EDITOR'S GUIDE: General Reference Works


Charlotte Ford, Editor
Jo Bell Whitlatch, Editor

The General Reference Works division includes the following categories: Bibliography, Encyclopedias, Language Dictionaries, Periodicals, Newspapers, Government Publications, Dissertations, Biography, Genealogy, Library and Information Science, Other General Reference Works, The Web as Reference Tool, and Online General Reference Libraries. The scope of this division is the same as that generally covered in basic reference courses in library and information science programs, except for Geographical Sources, which is covered in the Social and Behavioral Sciences > Geography category of this Guide.

General reference works encompass all disciplines and provide a good starting point for many inquiries that do not have a narrow subject focus. Some general reference sources, such as bibliographies and periodical indexes, identify sources for which full text must be obtained elsewhere. A special class of general reference works, ready-reference sources, form the core of answering sources for who, what, when, where, and why questions—those questions that can be answered by a simple fact.

The Internet and the rapid growth of both free web sources and electronic subscription sources available through the Web has had a major impact on general reference services and sources. The number of reference questions asked in many academic libraries has fallen sharply over the past ten years (although numbers appear to be holding steady for public libraries).1,2 Many people first try to find information on the Web, using a search engine such as Google. Only when that strategy fails to satisfy their needs do some individuals ask reference librarians for assistance. Therefore, the reference questions that librarians are receiving, although diminished in number in some settings, may be more challenging. Questions not easily answered by the Web, such as how to find scholarly resources for an academic paper, are still common—provided the faculty member making the assignment requires the use of these resources. Reference librarians in both academic and public libraries do find that electronic resources can provide answers to most of the queries they receive, and that their extensive collections of print reference resources are less frequently used in assisting users in finding answers. Queries coming over a virtual reference system, via chat or e-mail, are even more likely to be answered by electronic sources, because these are much more available to librarians who often are not answering queries with large printed reference collections at their fingertips. However, valuable information remains accessible primarily through print resources; in the shifting world of reference there is still a place for print.

Various types of general reference sources are undergoing different transitions. In the case of bibliographies, the printed bibliography is disappearing rapidly. Online catalogs, particularly union catalogs, such as WorldCat, which include holdings from a wide variety of libraries, are more up-to-date than a printed bibliographical listing could ever be. Many current catalog records also include summaries of contents, providing a richer source of information than the traditional printed bibliography with a simple citation listing. Some printed bibliographical tools, such as Early English Books (see entry AA679 in the 11th edition of the Guide), in going electronic have transformed from a bibliography to a full-text database. Likewise, the bibliographic tools providing access to dissertations have evolved dramatically, with web-based catalogs and indexes to theses edging out traditional printed bibliographies, and full-text databases of electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) on the rise.

This is similar to the trend in periodicals, where indexes and abstracts are moving rapidly to full text or partial full text and thus, serve both as an index and abstracting service and a full-text resource. Newspapers have also undergone drastic changes since the 11th edition of the Guide; a massive push toward online provision of full text (both through newspaper websites and subscription databases), along with the digitization of older newspaper material, has forever changed the landscape for researchers. Online multimedia options have also blurred the boundaries between news sources, making the newspaper less of a distinct genre than it once was. Despite these changes, much historical newspaper research still requires the use of older resources, and many newspaper back-files will remain available only in microform or paper formats for the foreseeable future.

Encyclopedias have greatly diminished in number, with only a few of the major general encyclopedias being published in print. Surviving encyclopedia publishers have generally provided some free content on the Web and offer the full content through electronic subscription. Another interesting phenomenon is Wikipedia, the collaboratively edited free encyclopedia on the Web. Because Google is a first-choice search engine and Wikipedia is fully indexed in Google, people are much more likely to use this encyclopedia as a source rather than the less-easily accessible/findable subscription encyclopedias. Reference sources in the field of library and information science, which have traditionally been published in printed form, are also rapidly transforming into electronic products. An additional driving force is the growth of distance education courses that make convenient and easy access to electronic sources essential for students, who are often far from a major library and working part or full time.

Some language dictionaries (most notably the Oxford English Dictionary) have also moved online, relieving users of the need to heft heavy tomes and offering them options to hear pronunciation, look up the latest expressions, and, in some cases, suggest new entries. There are also a number of freely available online dictionaries that do not have readily identifiable print equivalents, as well as web-based dictionaries and translation sites capable of handling queries in multiple languages. Nevertheless, the print dictionary remains extremely useful, both as a handy, portable guide to contemporary language and/or translation, and as a record of the history of a language.

