Traditional libraries face challenges to their very existence. Traditional library reference publishers struggle to retain their customers. Librarians strive to prove to their management and their clients that there is life—and knowledge—beyond Google. The library patrons who follow their librarians’ advice find themselves enmeshed in legacy databases with unfamiliar search procedures, unknown fielded content, and minimal customer support in any form. The cumulative effect of these failures leads librarians to cringe at the sight of usage statistics placed next to costs and—worst of all—the reference sources eroding in quality as their revenue shrinks.
And in the midst of all this dismal performance, the American Library Association has shut down its Guide to Reference Sources, both in print and online. Two years ago, in the July/August 2014 issue of Online Searcher, I wrote an editorial saluting the latest version of the Guide as it went into its database format (infotoday.com/OnlineSearcher/Articles/Searchers-Voice/If-Twere-I--97962.shtml) and offering a slew of suggestions for improving and building upon it. Hmph! Oddly enough, burial ceremonies were not among the suggestions.
A conversation with one of the senior editors of the Guide informed me that one obvious improvement—an improvement that would have provided another source of revenue to the budget-conscious publisher—was rejected out of hand. Namely, advertising! While advertising in a print publication would have diminished the authoritative look of the publication, advertising online should have been a no-brainer, in my less-than-humble opinion. In fact, advertising from reference publishers would constitute what I call “a utility ad.” Google Books, for example, while not usually carrying ads, does include links to publishers of books and leading suppliers such as Alibris for buying used books and OCLC’s Find in a Library link for borrowing books. This is the kind of ad that a user looks forward to seeing. It offers the potential to move from the discovery or “find” stage to the acquisition or “fetch” stage, completing the loop. In the case of reference sources, a Find in a Library connection could locate reference tools and a link to library websites, beginning the completion of the loop. Of course, a connection to the library offering access to a source identifying key reference sources should be obvious too.
But that’s only the beginning. What about complete, thorough reviews, not just short coverage as in the dead Guide? What about building on those reviews—adding discussions of features, how-to search examples, links to customer support, forums for asking questions of other users and knowledgeable parties? What about suggestion lists for related databases, maybe even charts comparing their features or coverages? What about a stamp of approval, a rating system that could assist librarians in ordering the best for their clients?
Well, as it happens, some of that is on the way. Choice magazine, a review publication from ALA’s ACRL Division (ala.org/acrl/choice/home; choicereviews.org), is joining with The Charleston Advisor (charlestonco.com), producer of lengthy and rated reference products, to create a new helpful database. The announcement is scheduled for ALA’s 2016 Annual conference. (Fear not! I have already forwarded my 2014 editorial to the Charleston folks, and they are distributing it among their designers. A draft of this editorial will follow.) But the Charleston people are very open-minded and earnest in their desire to serve as many librarians and libraries and library patrons as possible. The new online file’s working title is CCA: Choice Charleston Advisor. They plan to have a new user interface, extensive search and retrieval functionality, better navigation, and more frequent updating. They will also have a “competitive analysis” section and “on-the-fly” database comparisons. This should really help in collection development. If they added a feature for finding libraries or information brokers willing to conduct searches for users or maybe a special badge of honor for publishers offering one-time or short-term access for a reasonable fee, well, that would be more like it!!
One problem. Charleston plans to update only 400 of its existing reviews for the initial launch. Choice has close to a quarter-million book reviews going into a new database format, but these cover far more than reference tools. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was only the beginning? I am co-editor of a review newsletter called The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, published by Information Today, Inc. Wouldn’t it be great if we could add that content—and the content of other respected review sources?
Of course, one would expect that the tens of thousands of entries from the dead Guide to Reference Sources would be the first candidate for expanding coverage. After all, ALA owns that content—lock, stock, and barrel. If you want to see what Charleston would be dealing with, take a look at wayback.archive-it.org/6087/20160223151512/http:/www.guidetoreference.org/HomePage.aspx. If you want to contribute suggestions to the new CCA database, contact Rebecca Lenzini, leader of The Charleston Company, 6180 E. Warren Ave., Denver, CO 80222; firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s waiting for your call.
One other good note. Choice already has ads in its online content. Whew!
By the way, since this column does seem to offer a lot of needed—if not wanted—advice to the leading professional association for librarians, here’s an old recommendation resuscitated. GET A DOT-LIB!!!! Sorry, didn’t mean to shout, but really!