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For Future Reference

March 13, 2018

A recent library listserv discussion took up the issue of replacing lost or outdated print reference works. Respondents to the thread recommended digital resources instead of books in print, defending their choice by pointing to the fact that students simply do not consult print sources anymore. While I do not question this logic, I do wonder if there is a way we might actually get more students to turn the pages of dictionaries or encyclopedias, almanacs or handbooks. Most of these volumes, after all, will remain on our shelves for the foreseeable future and efficiently directing students to surrogate or related digital options through a LibGuide, for example, comes with its own set of challenges.

Just how can we possibly do this? For inspiration, we might turn to museum curation, and the work already done by many of our colleagues in special collections departments.

DSM labelWhile nearly every library creates temporary displays featuring books from its collections, relatively few in my experience present these items with accompanying descriptions. In many cases, a book can be judged by its cover, or the context of the display itself. Often, however, much remains unsaid and the casual viewer of a display is left to deduce a lot about a book, often one locked behind glass. We provide even fewer clues, outside of the online catalog record, about the books that remain on our shelves and never make that rare appearance in a library display. At least when a book is in a display case its title page or, if featured on a new arrivals shelf, its glossy cover help tell something of its story. In the stacks, however, the endless array of spines say little about our books’ actual contents.

Consider again the reference collection. How might a number of strategically placed descriptive book labels potentially impact users? Could labels help students who would rather browse the reference collection than approach a librarian for suggestions or consult a paper or digital bibliography on a subject? Could labels serve as landmarks to help librarians direct students to selected titles? I am not certain, but I have a strong sense they might.

Routledge Encyclopedia of PhilosophyThere is an art to writing good museum labels and a certain investment of time is required of anyone who would do it well. One advantage for libraries is that labels placed near standard works of reference on the shelf may remain in place much longer than they would for the limited lifetime of a museum exhibition. Furthermore, many book publishers already produce succinct descriptions or bulleted contents of their titles, which might be easily paraphrased or directly quoted to save time.

Reference books can be singled out for a label based on several criteria. Subject librarians are likely already familiar with works helpful for the most common assignments on campus. Additional titles might be labeled when they have no electronic equivalent or are classics in their field.

Of course such readers’ advisory labels might be created for different reasons, and to somewhat different effect, in other sections of the library. For now, I am interested in reviving a few reference tomes. Watch out general collection! If this works, you are next.

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