Sunday, July 24, 2011


Reference Material

The world of school libraries and publishing has moved away from such concepts and, in terms of material on the web, the term ‘reference work’ is now as redundant as is the idea of ‘borrowing’.

James Herring contends that reference work is a now as redundant as is the idea of of "borrowing". On the surface this seems a somewhat provocative statement. I had students ask for the encyclopedias the other day. I must admit that I was surprised that they weren't using on-line sources to find the information. I had dismantled the stack that used to contain all the reference books and shifted the majority of them so that they were "inter-shelved". Atlases, dictionaries and a couple of sets of encyclopedias all got their own trolley. I felt somewhat vindicated when the students wheeled the encyclopedias over to the desks they were working at. I had the idea of taking "the mountain to Mohamed" and it actually worked. Yay for me!

should we abandon the idea of ‘reference material’ altogether? Or should the term be kept only for non-borrowable print resources in the library?

I suppose I am conservative by nature, and I do struggle with the concept of abandoning the idea of "reference material" altogether. If we had a black out - the students could still find information with the print resources. And for some inexplicable reason, these students wanted the print version. That being said, I am reluctant to spend the precious and limited library budget on replacing the ever 'out-dated' reference books. One particularly pushy World Book seller would love to see me fork out nearly nearly half of my budget on the "latest" versions of these American-centric publications. Don't get me wrong, they have their place, but I think it might now be becoming a place in the basket of "diminishing returns".

So the term non-borrowable print resources does seem to be more specific and relevant to what is the purpose of the these materials. However, the concept of referring to something - using a reference book - is an important concept which could somehow get lost if you more to what feels like a more politically correct term. Even though it isn't really politically correct - it is just trying to be more clear and descriptive of the practice in the library. So again, I am seem to be erring on the side of keeping the term "reference material". Or should I get with the program?

Now if you take the idea that a reference material should one in which the information should be found quickly - often the beauty of these books before the Internet- a good one stop shop, alphabetised source which could give you clear, succinct information on a topic.
According to wikipedia A reference work is a compendium of information, usually of a specific type, compiled for ease of reference. That is, the information is intended to be quickly found when needed.

And that is EXACTLY what looking up wikipedia does - in a nanosecond - compared to hauling a book off the shelf, turning pages, working out the alphabetical system and finding correct page. There is no hyperlinks to related articles which take you STRAIGHT THERE. Instead you might have to haul another heavy tome off the shelf and go through the same "laborious" process. I know which method the students prefer. And I would too if I was time poor or stressed out by so many assignments. But calling these materials the "non-borrowable print resources" may make the concept of citing, attributing and "referencing sources" that little bit harder. I think that the 21c learner can cope with the "old" and the "new" quite easily. I understand that the accepted practice is so entirely different from that of last centuries, but I don't think the art of look up reference books should be lost.

Students should be aware that before wikipedia - this is what an encyclopedia looked like. And the differences - print was inflexible, finite, out of date as soon as it was printed, authoritative writers usually academics and peer reviewed in some cases. In comparison the on-line 21c web 2.0 iteration of the encyclopedia is flexible, infinite, collaborative, constantly updating, everyone contributes their expertise - but can be vandalised and at times not as authoritative.

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