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The Ebb and Flow of Reference Products
Volume 38, Number 4 - July/August 2014

Positive Developments

For many librarians and users, any loss in quality is offset by the ease of access (24/7 and from anywhere), added functionality, and possible instant updating of online sources. Some reference sources that began as a flat presentation of the print product have evolved into easy and rewarding online tools. Ulrich's ( now has a useful set of indexes, easy-open (and stay-open) tabs, quick links to publishers' websites, and hyperlinks to WorldCat and the institution's link resolver (Figure 3); it has also created the best icon ever in the referee shirt to denote journals with peer-reviewed articles (Figure 4). SciFinder evolved from an unusable CD-ROM scan of the print Chemical Abstracts—"But you all said you wanted it to work just like the print!"—into a database that supports chemical substructure searching and linkouts to chemical suppliers, among other features (Figure 5).

Dictionaries that take full advantage of the online medium include the Oxford English Dictionary ( (Figure 6), the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (, and the Grand Robert ( The Grove reference platform (; (Figure 7) supports well-designed products that combine formats and media in a user-friendly interface. Indexes, timelines, and subject guides are easy to find, and audio and video clips are incorporated in a manner impossible with print. News, FAQs, and user tips instantly respond to updates in the topic and to the needs of users.

Through tiered pricing, publishers can offer access to content at varied levels. offers monthly and 6-month memberships to individual users, with access to U.S., world, or World Explorer Plus options, as well as trial offers and free research guides. Funding a membership is way cheaper than funding travel to view printed documents. The Birds of North America Online ( is another example. Some quick lookup (ready-reference) content is freely available, such as the species list, which permits a casual user to match up common and scientific bird names, and the "news and updates" section. Complete access to text, photos, audio, and video requires a personal or institutional subscription. Paid members of the American Ornithologists' Union also receive full access. Librarians and truly interested users can determine if expending funds to acquire access to the complete content is warranted after examining the free segments.

Patron-driven acquisition models (PDAs and DDAs), consortial pricing, and availability across branches may offer content to more users. The ability to set up trial access to content to determine its suitability and value before committing to purchase is perhaps the best way for librarians to assess the quality and usefulness of online reference sources. Trials may prove unrealistic if those titles aren't added to the link resolver or catalog/discovery tool and therefore become less visible than committed titles to users.

Best Practices Wish List for Reference Publishers

Pricing options for titles: cherry picking vs. bundles—offer lots of options

Payment options: one-time (purchase) vs. annual (renewable or updating) pricing for all products

Useful and obvious limit buttons required—consult a small focus group

User-centered and user-tested design, including end users and librarians

Provide multiple platforms only if cross-indexed and cross-linked

Scanned PDFs must include added value, e.g., tables of contents, cross-references, human and machine indexing

No time lag between print and online availability

Licenser's choice of default display of "all content" vs. "my content"

Specialized/advanced features for librarians who require precision in order to get the most out of complex data in reference sources

The Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and other cooperative programs help assure the continuing availability of older, high-quality online sources. Libraries can then move print volumes to the stacks or withdraw them, provided the digitized versions offer appropriate indexing. Usage statistics can help determine which items to digitize next.

New items available and, more importantly, findable online include items formerly known as "grey literature" or "vertical file" material from organizations and associations, such as local brochures, statistical reports, and policy papers. Statistics produced by government agencies are much more findable in online form. And many charge-for-print products are now freely available online, such as the Kelley Blue Book ( and ThomasNet (, formerly the Thomas Register) thanks to backing by advertisers or perhaps the contribution of users' personal data.

New reference tools have been created as happy byproducts from nonreference digitized sources, such as Springer Exemplar ( (Figure 8), which creates a keyword-in-context view of all terms in all Springer publications, serving not as a dictionary but as a way for users to see how a term is used in the publisher's literature. Knovel ( (Figure 9, p. 51), an aggregator of sci-tech reference works from a range of publishers and societies, offers a "data search," interactivity with tables, graphs, and equations to facilitate data analysis, and the ability to download data from its sources. The BuildingGreen Suite ( (Figure 10, p. 51) collocates a variety of items, including in-depth articles, case studies, teaching resources, and a product directory, under one platform. A user can select one of these formats or search generally, and then, if desired, limit to articles, products, case studies, or blogs. The added value of this functionality argues for significant improvement in the quality of reference sources and in their findability online.

Crowdsourcing or user-contributed reference works can be managed online. These works are perhaps most successful in research fields in which community members know and trust each other. ChemSpider (, a free chemical structure database owned by the Royal Society of Chemistry, permits individuals to contribute and curate data collections. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( allows authors to submit private drafts for review by the editorial board and tracks all changes made. Find a Grave ( relies on 400,000 contributors to submit memorial data.

Sources Ceased

Some print favorites have ceased, as did the Rand McNally Commercial Atlas after 2010, creating angst among librarians and users when a trusted, go-to source is no longer updated. Eventually replacements are found, which may be better or worse (in terms of features and accuracy) than their predecessors. At one time, government publications seemed immune to the for-profit factors that ceased production of some tools. In the 21st-century budget climate, however, even icons such as the Statistical Abstract of the United States have proven unstable and their future unsure. CQ Press discontinued the online World Powerbase and refers users to a print directory, so the format fluidity works both ways.

Some of the best-loved free reference sites, such as Intute and BUBL LINK, no longer exist. When the funding runs out on grant-fueled products, developers generally try to pull the plug immediately. If users scream, the products may remain online either until the plug is pulled on the server or when the site becomes so obviously out-of-date that it needs to be put out of its misery.

Many directories are no longer being produced in print, and some online directories are only accessible to an organization's members. Other online directories require a subscription or registration to obtain basic information. Online directories are more likely to be accurate at a given moment than their print counterparts. But when online directories are continuously updated, without fixed counterparts, online or in print, potentially useful biographical and historical information is erased. If outdated information is not preserved in some format, some data will be lost forever or may require contacting the source agency in the hope that it has archived the data.

The topical bibliography as a print reference tool is virtually dead, but few are likely to mourn. Recent winning works of the Oberly Award for Bibliography in the Agricultural or Natural Sciences ( include databases. Enough libraries still seem to purchase Oxford University Press bibliographies online. Highly specialized bibliographies with annotations can still find a niche audience, but most users conduct their own searches in a database of their choosing.

The art of explaining to users that another source is just as good or will have to work as a replacement for a trusted source is a delicate one, especially when students have been referred to a now-ceased or out-priced or pulled-from-aggregator source by their instructors.

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Denise Beaubien Bennett is an engineering librarian at the University of Florida’s Marston Science Library. In her spare time, she serves as both the general editor of the Guide to Reference as well as the division editor for the Science-Technology-Medicine sections of the Guide.


Comments? Contact the editors at

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