Reference Books for the 21st Century

By Amy Wickner — January 17, 2013 8 min read
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I don’t think I’m alone among librarians in noticing that luck and accident are often involved in finding information online, no matter how well crafted the query or how well designed the finding aid. Serendipity and discovery play huge roles in research, and it’s how newer social media tools, especially those related to bookmarking or “curation,” generate a critical mass of users and user data quickly.

In reaction to my November post on information literacy and research skills, a friend asked what the differences might be between learning to use Google and learning to navigate the Dewey Decimal System. While mentioning Dewey can elicit eye-rolling (see Jessamyn West’s post on why this is not a good opening line with librarians), in this case I have my own ready answer: I believe searching and library use today have more to do with looking for information where it might be than with looking up information where it’s meant to be.

Where once reference librarians might have sent a student straight to the Dewey section or a reference book on a particular subject, these days they would be more likely to suggest a variety of resources—print and online—as well as ways to navigate them. Librarians make no implicit or explicit guarantee, in other words, that they’re directing students to all available material on the subject. The new role of reference services is to provide a quality starting point and the best possible tools, and to let student ingenuity and, yes, serendipity do the rest.

I was surprised to learn, through an archived Booklist webinar on twenty-first-century reference collections, that reference books and reference libraries predate reference librarians by over a century. According to David Tyckoson of the libraries at California State University, Fresno, the first reference librarians appeared in public libraries in the 1850s. Samuel Swett Green, a Massachusetts librarian and influential voice in the American public libraries movement, laid out fundamentals of the profession in an 1876 paper, “Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers” (excerpted here). Librarians’ contemporary emphasis on teaching information literacy thus represents the culmination of a centuries-long shift that began with a move from reference books to reference services.

In a post at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Lingua Franca blog, Ben Yagoda remembers when serendipity and discovery were the realm of print reference books, used bookstores, and libraries. He ponders the role of paper reference books in a time when crowdsourced online references like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary (just two of his examples) enjoy such popularity, concluding that they remain valuable as sources of “delight.”

The pleasures of printed and bound books matter a great deal to Yagoda. The kind of knowledge gleaned from physically flipping through reference books, he says, is as important for the accident, surprise, and beauty of its discovery as for its accuracy.

Donald Altschiller, a librarian at Boston University, published an essay in The Chronicle Review lamenting the decline of reference books, those tomes of painstakingly compiled and authoritative information on any or all subjects. Even more distressing, says Altschiller, is the dearth of reference-book authors themselves: polymaths with the right mix of patience, interest, and means to undertake such daunting projects.

He’s not alone in observing a shift in the ownership of knowledge. In Too Big To Know (briefly mentioned here), David Weinberger argues that knowledge and authority no longer reside solely with the kind of person who would once have written reference books. According to Weinberger, collective works monitored by expert individuals or institutions ensure that good information rises to the top, and better represent today’s information dynamics than do single-author works.

In Here Comes Everybody, his 2006 book on crowds and mass online social interaction, Clay Shirky argues that Wikipedia succeeds in part because a few individuals dedicated to accuracy and integrity can preserve collaborative projects from would-be saboteurs. Crowd dynamics, through peer pressure and other forces, help keep the site on-mission. Print reference books relied—and still rely—upon the personal integrity and dedication of their authors for quality and value. Shirky believes that collaboratively “written” online reference works can succeed through the same sense of authorial mission.

The field of traditional reference publishing is also moving away from single authorship. In an April 2012 conversation with Booklist, representatives of World Book described their print reference products as treading “the blurry line between reference and series nonfiction.” Their products—think individual encyclopedia articles fleshed out to book length—are designed to be shelved by topic in school libraries.

Paul Kobasa, World Book’s editor in chief, also pointed to evolving views of reference services and materials over two centuries of librarianship. Most recently, the American Association of School Librarians’ Standards for the 21st Century Learner (AASL, 2007) state, “Information literacy has progressed from the simple definition of using reference resources to find information. Multiple literacies, including digital, visual, textual, and technological, have now joined information literacy as crucial skills for this century.”

