April 24, 2018

The Way We Were

By Lauren Lampasone

The story of NYPL’s Best of Reference

According to library legend, the annual presentation of New York Public Library’s Best of Reference committee, which I have been on for three years, was once a somewhat staid affair. Committee members would take turns at the podium, droning on about how this print resource or that database was worthy of commendation.

But one auspicious spring morning years ago, Best of Reference became a library sensation. Instead of extolling the merits of the list with a series of long-winded lectures, the librarians used their highly developed senses of humor to present the new resources in a more tongue-in-cheek, song-and-dance sort of way. Think Saturday Night Live meets middle school talent show meets reference – a reference pageant, an encyclopedic extravaganza, a carnival sideshow announcing new and exciting resources.

For the first time in 2008, New York Public Library teamed up with Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library to create a truly unstoppable force of reference. Gotham City’s finest used a set of criteria to evaluate hundreds of books, web sites, and subscription databases, selecting 25 as the most outstanding resources of the year.

They then dressed up in costume as a cardboard sun, a space alien complete with dual function lightsaber/probe, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Indiana Jones’s Paris Hilton-like daughter, and the cast of Desperate Housewives and paraded around in front of their colleagues. They were presenting Project Sunlight: A Public Integrity Initiative (sunlightNY.org), Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Globalization101.org, World Encyclopedia of Archaeology (Firefly), and Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France and England (ABC-CLIO), respectively. Needless to add, they were met with a mixture of confusion, admiration, and unabashed glee.

Since this year marks such an exciting milestone in the history of the Best of Reference committee (which has now been adopted by the New York Library Association), I thought now would be a good time to take the trusty Wayback Machine (more on this later) for a spin and have a look back at lists past.

Reference Reinvented: 1996 – 2005

The 1996 list is the first one to recognize formally online resources as valuable ones to consult during the reference interview. But it must have been before Google really took over as the librarian’s go-to search box, because the two search engines featured were AltaVista and Yahoo! Hotbot showed up in 1997, but the big G was passed over in the nominations until 2001.

Also featured on the first few lists were early incarnations of the CIA World Factbook (www.cia.gov), Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), The Riley Guide to Employment Opportunities and Job Resources on the Internet (www.rileyguide.com), and mapquest.com. Still pretty useful!

Looking at the first five lists of the century, one comes to appreciate the prescience of reference librarians in anticipating user needs. The lists feature resources on environmental change (e.g., earthtrends.wri.org), global-exchange rates (e.g., www.measuringworth.org), and food-and-product safety (e.g., householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov).

Reference 2.0: 2006 – 08

In the last few years, Best of Reference has taken more of a forward-looking view. Reference sources include not only search engines, databases, and indexes but also encompass new forms of social software. Del.icio.us was chosen in 2006 because it was seen as a useful way to save and share online reference sources. In 2007, the listmakers highlighted Technorati.com as a blog-search tool and Google Patent Search for being a fresh, new search interface for a specific type of government information.

Also celebrated was the aforementioned Wayback Machine for its preservation of old versions of web pages. This project of the Internet Archive (archive.org) is an invaluable resource when the information one seeks no longer exists in its original form or location online.

One of the books on the 2007 list, The eBay Price Guide (No Starch Pr.) was noted as a new breed of price guide, devoted to the curious collector who also happens to enjoy a high-speed connection. For 2008 (see picture; that’s me on the left), the committee seemed to have election year on the brain, coming up with Factcheck.org, Project Vote Smart (votesmart.org), and Project Sunlight (a database for New York State government information). Factcheck.org serves as a clearinghouse to help the politically minded figure out who said what and whether or not it was factual. Project Vote Smart also provides information on candidates and issues and helps citizens register to vote.

Speaking of momentous occasions this November, if you’re going to be at the New York Library Association’s annual conference, come and see our encore performance. I’ll be the one in the yellow cardboard sun costume.

Author Information
Lauren Lampasone is a Digital Producer at New York Public Library