Why Use Reference Books?

by Emily Hamstra

When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was M. C. Strong’s The Great Rock Discography. From The Great Rock Discography I learned how different bands were connected, which albums to listen to, and which albums and bands to skip. It was the age of dial-up internet, and I built a record collection using a reference book and my parents’ expert knowledge.

In instruction sessions I often teach undergraduate students about reference books. When I ask undergraduates what they think of when they hear the word “encyclopedia” they often say, “Wikipedia and World Book.” This gives me an opportunity to tell them about the fabulous world of subject encyclopedias. I explain not all encyclopedias provide us with general information like World Book does. So often in first-year classes students are just getting a grasp of a particular concept or topic for the first time. They don’t always need to use an article database to find the latest article on metaphysics. Sometimes what they really need is an encyclopedia article from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy on metaphysics explaining the main concepts, arguments, major scholars, books, and articles in the field. Just like I needed those foundational albums to start my record collection, students often need a subject encyclopedia to find the foundational elements of the topic they’re researching.

Mary’s post about library jargon (Speaking Our Users’ Language) reminded me of a discussion I had recently with my colleagues about the term “reference.” Do our users know what is in a “reference collection”? Should we call our reference collection “Encyclopedias and Dictionaries” instead? Or, should we do better to educate our users about what is in our reference collections? Whatever the case, we want our reference collections to be well used. We need to help our users better understand that the materials in these collections are not rudimentary places to start their research, but smart places to start.

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