World Book is attempting to align with this standard by gradually phasing search functionality into its online reference products. While products for young children offer browsing only, databases for older students allow increasingly complex search-based navigation. The result is a tension between World Book’s desire to position itself as an authoritative and comprehensive reference service and the need to appeal to librarians and teachers who value critical thinking and information literacy instruction.

Single-author reference isn’t yet obsolete, though we may see subjects shift from the broad to the narrow, at least when it comes to youth reference. Consider the following reference titles recently reviewed in Booklist: Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of the 20th- and 21st-Century America; Historical Dictionary of Organized Labor; and Animal Grossapedia. These aren’t books anyone would write who wasn’t also passionate about the subject matter.

As far as generalists go, Kee Malesky, a longtime reference librarian at NPR, published her second collection of facts this past fall, a trivia almanac titled, Learn Something New Every Day. Her first book, All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge, was published in 2010.

Learn Something is all about the delight of discovery that Yagoda so highly values. Malesky exhorts her readers to develop a habit of lifelong learning, to find the interesting and noteworthy in the quotidian and extraordinary alike. She can sound downright chipper about this approach to living: “Life is infinitely interesting; being open to absorbing new information and knowledge wherever you find them means you’ll never be bored or jaded, your brain will be stimulated and will stay healthy, and you’ll be a more useful, content, and productive citizen.” The daily facts—365 of them plus a bonus fact for leap years—are a way to jumpstart readers’ progress toward curiosity and openness.

In both volumes, Malesky grapples with how best to define and delimit facts themselves: “Information can be hard to pin down and verify, and it’s difficult to tell a complete story in just a couple hundred words.” And, as she writes in All Facts Considered,

No individual fact can contain the whole story. The big picture requires many facts, plus nuance, opinion, and perspective. Any attempt to boil down or abstract a piece of information inherently implies that some (or many) details will be omitted. I apologize if, in trying to tell a fairly complete but necessarily truncated story, I have left out your favorite detail.

Malesky modeled the structure of All Facts Considered after the famed Enlightenment Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, compiled and edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. The Encyclopédie proposes a tripartite conception of how human knowledge evolves and is disseminated. Malesky quotes from d’Alembert’s explanation: “a general distribution of human knowledge into history, which is related to memory; into philosophy, which emanates from reason; and into poetry, which arises from imagination.”

A note on the word “trivia” as used above: While “trivia” may seem an uncharitable way to characterize the contents of what are undeniably delightful books, the Oxford English Dictionary (accessible online through many public libraries), offers conflicting definitions of the term. Are trivia “trifles,” “things of little consequence,” and “useless information”? Or are we to consider them, instead, the plural of “trivium,” a reference to grammar, rhetoric, and logic, the three fundamental liberal arts? The organizing principle behind All Facts Considered suggests the latter definition holds true.

While the slippery nature of facts once required years of patient, solitary, scholarly investigation to capture and contextualize information, the new model of collective reference and verification may offer a more effective way to acknowledge that facts are ever changing. Although too wide-ranging to be textbooks, Malesky’s books and others like them may have a place in the classroom, and could certainly belong in school libraries. Both titles have as much to teach about curiosity, exploration, and developing a sticky mind for facts as they do about the facts themselves.

Indeed, assembling a student reference work could be a valuable teaching and learning tool. A class might document the progress of a group research project, or build a wiki to house any new information for which no clear place can be found in the final product. Just as academic researchers maintain bibliographies and lists of citations, so students and teachers might accrete research aids and databases for their own benefit and that of future classes.

Can a dedicated group of students produce as well-researched and as conscientiously verified a reference compendium as a single “expert” would once have done? Whether or not you believe it to be possible, it’s likely that student-produced collections could speak directly to student needs, and provide valuable reference service in that way.

As print reference books shift from the encyclopedic to the quirky, teachers and librarians may find the time is right to encourage the inquiry, information gathering, and fact-checking involved in do-it-yourself reference writing. “Delight,” for students today, may have more to do with information seeking than with the joys of paper and print.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.