March 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What Is the Future of Reference?

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From the left (left image): Rocco Staino; Barbara Genco, Library Journal’s manager of special projects; and Christopher Harris. From the left (right image):Jon Gregory, Matt Andros, Roger Rosen, Diana McDermott, and Geraldine Curran. Photographs by Sean McGinty.

The world of reference is moving at warp speed these days. Public library patrons are used to Wikipedia and expect the same convenience when it comes to library resources. And in many school libraries, budget crunches, technology issues, and Common Core standards have made librarians’ jobs even more, shall we say, exciting. Wouldn’t you love to sit down with some of the world’s leading reference publishers and say, “Hey, wait a second! This is what we need you to do to make our libraries better”?

Well, here’s the next best thing. The following conversation offers an abridged, fly-on-the-wall view of SLJ’s gathering of publishers, aggregators, and, yes, librarians at the American Library Association’s January midwinter meeting in Dallas. Our goal? To talk about the latest trends and issues in reference materials for school and public libraries. A broad mandate, to be sure, but one that was ably corralled by our quick-thinking moderators, Christopher Harris, of New York’s Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, and Wendy Stephens, of New Market, Alabama’s Buckhorn High School. The duo, both librarians and SLJ contributors, led a spirited discussion of the merits of print vs. digital learning, the impact of those Common Core guidelines on publishers’ plans, and other timely and vexing topics.

Christopher Harris: What are schools looking for these days?

Wendy Stephens: One of our databases had a lovely area where all of these social issues, topics, were broken down. It was the best interface for selling databases to my students and teachers because in one moment they could see what was most applicable to the topic that they were working on. They didn’t even have to type anything.

Rocco Staino (SLJ contributing editor): Schools that have AP courses need quality information that’s very expensive to subscribe to for the entire year. But let’s say we only need access for the month of April. I think temporary or periodic access to expensive resources is something that libraries are open to.

Harris: Let’s be honest, that’s what they’re doing with trials anyway. Here’s a chance to monetize that. All the studies show that people pirate music because there’s no easy, cost-effective way to access it. If you make it easy and cost effective, they buy it instead because pirating it is a pain. But now there are new pricing models, or maybe we could go back to old-school consortia pricing. One library needs the database in March and another one in April, and one of them’s doing it at 8:30 in the morning, one of them’s doing it at 2:30 in the afternoon. Can we buy seats, and spread some of the cost out?

Jon Gregory (vice president of regional sales, World Book): But one of the first questions that we’re asked by our new subscribers is, “This isn’t seats, is it?”

Rick Lumsden (executive director of institutional sales, Britannica Digital Learning): We’re very flexible. If somebody says, “I’ve got money for two months,” I can switch them on and off for two months. Going the other direction, when money runs out, digital content goes away. We have a lot of people who say, “I’ve got the money now. I’m going to subscribe for five years, so that I know it’s there.” There are always creative solutions.

Staino: But in some states, you can’t do that.

Lumsden: Still, there’s a lot of flexibility with digital content. I’m not really sure our customers know that, but they shouldn’t be shy about asking.

Harris: There might be opportunities if you build modular things around the large curricular areas.

Gregory: That’s absolutely where we’re headed, and I know you all are doing the same thing.

Staino: AP courses are standard throughout the country, so everyone who has an American history AP course is doing the same thing and needs that material.

Gregory: So we create a database that should cover nine or 12 months’ worth of curriculum and price it knowing how much things will be used. But the problem is that it has to be there the whole time so the teachers can be trained. And you have students who are trying to catch up on the remedial side or who come in late to the game, and if access has just been turned off, it’s a problem.

Diana McDermott (director of marketing and sales, M. E. Sharpe): I also work on the academic side and the push is even more urgent there in terms of libraries wanting to pay only for what is used. But it’s difficult for a small publisher to invest in new products without having a firmer grasp on what the revenue might be.

Because we were late in the game and wanted to provide as much flexibility as possible, we set up a one-time purchase for digital. We thought that might be an incentive for libraries, as well, because they could budget it when it worked best. So many libraries—I would guess most of them—have access through statewide consortia to these larger databases and encyclopedias. We had to explain how ours could be looked at as a one-time book purchase. And we’ve been successful with that.

Stephens: Is that sustainable in the long term? I worry about the infrastructure required to maintain that, whether materials sold that way will continue to be available to us.

McDermott: Our costs are not as huge as some other databases, and we still publish print. We’re not sure how long we can financially sustain that, though we like to make print available and have librarians who still want it.

Roger Rosen (CEO of Rosen Publishing): With an outright purchase, does a library have access to all your updates?

