In this week's lesson we read about selecting and evaluating reference materials for use in our school libraries. I read Ann Riedling's criteria for selecting good reference materials in her book Reference Skills for the School Library Media Specialist. I have no dispute with Riedling’s basic criteria for evaluation of reference resources. However, I believe Riedling greatly underemphasizes the need to consider the context in which the resource is to be used. The needs of a K to 5 patron community in British Columbia are going to be quite different than those of a grade 10 to 12 community in Ontario or Quebec. I find this lack of emphasis on audience surprising since Riedling is writing specifically about the specialized context of the school library.
A reference resource that has great scope, accuracy, authority, timeliness and is inexpensive can still be inappropriate if it does not have the appropriate reading level to meet the needs of a specific patron community. Each patron community is going to have specialized needs in terms of content that relates to the curriculum they are covering. A resource that is more limited in scope and is somewhat more expensive may end up being a better choice in certain circumstances. I think Riedling could strengthen the usefulness of her evaluation criteria by overtly adding step a the beginning of each evaluation process. This step would be to define or describe the context in which the resource will be used. Who are the patrons? How old are they? What is the curriculum or areas of interest that are most in need to be addressed or supported? Once this is established then the other evaluation criteria can be more productively applied.
I am very sensitive to this issue as I work in K to 5 library. I find readability to be the overarching preoccupation. I also am preoccupied with supporting the curriculum. My experience over the last five years as a librarian has been that reference inquiries do tend to fall within a particular scope that is most often related to the curriculum they encounter in the classroom. I am likely to encounter many questions about Canadian animals, Canadian aborigial peoples, British Columbia communites but much less likely to encounter questions about the United States, ancient civilizations, world history etc.. This would seem to make the Encyclopedia of British Columbia and the Canadian Encyclopedia natural choices. The problem is that they are not written at a reading level appropriate to my patrons and often lack the scope necessary to address the curriculum areas that prompt the reference inquiry. Although these resources may pass Riedling's evaluation criteria these resources are more often than not inappropriate for my context.
Lori Ingles provides some excellent commentary on the definition of what constitutes good reference materials. Is it just a matter of answering the question? Can you totally answer the question? Lori states that "according to Stripling, we can never really expect to answer the questions because our inquiry will always lead us to new questions. If this is the case, perhaps we should redefine a good reference source. From this perspective, perhaps a good reference source should be one that serves to answer some of the basic questions but also provides enough information to launch new, more in-depth questions." I think Lori gives some food for thought as to additional criteria for a good reference. Good references may also be those that point to other references and acknowledge their own brevity or lack of potential depth.