February 16, 2018

E-Reference Comes of Age

By Mirela Roncevic

LJ’s reference editor offers her take on ALA 2008

ALA was a revelation for me this year, and for good reason. In contrast to previous years, when I spent a significant chunk of my time in over-air-conditioned rooms, listening to discussions about whether reference was dead or alive, I made it a priority this year to walk the floor and take the products for a test drive.

Having been the creative force behind LJ‘s reference coverage for several years, I have heard it all, from publishers and librarians alike, so I am not the easiest person to impress. Truth be told, I have often wondered (and still do) where reference is going, and I have often been skeptical whether publishers could find a way to bridge the print-online divide.

But after spending three full days walking the floor, aisle by aisle, publisher by publisher, I was not just impressed with how far these guys have come; I was blown away! Only five years ago, some were wondering whether they would still be in business today.

So, after getting previews of about two dozen products in Anaheim, here’s where things are at with reference publishing: everyone’s very much alive, and everyone’s kicking! To see how eagerly even the most traditional publishers are embracing the online format, many on shoestring budgets, and how far the existing products by the leaders in the field have come is nothing short of astonishing. And how could I not praise the creative presentations that publishers put together for their booths this year; they not only helped drive traffic to the booths but also made the products that much more interesting.

During the times my feet were begging for a break, I crashed several panel discussions, just to check the pulse of the industry and make sure I wasn’t missing out on anything major. About 15 minutes into each discussion, however, I would realize that everything I needed to know was right in those colorful booths set up with high-end flat TV screens proudly displaying the homepages of e-products.

Still, one always learns something when sitting in on panels, and if I had to sum up in a single sentence what I took away from them, it’s this: almost every publisher serious enough to remain competitive in this business is well on the way to making its e-resources more intuitive, current, cross-searchable, affordable—and much more user-friendly.

To be fair, many of us are not ready to say goodbye to print reference yet (call it an emotional attachment; call it a strategic business move), but it is clear that e-reference was all the rage at this year’s ALA. I for one was inspired by the diversity of the subjects covered, jealous to realize what today’s students have at their disposal (compared with what I had years ago), and excited about future prospects.

Just to make my own walk through the aisles a little more fun, I armed myself with a JVC camcorder and asked some of the producers to describe the products in their own words. Needless to say, nobody turned me down. Whether it was 9 a.m. or 4:45 p.m., everyone was happy to show librarians not able to attend the conference what they were missing out on. Here’s a rundown of what’s not to be missed:

EBSCOHOST 2.0: Have you seen the new interface? You are in for a real treat. Super simple and super intuitive would seem to be the underlying message here.

GLOBAL ISSUES IN CONTEXT: Launching in September, this Gale Cengage product is more than a database on current issues; it’s a social networking site. CNN.com, watch out!

OXFORD LANGUAGE DICTIONARIES ONLINE: Oxford knows its English. But now, thanks to this fantastic language site, it also knows its French, German, Spanish, Italian, and soon Chinese. Millions of translations and a ton of extras.

CQ CONGRESS COLLECTION: Just how closely aligned are Obama and McCain? Go online, check out the built-in “widget” of the source for data and analysis on the U.S. Congress, and get lost in numbers.

POP CULTURE UNIVERSE: Greenwood takes pop culture seriously, and the folks there poured their heart and soul into this product. Good stuff for pop culture addicts or librarians serving them.

WORLD VITAL RECORDS.COM: Claiming to be the fastest-growing genealogy web site today (and on its first ALA visit), WVR.com provides over a billion records pulled from 8000 databases. Who knew?

SALEM PRESS: The little publisher that could is taking a no-nonsense approach to keeping its key brands, Salem Health and Salem History, alive both on paper and online.

MARQUIS WHO’S WHO ON THE WEB: Did you know that this resource, existing in print since 1898, is now the most comprehensive biographical database online, with nearly 1.4 million biographies?

CREDO REFERENCE: This aggregator of online reference content from 61 publishers keeps on growing and reinventing itself through sleek design and highly selective content.

(For more on reference, see “Corner Office,” p. 42–43.)

Author Information
Mirela Roncevic is Senior Editor, Reference & Arts & Humanities

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