Biographical and genealogical reference have been revolutionized by online indexing tools such as Biography and Genealogy Master Index and online full-text sources, including World Biographical Information System and Biography Resource Center. For biography, initial searching is usually electronic, but the online sources often lead to still-valuable printed sources. Reference sources have grown tremendously in biography and genealogy. In biography, online sources frequently supplement rather than replace printed resources, whereas in genealogy, online sources more frequently replace printed resources. The primary areas in genealogy where print is still important are research manuals, heraldry, and onomastics. In the future, new electronic biographical and genealogical sources and digitalized versions of old print sources will become increasingly important.

Government publication reference sources have changed immensely in recent years. The U.S. government's transition to a "completely electronic depository library program," announced in 1995, led to a wholesale online migration of U.S. documents and the development of many new, freely available reference tools supporting bibliographic control and access to these materials. Access to official information of governments outside of the United States, as well as the information produced by organizations such as the United Nations or the Organization of American States, has also been greatly facilitated by the Internet. However, some print resources in this area remain important for historic purposes.

As in the 11th edition, the category Other General Reference Works includes a delightful collection of sources related to associations, holidays, etiquette, prizes and awards, weights and measures, quotations, and so forth. Both print and online resources remain important for answering questions in these areas, and both are well represented here.

This edition of the Guide also includes two completely new general reference categories. The Web as Reference Tool, is intended to highlight the true potential of the Web as a tool for creating and using new types of reference sources. As such, it includes resources with dynamic content that are authored automatically or by a myriad of contributors and that enable multiple pathways to information, including search engines; blogs and feeds; podcasts and video; social networking and wikis; open source; sources of news; and localized searching tools. Online General Reference Libraries includes annotated entries for some of the major formal efforts to pull together online reference sources into useful, cross-searchable collections with value-added features (such as Credo Reference and the Gale Virtual Reference Library), as well as records for some of the main web portals to online reference sources.

The changes in general reference services and sources require an increasing emphasis on evaluating sources and conducting effective reference interviews. Source evaluation is particularly important for sources on the free Web, which are being frequently consulted to meet information needs and will continue to be. For source evaluation, excellent resources include the Internet Public Library Collection Policy (http://www.ipl.org/div/about/colpol.html), the Internet Scout Project Selection Criteria (http://scout.wisc.edu/Reports/selection.php), and the Librarians' Internet Index Selection Criteria (http://lii.org/search/file/pubcriteria/). The concepts of availability, authority, accuracy/credibility, and updating/information maintenance appear on all of the lists. Reputable reference sources, in their print or electronic versions, can play a valuable role in helping librarians evaluate the quality of the information in a free web source where the authority is questionable. On the other hand, even scholarly reference sources become out of date; for example, a well-respected but dated reference source might not be a first choice to establish the accuracy of a contemporary Wikipedia article.

Effective reference interview practices will assist librarians in providing excellent services using the most appropriate sources. Often a combination of printed and electronic resources will still provide the best information. Using more than one source is also associated with high-quality reference service (see http://worep.library.kent.edu/bibliography.html). With the combination of effective reference practices and ease of locating the most appropriate sources, will the "55 percent rule" no longer apply to reference?3 One of the best self-assessment/evaluation tools available to all practitioners is simply to remember to ask each person, "Does this fully answer your question?" or "Is there any other information you need?" And, 10–20 percent of the time, practitioners will find out that indeed the person does want or need yet more information from another reference source! In our age of abundant information, one of the great challenges faced by the reference librarian is how to provide library users with access to high-quality, appropriate information in ways that respond to their needs, without overwhelming them—making optimal use of the tools at hand to "save the time of the reader."4

1Association of Research Libraries, ARL statistics (1995-2005). Available at http://www.arl.org/stats/annualsurveys/arlstats/index.shtml.
2National Center for Education Statistics, Public libraries in the United States (FY 1995-2005 editions). Available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/getpubcats.asp?sid=041#052.
3P. Hernon and C.R. McClure, "Unobtrusive reference testing: The 55 percent rule," Library journal 111, no. 7 (1986): 37-41.
4S.R. Ranganathan, The five laws of library science. (Madras, India: Madras Library Association; London: Edward Goldston, 1931). Available online at the dLIST archive: http://dlist.sir.arizona.edu/1220/.