Stephens: I think if [publishers are] not updating, they just have to make that new print edition so dynamic and so different that libraries will want to buy it to get the electronic, or get the electronic only.

From the left: Diana McDermott and Geraldine Curran;
Henrietta Thornton-Verma and Rocco Staino; Rick Lumsden.

Harris: We need a mathematician and an economist to help us, because we do these things by gut. Maybe I buy one copy of the ebook, and I get to use it with one student—or five-to-one, or 10-to-one, or X-to-one. What’s the value of X that ceases to be statistically different from unlimited, simultaneous access?

Stephens: In the school environment, I would say it’s a class, or in a district it may be a class per school.

Stephens: Will there be a greater emphasis on embedding images and video?

Rosen: Yes, so long as it truly advances the content and is substantively useful in terms of access that goes way beyond the book, and provides a wealth of primary-source documents, historic coverage of an event, or audio recordings of speeches or of poets reading their own work. That’s amazing fire power.

One of the things we’re looking at is how copyright-friendly material is embedded within what we’re creating so that they can use it, do their mash-ups, use 21st-century transliteracy modes to be ever more capable producers, and have a sense of ownership about their learning.

Geraldine Curran (marketing specialist, Scholastic): We feel that our TrueFlix online material has enhanced a longstanding product that many librarians enjoyed in print. It’s been called not just an ebook, but a digital learning tool. It was nice to hear people like yourselves call it that.

Stephens: How do you create an interface that works on a mobile device and has the features of a full-fledged database?

Gregory: That’s a real challenge, and not just on the publishers’ and aggregators’ side. It’s because of different formats. Apple doesn’t work with Flash, for example. And by the time you feel like you have it all together, the rules change on how to make material robust and include the videos, the pictures, and all that textual content. We get caught up in the idea that if it’s digital, it’s better, but we still have students who learn better using print. If we’re going to look out for learners, not just try to be 21st century, we have to understand that online is just a delivery method.

Stephens: As many lovely things that you can do within the databases—send the articles to yourself, formulate the citation, download—a lot of kids in my school don’t have access to home computing. It’s not necessarily even a financial issue. Part of the area that I work in is very rural, and they’re using dial-up or satellite.

Gregory: And the more robust we make something, the harder it is for those in rural areas to access.

Stephens: Exactly, and all the different options are so confusing sometimes. If you try to look at a full-fledged database on a mobile device, it’s one of the most frustrating experiences.

Lumsden: A real challenge right now for publishers is that when people ask for access on mobile devices, they may mean a multitude of things—access to a standard interface on a mobile device, a site that’s optimized for mobile devices, or an app. Right now, we’re doing all three because we don’t know where things will go. One of the things that publishers need from librarians is clarity about what they mean when they’re talking about mobile devices.

Harris: How are database publishers helping librarians curate the best resources for students?

Rosen: We serve initially as curators of what we deem to be the most appropriate material—primary-source documents that are age appropriate, correlated to the curriculum, and potentially at the right reading level. We want to move students from being passive consumers of information to more active creators of it and thereby fulfill many of the mandates of the Common Core state standards.

McDermott: I agree with Roger in terms of the publisher functioning as a curator. When the publisher gears material to exactly that level, we hope that students will become more engaged more quickly because the material is accessible, it’s what they need, and it’s interesting to them.

Harris: Matt, as a larger database vendor, do you foresee more of that?

Matt Andros (vice president of field sales, EBSCO): Definitely. The difficult position we’re put in as an aggregator is getting content that’s written at the right level—especially when you’re looking at K–3 or K–5, there’s not much for that audience. We use a Lexile indicator so we can see exactly the level material is written at, and that helps.

Stephens: How do you encourage kids to use your digital resources before they turn to Google or Wikipedia? Is there a way to highlight quality content within the search results or on your home pages?

Gregory: One of the good things about search is that we don’t have to wonder. We can look at curriculums and Common Core standards to find out what they’re going to be looking up and work toward that. Also we can see what they type into the search box and move information relevant to that “above the fold,” as we used to say with newspapers, and find out where we need to develop more content. Looking at queries also helps us realize when we’re putting resources toward something that we thought they were spending a lot of time on, and they’re not.

Stephens: I use the same method for collection building. I look at what people have entered as search terms in our OPACs. I like the idea that you’re building off those queries.

Harris: I would really encourage you to deeply investigate the analytics. You can see that a student spent only 30 seconds on an article because it wasn’t what they thought it was going to be.

Gregory: What if they only spent a little time because they found all they needed quickly? They could spend five minutes on an article but not find what they’re looking for, but there the statistics are saying, “Great resource!” Whereas in an article they looked at for 30 seconds or a minute, they found all they needed in the first two paragraphs because we did our ranking properly and moved it to the top.

