The category of learned publications we have come to know as “reference works” is ripe for innovation, perhaps even overripe. A recent study from Oxford University Press (OUP) further documents the decline of reference products as a distinct content type, and illuminates fertile ground for an inventive approach to modern, contextual resources that serve today’s scholarly information needs.
Based on US and UK end-user interviews plus an academic librarian survey, the OUP report is another installment in a growing collection of literature measuring the declining interest in library and publisher reference resources by today’s users. They cite similar findings from Project Information Literacy and others that establish changing information-seeking practices of today’s scholarly readers, many reinforcing the time pressures of most users and establishing the open-web as starting point for swift answers in the academic workflow.
With the ubiquity of Wikipedia and Google solving our quick-check needs for factual information, this OUP study tracks the continued decrease in students and researchers seeking library resources they identify as “reference.” While there are important variations between younger students and more advanced academic readers, most users continue to expect fast, relevant search results at the point of need. Participants reported to OUP that they use the mainstream web and other search engines to explore key terms and “get a general sense of the conversation” (p. 6).
Some students and faculty in this study reported concerns and limitations in freely available reference sources. From my own research, I have learned that this is often due to the questionable authority of some sites and the validity of citing these resources – judgements that likely vary across regions and disciplines. With a targeted sample, in a traditionally limited sample size, the OUP study applied Carnegie classifications to differentiate responses by type and size of institution. While these distinctions are not directly addressed in the paper, this data holds promise for deeper analysis on the ways in which reference needs and practices across universities and colleges.
Despite recent technological and market changes, OUP’s report is one in a series that demonstrates how students at all levels, in particular undergraduates, reach critical developmental milestones and learning thresholds that demand support from materials that define topics and connect the dots at key stages of the learning process. However, providing the right contextual material at the right time is a logistical challenge for publishers and librarians alike. The “reference interview” is still a key opportunity to help students formulate their research questions and guide their use of scholarly information. Librarians have been working to reinvent the reference desk for years now and finding success with a librarians-as-consultants model that aim to empower users to “take ownership of their research skills” (p. 10).
Publishers and technologists, however, still have a way to go to truly rethink reference product lines and try out new approaches to digital resources and tools that support foundational information needs. The report affirms, “as the routes by which users access scholarly content continue to change, the discoverability of reference resources is likely to be an ever-evolving challenge for users, librarians, and publishers” (p. 17). I would go a few steps further and say that, in a time where the success of a publication largely rests on strong usage, we must train our sights on innovating toward services and products that fit smoothly into the scholarly workflow. This demands a strategic focus on content discoverability as well as usability and accessibility (with all its various implications).
As a purveyor of some of the world’s best reference works, OUP has validated the market opportunities for publishers to overhaul their reference divisions in their report. There is clear opportunity to tinker with the design and delivery of bibliographic resources and interdisciplinary materials focused on key topics. While perceptions of quality usage and related benchmarks will vary a great deal across libraries, the relative strength of handbooks’ popularity (see Figure 4 below) is crying out for a revolutionary approach to disciplinary manuals that could become key companions for students throughout their careers.
This data, however, is predicated on the assumption that handbooks and other reference titles must remain as stand-alone units. Whereas technology can enable greater integration of reference works across academic databases to enable findability when and where contextual help is required. Synthesizing some reference works, like dictionaries or encyclopedias, into more advanced scholarly products could provide opportunities to surface answers and definitions as needed. This type of reference “perma-layer” could become a top-up options for journals platforms, for example, reducing the number of stand-alone products students and researchers must navigate.
Search providers and content architects should also find inspiration in this report, as it further highlights a chance to think differently about reference works as a known and desirable category. OUP’s findings herald an occasion for cross-sector creativity in renaming and re-labeling “reference” in a way that speaks to today’s readers and addresses their information needs within the search context. User experience research, information architecture, and metadata modeling are in demand here, as we are plainly not adequately surfacing contextual materials as required in the student workflow.
The focus here should be addressing user search needs for discovering reference materials with “efficiency, comprehensiveness, and familiarity” within their academic info journeys
These findings from OUP prove, among other important details, that current reference models continue to fail many readers, ungraduated students in particular, at important junctions in the academic journey. The library discovery layer is coming of age and, while not designed to serve all possible information practices, discovery providers are uniquely positioned to address the foundational information needs of undergraduates. As students, like those in the OUP study, are not prepared to visit dozens of sites for the definition of a term within framework of their given field, discovery layers are perhaps best suited to offer a variety of definitions and quick answers aggregated from the hundreds of databases in their indices. The focus here should be addressing user search needs for discovering reference materials with “efficiency, comprehensiveness, and familiarity” within their academic info journeys (p. 8).
This is where publishers, libraries, and technologists should embrace innovation as critical to our mission, being willing to flourish is the failure/learning cycle in order to advance the evolution of reference. New approaches to reference would adopt new approaches to delivery and business models – matching current library and reader expectations, not fixated on old assumptions and commercial successes. Investments can be made in breaking out of the isolation of publisher-specific reference products and borrowing from what has worked for open-web reference sites.
There is room for an authoritative, scholarly Wikipedia competitor – as well as ample room for publishers to be smarter about proactively partnering with Wikipedia, as OUP themselves saw as a critical innovation several years ago. I would like to see publishers both recruiting authors to be wiki editors and participating in The Wikipedia Library program.
As one undergraduate told OUP researchers, “‘I think there are a lot of times when I would appreciate something between Wikipedia level and research paper level and that can sometimes be difficult” (p. 13). I hear this as a call to action, publishers! Let’s get creative about rethinking how we deliver reference products! Who’s with me?