Magazine article American Libraries

Outstanding Reference Sources: The 1997 Selection of New Titles

Magazine article American Libraries

Outstanding Reference Sources: The 1997 Selection of New Titles

Article excerpt


Forty years ago, as Pan American launched its first jet service to Europe and American Express began a commercial revolution by introducing credit cards, a small group in ALA's Reference Services Division, as it was then called, began an effort to aid America's cash-strapped libraries. A committee under the leadership of Helen M. Focke, professor of librarianship at Western Reserve University, was charged with recommending a list of new and outstanding reference sources that would meet the needs of small and medium-sized libraries. This year marks the 40th appearance of the renamed Reference and User Services Association's annual recommendations of distinguished reference works and the 15th appearance of the list in American Libraries.

In that time span, the world has witnessed innovations far greater than hula hoops or Ford Thunderbirds. Not the least important has been the phenomenal expansion of American libraries in size, numbers, and in the services they offer. Computers and automation may have caused as much trauma as the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, but they have tremendously improved the cataloging and management of collections. Those collections changed radically with the introduction of a variety of new media, adding everything from rock and roll to Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Most recently, the telecommunications revolution and the Internet have brought fundamental shifts in our approaches to providing access to information.

In contrast, the approach the Reference Sources Committee has taken to meeting its charge has changed little. The individual members of the committee are assigned subject areas to review. Throughout the year the members scan catalogs, collect reviews, and examine and evaluate hundreds of new reference publications. They log scores of hours visiting libraries, bookstores, Web sites, and publishers' exhibits in order to see new resources. A month or so before ALA's Mid-winter Meeting, the members begin to nominate titles for the entire committee to examine, and a more intensive review process begins. The process culminates in grueling meetings at Midwinter, where the committee considers each nominated title individually and selects the final list.

Two constants have attended the work of the Reference Sources Committee. The budgetary constraints that inspired the creation of the annual list in 1958 continue to affect all libraries and give us much of our reason for being. More importantly, many publishers continue to commit tremendous resources to producing reference sources of the highest quality. In 40 years, the committee has honored more than 2,000 titles as outstanding reference sources. The list that follows demonstrates that the commitment on the part of publishers is as strong today as it was 40 years ago. Many of the titles represented here are the products of years of planning and investment long before the first page was printed. All demonstrate a commitment to quality and innovation and an attentiveness of the publishing world to the needs of the library public.


Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews and others. 896p. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 (0-19-506510-7), $55.

A welcome addition to the growing number of titles focusing on the African-American literary experience, this volume follows the format of other Oxford companions. It is broad in scope, including entries on education, humor, history, folklore, stereotypes, and funeral and mourning customs. The largest number of entries are devoted to authors and conclude with brief bibliographies. Plot summaries and character sketches as well as commentary on important speeches are included. Useful cross-references abound. Most entries are written by faculty members; other specialists and affiliations are listed at the beginning of the book. …

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