The more I learn about reference the more I realize it is impossible to make grand generalizations. I think the same can be said of libraries as well, but that wasn’t necessarily the focus of class, so I will attempt to not digress. Generalizations seem to be a bit rampant when it comes to the conception of the reference service. By now we are all familiar with the big imposing desk, the librarian who points and says “over there”, and a myriad of other stereotypes. While I do not hold these particularly iconic, albeit false, images of the reference librarian, it seems I did hold a similar set of fallacious conceptions. Reference books, the main focus of our last class in Hatcher, rather were the object of my misconception. Since the first day they took us to the library back in elementary school, reference books were presented to me as encyclopedias. First, the fun, colorful, picture filled children’s versions were laid before us as the place to find a quick snippet of information. Even after I graduated to the less colorful, infinitely less fun, and less animated imagery of Encyclopedia Brittanica, I still held the misconception that they (and dictionaries) were the only reference sources on the planet.
And I suppose that I held this limited view of reference until I stepped into our first class just a few weeks ago. Reference, a noun, a book you looked at when you needed to quickly know a little bit about something. Stepping into the library last week and cycling around the tables quickly changed that preconception. Much like I am letting go of my generalized idea of reference librarianship, I am expanding my knowledge of reference sources beyond the stereotypical encyclopedias and dictionaries. I gained a lot of knowledge in a short time and am still processing through a lot of it; separating indices from genealogical sources and more subject specific encyclopedias and dictionaries. The Encyclopedia Brittanica is not the only encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are not limited to a broad range of subject matter and seven volumes. Case in point, the Historical Dictionary of Terrorism. It is a single volume with entries limited to a very specific subject matter. Who knew? And who still doesn’t know? Is it part of the reference librarians job to make these resources more well known? And how in the world did I go through my entire education thinking that only two reference sources existed?
Those questions aside, there is one other generalization I noticed. It is not limited to reference books, but for the purposes of this post we will be focusing on them. There seems to be an assumption that print sources are intrinsically inferior to printed reference materials. I can’t say that all reference books is print are relevant. In the case of a book consisting entirely of names in an index format, it does not seem necessary to print additional editions of regularly. This seems especially true when it is much easier to update such things online. However, I cannot simply assume that all online databases are superior to print. Many of the online databases were difficult to navigate. If you didn’t know what you were doing or exactly what you were looking for, you were likely to get very frustrated rather quickly; it seemed a bit futile. The corresponding book, however, generally possessed a user’s manual of some kind on the first page that showed you how to use the resource effectively. Additionally, it is much easier to skim through a reference book (versus an online database) when you do not have a very specific query in mind. Simply find a book on the subject of interest, open it up, read the user’s manual, check the appendix, or skim through to find various articles of interest and slowly build up your knowledge. In an online database, it is difficult when your search term is too general and you end up with a lot of information to sort through that is not necessarily related to what you actually want to find.
In summary, I learned much about the error of over generalization. Reference, from the librarian to their books, seems to form very subtle, yet distinct, variations that defy generalizations. Needs vary by community, resources can be limited by technology, and the material by subject. It is as false to say all online databases are superior to print sources as it is to say that the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Oxford English Dictionary are the only to reference books. It will be interesting to see how these subtle variations develop across different communities with different need and even how their function shifts from user to user.