Lumsden: The search results can really drive your content development and the way that you display results. But the issue of how to get them to actually do the search to begin with is still a huge challenge. The question is, can resources be in all the different places that librarians or other educators are searching for content? Are they completely integrated with the district’s learning management system or the school’s library catalogue, so that you have as many potential touch points as possible for a search to occur?

Rosen: The school administration needs to empower librarians to have time with students for deep education about what being a good digital citizen and being cyberliterate mean. Kids should understand that any random hit is not necessarily as good as a vetted, authoritative resource.

Stephens: My biggest challenge in pushing students to better content is the teachers. I have so many teachers who are not the best types of searchers, who don’t have the best skills at identifying quality information. The most success I’ve had is when they return to graduate school and their work is scrutinized, and that feedback trickles down to the classrooms and they raise the bar.

From left (left image): Christopher Harris; Wendy Stephens; Jennifer Pfau, ABC-CLIO’s marketing manager of print and electronic products; and Rick Lumsden.
From left (right image):Matt Andros, Roger Rosen, and Diana McDermott.

Gregory: Let’s look at primary-source documents. How were teachers taught to use primary-source documents 20 years ago? Now, they’re all digitized but teachers didn’t get any instruction back then on how to use them. So one thing we do, and I know the other publishers and aggregators do, is provide guidance on teaching with documents.

Harris: Improvement also means moving away from textbooks as regurgitators of tertiary analysis. It’s going to be increasingly important to have direct explanations from experts who are able to offer true descriptions, definitions, and reviews of topics, overviews that don’t attempt to analyze, because we expect students to do that.

Lumsden: You just defined an encyclopedia article. For those of us in more traditional areas of publishing, the challenge is to make sure people understand where articles come from, that they’re written by experts.

Staino: We’re very tech savvy and we probably think everyone is moving toward electronic access. But I know some people who still buy print encyclopedias because they don’t have the hardware. What’s your feeling about that?

Gregory: If everybody had unlimited budgets, they’d probably buy both because of the different types of learners we were talking about. When some administrators and librarians have decided to back off print reference and buy online products, four or five years later, budgets are cut and they can no longer buy the online resource. If they had bought print, they’d have some shelf life. You have zero shelf life with 100 percent digital; when it’s cut off, you’ve got 100 percent of nothing. I heard from one of the largest library systems on the West Coast that they put their print encyclopedias out for circulation when they’re a year old.

Stephens: I do exactly the same thing. Print is excellent for equity of access, but also because if a student who’s using it looks up Paul Revere, it says, “See also American Revolution,” and so on. Then I can show them the related topics and controlled vocabulary they need to know. Also, sometimes the databases are just overwhelming and a circulating encyclopedia is much more digestible.

Gregory: You lose something going to digital, in my opinion. Years ago, when we had to write about Rhode Island, we got the “R” volume off the shelf, and on the way to “Rhode Island” saw “Revolutionary War.” A week later, I remember the Revolutionary War, and I don’t know a thing about Rhode Island. You miss that casual learning completely with digital.

Harris: I disagree. For me serendipity means that somebody failed to develop a proper search interface. Serendipity is an excuse that means, “We don’t know how to do fuzzy logic.” I can code serendipity that’s better than serendipitous. We have the ability to start using rich document format and semantic metadata so things will pop up that say, “You’re looking for Rhode Island? Rhode Island was in the Revolutionary War. Find out more about the Revolutionary War.”

Gregory: But with casual learning, you could find something beginning with “R” that’s nothing to do with Rhode Island.

Harris: We coded that. On our library portal is a little button that says, “Go fish.” Kids click on the button and it takes them to a random book. I see on Rosen’s PowerKids site, they have little things on the front page that rotate quite often, and I know World Book and the other encyclopedias do that too. You can digitally craft things to replace serendipity.

Staino: One thing I’ve observed is that with digital, kids become individual casual learners rather than group casual learners, whereas with print, they share more.

Lumsden: The problem isn’t format, it’s user attitude. There are far more opportunities for finding things serendipitously in a digital format than in a book because things that are related are linked.

Author Information
Henrietta Thornton-Verma (hthornton is associate reference editor at SLJ and our sister publication Library Journal.
Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma (, @ettaverma) edits Library Journal and School Library Journal’s reference review columns and covers ereference and digital databases for LJ. Before joining LJ’s staff, Etta was reference editor at SLJ for five years and edited that magazine’s Series Made Simple supplement. Etta, who is from Ireland, has also been a reference librarian and a library director and is the mom of two avid readers.