to our catalog in the past year and a half alone, which has made for a quantity much too large to list on libguides or similar title-by-title displays. Our problem is that e-reference materials are far from being as visible as their print ancestors, causing students fall back on Wikipedia, a source they know and that doesn’t take training to use.
It’s not that we don’t warn students about the dangers of relying solely on Wikipedia. In our instruction sessions we also spend time telling them about subject encyclopedias and what they have to offer. Unlike Wikipedia, we explain, you can cite them without rebuke from your professor, and they provide up-to-date, easily digestible overviews written by experts.
But the material in those subject encyclopedias, our best hope for competing with the online behemoth, is becoming less and less visible as it migrates online, where it is immune to serendipity. All the while relevant, quality print materials are gathering dust on the shelves, as a single catalog record for a wonderful, expensive, four-volume print reference set can’t compete successfully for attention anymore.
Currently available technologies such as discovery systems and products that search the indexes of print works fail to deliver the convenience that students want along with the thoroughness required by librarians. We’ve tried Paratext’s Reference Universe, which allows users to explore the indexes and tables of contents of thousands of print and ebook reference titles. When we used it, we found that almost 4000 items in our library (including all sorts of handbooks and companions that we put in our circulating collection) were indexed, and we’re a small university. It’s wonderful to enter a topic and see multiple relevant reference books listed from 20-plus ebook platforms, and our print collection, all in one interface and searchable at the index-entry level.
Usability remains a major hurdle, though. It takes multiple clicks and reexecuting the search to get to the material, and students want full text or nothing. Forcing them to navigate an interface that requires librarian assistance is no way to compete with Wikipedia. Until discovery system vendors make the full text of all materials, print and electronic, accessible to novice searchers, I can’t justify buying one.
Lost in the stacks
Sadly, the downturn in the visibility of reference resources also means that librarians will be less able to point toward the library’s riches. In the old days, we at least walked past some of those books daily, and reference librarians were in the stacks enough to gain familiarity with what was there. If not, they could always lead a patron to a certain call number range and see what they had. The collection was at hand, and classification made it easily findable. But now our print collection is becoming an archive of old editions that are superseded by online updates‚ not to mention that there is an increasing number of titles we never owned in print. How will new librarians know what we have?
So I’m on the horns of a dilemma. Print reference doesn’t make sense anymore. Returning to those restrictions is not the answer. Yet I have an increasingly difficult time paying top dollar for ebooks that possibly nobody will ever see and that not even my colleagues will be able to bring to mind.
Alex Rolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Technical Services Librarian/System Administrator, Murdock Learning Resource Center, George Fox University Libraries, Newberg, OR. He writes at therolfeblog.blogspot.com.