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Editor’s note: Since its first edition, published in 1902, Guide to Reference Books has been a trusted tool of reference librarians—it has also been a book. With the twelfth edition, this venerable resource, now named Guide to Reference, will make its home not on shelves but on servers. In the February 1, 2009 issue of Booklist, Mary Ellen Quinn asked General Editor Robert Kieft for his thoughts about the Guide’s transformation. It was the first interview to grace the pages of Reference Books Bulletin—an occasion we’d like to amplify by publishing an expanded, Web-exclusive version of their conversation. Read on as they talk at length about leaving print volumes behind to become “the watercooler of reference service.”
BKL: How did you get involved with Guide to Reference?
KIEFT: It was a dark and stormy afternoon—literally. I was waiting in the New Orleans airport after the ALA Midwinter Meeting in 1998. I was waiting to take my plane back to Philadelphia, and Bob Balay [editor of the eleventh edition] was on the same plane. We got to talking, and he brought up the subject of the Guide and how he had decided he wouldn’t do a new edition. ALA Editions was looking for a new general editor, and might I be interested? I said sure, because at that point I think I was looking for a big project. Little did I know. Back in New Orleans in the summer of 1999, I was invited to sit in on a focus group that ALA Editions was having with library leaders, probing them for various ideas about the new edition. Then, around Christmas of 1999, ALA called me and asked me if I wanted to be the editor, and I think I signed a work agreement in the spring of 2000.
BKL: At that point did you know that this was going to be a strictly electronic edition?
KIEFT: No. Certainly, in that focus group in the summer of 1999, we talked about an online edition, but I think people thought, well, we’ll have both a print and an online version. Once I got officially involved in 2000, it was clear where the ball was rolling in terms of reference sources. In the summer of 2001, I began a discussion with the leadership at ALA Editions because I already sensed that the design and other considerations involved in creating the online edition would make it very hard for us to also design and publish in print, and I was pretty much convinced that we didn’t have enough eggs to put in two baskets. I thought we would emphasize an online publication and do a print publication if we could, but as time went on I became convinced that a print Guide would just be anachronistic.
BKL: What new content and features will users find that they didn’t find in the eleventh edition?
KIEFT: Well, I hope they’ll find quite a bit, and so far the librarians who have looked at the new edition have been enthusiastic. Every editorial team has had to look at the academic landscape and decide whether the organization and topical headings from the previous edition are still in tune with publishing patterns, academic programs, and the kinds of questions people ask of a reference librarian. We also added—and I think this is an important intellectual contribution in the new edition—a major division for interdisciplinary fields that now have a reference literature of their own. I would expect that in that division we would continue to add fields, and maybe even eliminate them as the reference literature ceases to develop.
We also added, in the general bibliography division, two new sections for the Web as reference tool. We had a long discussion about where do you put, for example, the search engines like Google and Yahoo! or where do you put Flickr? We made a separate section for them, and I imagine that section will undergo rapid updating and development. We also had a long series of discussions about what to do with online reference libraries, where you can search across many different publications at the same time. Our thinking was, yeah, you could stuff them into general humanities or general social sciences, but we also felt that the discovery environment and the new ways that separate titles relate to each other in these online reference libraries merited a separate section. We also got to talking about online versions of dictionaries, and then whether a translation engine like Babel Fish is really a dictionary. We decided no, but since so many people use these translation engines for basic dictionary functions, we put some of them in the dictionary section.
BKL: What are some of the notable features of the Guide in its online incarnation?
KIEFT: Bob Balay’s eleventh edition had almost 400 pages of indexing, but we don’t have to do that, obviously. We’ve added some basic interactive features, so a reader can leave a comment about a source or a section. A reader can also make lists of sources to use, for example, in library instruction programs. Or you could make a private list for yourself. It’s easy to export, so, again, if you’re an instruction librarian and you’re creating a Web page or a paper handout for a class, you can export the Guide entries with their annotations into your own software, and you could then revise the annotations for local use. I guess the other thing that an online guide does is link out to holdings information. I had originally planned that would work the way it does in a linking server environment, but that proved to be a technical challenge so we’re taking the expedient and I hope not long-term way out and having the Guide link to WorldCat.
BKL: What are some of the challenges in taking Guide to Reference online?
KIEFT: Over the years we’ve certainly heard from librarians and other users that they prefer a print volume, one of the reasons being a financial one. For a library it’s often easier to buy an expensive thing one time than to make it a serial purchase and have to pay that money every year. It will be interesting to see how librarians respond, especially in these dreadful financial times, to a serial item, but we’re really committed to not publishing in print. I’m also curious to see what will happen with those occasional users of the Guide like publishers, editors, rare-book dealers, etc. I know there’s a small international market among those people for the printed edition.
BKL: How will the Guide be updated?
KIEFT: The database from which it’s produced has a work flow that allows for status changes, so even though the public interface will only show those items that have been approved for publication, people can be working in the background at all levels of the editorial work flow. As a contributor, I can be downloading a new record, putting it in the database, working on my annotation, and submitting it to my editor for review. The editor and I can go back and forth about revising, and eventually the editor will pass the record along for copyediting, etc., and it will be in a queue for the update. I’m hoping that we can update quarterly, but we will certainly update entries in as close to real time as we can if people bring mistakes to our attention, or some source undergoes a radical change. I think we’re also going to have to engineer a thorough review of each section every two or three years.
BKL: What’s been your favorite thing about being the general editor?
KIEFT: Working with a variety of people over the years, whether in chance meetings or as contributors or editorial team members, has been wonderfully stimulating in terms of thinking about how to take a really old-fashioned publication and make it into something very new; how to take that tradition and rethink it for what I think we would all agree is a very different information environment.
BKL: What’s next for the Guide—and for you?
KIEFT: As I move away from the general editorship and into a new role, I’m going to be developing content with LIS professors and librarians that would be useful in teaching and training for reference work. I want to explore the potential for the Guide and its Web site, not just the bibliography, to become an important aspect of how they conduct their courses. For example, every library-school reference course has students evaluate and compare and contrast reference sources. I’d like to see them use the Guide listing and comment functions for an assignment like that. Likewise, how can the Guide be useful to librarians who train information service and reference service staff?
Bob Balay once told me that he never heard from reference librarians about the sources that were listed in the Guide or what was said about them. Now, with our new interactive features, I’m really hoping the reference community will engage with the editorial team and with each other about the Guide’s value and usefulness. Ultimately, I hope the Guide becomes a site where everybody in the reference community will find a place to talk to other people—the watercooler of reference service.
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