This article continues my previous attempt to define reference content (see What is reference?)
I’ve heard on more than one occasion that “reference”—the word itself—has become meaningless in the world of publishing and librarianship and should simply be replaced with “information.” After all, the word “information” is more in line with the thinking of today’s students and lay researchers. Which explains, at least in the case of my local library here in New York, why the sign above what used to be “The Reference Desk” has long been replaced with a sign that says “Information.”Since the brave new world we inhabit challenges us to re-define research with each passing decade, this journey of discovery we call “reference” (or research) means different things today than it did at the turn of the century. Students no longer look things up and walk away. They expect to be engaged during their research. If they are learning a foreign language, they want to hear how a word is spoken by a native. If they don’t know the meaning of a word, they want to get the translation by simply placing a cursor over it. If they are studying a poem, they want to be able to hear it read to them the way it would be read in a literature class. If they are studying a war, they want to see pictures and even videos of battlefields.
All of this confirms that reference sources of today no longer resemble reference sources of yesterday. The more I consider it, the more I am convinced that the word “reference” is a classic among other words tossed around in the publishing (and library) industry that have lost their original meaning. Take “nonfiction,” for example. I am not familiar with the origin of the word, and I can only guess how long it’s been around, but the same industry that no longer likes the word “reference” has long been engaging in the habit of defining books that are “not fiction” as nonfiction. We have in the last several decades witnessed a remarkable proliferation of all sorts of “other than fiction” genres, yet we are still content to refer to them generally as “nonfiction.”
Bottom line: reference content, like all content, changes over time. It expands and grows. But unlike fiction and other creative forms of writing, where the trends are usually set by the publisher (or author), reference is all about following trends. Which is probably why it resists becoming obsolete. Reference is about responding to user demands. At its most creative, reference content challenges user expectations by giving them more than expected, even at the cost of temporary failure (more on this later).
So, to conclude, reference sources include all products that aid library patrons in their research. Some are produced by traditional publishers; others are produced by companies amassing content from all over and re-distributing it in a new format; and some are designed to serve as tools to help patrons and librarians locate the content across products and libraries.
Reference products come in different containers, but they all continue to evolve (with varying degrees of success) alongside technological advances and research habits.
They include, but are not limited to:
- traditional multi-volume A-Z encyclopedias
- electronic versions of traditional encyclopedias
- single-volume, authored scholarly treatments of a variety of subjects
- encyclopedias with chronological arrangement
- journals and collections of journals
- research guides
- edited collections of essays centered around a topic
- subject-specific digital resources by single publishers
- general databases
- bibliographic sources
- ebook platforms (by single or multiple publishers)
- discovery tools
- open access reference works
- freely available web sites