I had an interesting experience the other day—a kind of combination retro-on-retro-on-retro event. I attended a webinar on the ALA Guide to Reference (guidetoreference.org). Back in the day, you could tell a librarian’s age by how he or she referred to this reference librarian’s bible. It dates me—biblically again—that it was Winchell’s when I met it first in library school, though the copy with which I served my term as a traditional reference librarian was Sheehy’s. Now, editor after editor after editor later and morphed into a digital-only tool and dropping the word “Books” that appeared after “Reference” in my day, the latest editor and conductress of the webinar is Denise Bennett.
What was very apparent is that one thing hasn’t changed a whit: When you get into deep water as a working reference librarian, this little baby might be the only thing that can pull you to the safety of the shore. On the other hand, if you’re not in trouble, or if you’re too far gone to even realize how much trouble you’re in, you might forget your little friend even exists. Good it is. Google it ain’t. You’re just not going to use it very often. For one thing, if you use it to guide the growth of your reference collection, you won’t need it after that collection has matured. You’ll have to wait until your institution expands into a new area of interest, at which point you may have to beef up that reference collection. Actually, however, the new online version of the source offers a valuable and inexpensive alternative strategy for those sudden rushes of unusual topics. It connects to OCLC’s WorldCat feature, Find in a Library. The feature lists libraries holding, in this case, reference titles in order of closest to furthest library. Oh. Perhaps I should mention that Google Books also uses the feature. Nonetheless, it’s nice to know the name of the library that has something you could use, especially if you have a copy of the American Library Directory, which might give you the name and number of the librarian you could call to check out a short listing or a quick fact. Reference questions rarely require interlibrary loans, just a pal at the desk will do.
Hmm. Now there’s an idea. Wouldn’t it be nice if this link feature from ALA’s tool to OCLC’s tool added the final step? If ALA and OCLC could pull in the information from American Library Directory, give you the contact information, maybe even the email of the target reference librarian from—well—the ALA membership rolls, then that last mile would be nicely carpeted and no problems.
For most users of this database, collection development would seem to be the primary goal. However, as an honest and authoritative source, some of the entries in the Guide are listed as out of print, though still valuable. That’s good to know. But unless you plan on raiding another library’s collection, using the Find in a Library as an aider and abettor, or hitting up a “midnight behind the coliseum” used book dealer, the chances of getting hold of venerable sources may be slim to none. At least that was my reaction when we reached that portion of the webinar, but then I began to see a bigger picture. Who else would want to know about reference sources? Who else needs to know about them? Reference source publishers, that’s who. If something has gone out of print and still attracts the interest of the leading reference mavens editing this publication, maybe someone should tell some publisher to get the title back into print, to line up an editor to create a new version. And now that we’re thinking about the needs of reference publishers, this new online service offers some forum communication features, e.g., Global Notes, that should be directed back to publishers automatically. In fact, the publishers should pay to support social networking communications between users to feed their need for background on their assets.
Speaking of assets, the ALA wants to promote this source and bring it back to its glory days when a copy sat on every library shelf, right? Well, how about using the publishers to get that promotion done for free. If the ALA issued an ALA Guide logo for attachment to all the reference publications included in its database, then whenever a catalog of offerings went out from a reference publisher, the logo would probably be displayed proudly on every appropriate entry. The publishers might even pay for customers to access the portion of the database that houses their tools, though ALA could insist that such open access apply to whole sections, not just one publisher’s material. Well, that might not work, but then again it’s something to think about.
And speaking of open access, a lot of entries in the Guide carry URLs, many not just the publisher contact, but right down to the document level. How hard would it be to apply a Google custom search engine to make those reference tools penetrable at a detailed fact retrieval level? One major publisher in particular comes to mind—the United States federal government. Infrastructure support for this level of reference content reaching out to all the web would seem a suitable task for ALA, being the type of action librarians want to see happen. How long before at least some of the information in more proprietary sources might sidle over into the light?
As I said at the beginning of this piece, it was a retro-on-retro experience. One current aspect of the product’s development struck me as ironic. They’re going back to print, kind of. Individual sections of the database, e.g., medical and health, sciences, etc., are being issued as ebooks with a print-on-demand option. Everything old is new again. Actually, if I were publishers, I think I’d concentrate my attention on getting every item in the database identified as to whether an electronic version exists. In fact, I might even try to lead the charge to get publishers who have not yet issued ebook versions of established texts to do so—or maybe they could just free up versions found in Google Books.
You know, come to think of it … well, you know. Anyway, it was an interesting morning.