The Return of the Guide to Reference (Books)

By Zabel, Diane | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Return of the Guide to Reference (Books)


Zabel, Diane, Reference & User Services Quarterly


If you are a librarian of my generation, you probably fondly refer to the Guide to Reference Books as "Sheehy." Younger librarians most likely refer to it as "Balay." When Robert H. Kieft assumed the daunting role of general editor of the new edition of the Guide, reference librarianship was in transition, moving from print to online. As a result of this migration, the Guide too has transformed in format and purpose. Read on to find out how the new edition of the Guide has been developed to enhance its role as a teaching and training tool.--Editor

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for this journal called "When Reference Works Are Not Books: The New Edition of the Guide to Reference Books." (1) It appeared in a column called "Off the Shelf and Onto the Web," which ran from volume 38, number 1 (1997) to volume 42, number 1 (2002). In it I discussed early plans for the new edition of the American Library Association's (ALA) Guide to Reference Books, now called Guide to Reference. So much has happened since then, and so many trends we saw early in this decade have gathered momentum, that I would like in this editorial to discuss more recent thinking about the Guide and its future. (2)

At the very least, since I wrote that column in 2002, the stream of works moving from the shelf to the Web has become a flood as publishers and aggregators for the reference market produce ever more works online and, outside the reference library proper, as Google Book Search, Open Content Alliance, and other projects daily add thousands of titles to the universally searchable online library. If, even as late as 2002, we doubted where things were going, it now goes without saying that we are living on the far side of an information revolution that began when the Mosaic browser encouraged the commercial and public development of the Web in the mid-1990s.

We have seen the "book box" library become the "search box" library almost overnight as the Web and search have become, respectively, a preferred medium for information publication and access and a model for expectations of doing research. Mass digitization, search algorithms, and social or populist information distribution channels and forms of knowledge production are coming to dominate how we think about information, and we may well be on the verge of an information publishing world where sources not on the Web will not only be hard to find but may be presumed not to exist.

That's another way of saying we live in the most exciting time for librarianship since the giants of the Dewey generation walked the earth. Collections, publishing, modes of service and access, the relationships among libraries, and the library's role in society as a collecting institution are all in process of reinvention. If nothing else, recent experience with users in the online environment has confirmed that the library has never been about books, recordings, and pages of census information, but about how people interact with texts, images, data, and sounds and how they take these into their own thinking and work.

The service edifice built by reference librarians beginning in the late nineteenth century does not so much threaten to collapse as to be reborn in ways that we are still groping to discern. Librarians are sketching the new reference architecture by harnessing the power of the Web; they are defining new roles, services, communication channels, and user relationships online and are helping design interfaces and guidance for online users. As more users, at least in the academic world, live and work more on the Web, reference departments around the country are weeding their print collections or sending them to the stacks or storage while building ever larger systems to track and give access to their electronic resources.

For the new edition of the Guide, we have addressed some major challenges, big questions about how to compile for the Web a source that was created in and for a world of print collections, physical interfaces (service desks and books on shelves), and a "linear" research model. …

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