Recently I had the opportunity to visit a high school library in an inner-city public school here in Dallas. The experience was somewhat shocking, both as a publisher and as someone who is passionate about education. I worried that I might find a woefully understocked library, particularly in its reference section, but that was not the case; the reference shelves were filled with many top-notch print sets on all sorts of subjects. Further, the library’s computers offered access to a wide array of additional electronic databases, ones that are obviously made available to all libraries in the Dallas Independent School District.
Unfortunately, though, the librarian reported that students rarely used any of these resources. Young and inexperienced, she was unfamiliar with the resources herself and so couldn’t really direct students on how to use them or why they might want to. The school’s teachers, hardworking and dedicated though they are, apparently also do not utlitize these resources, nor do they direct their students to do so.
Clearly, this is a problem on many levels. The school and district have spent many thousands of dollars to buy resources that sit unused. Students who desperately need all the help they can get ignore books and databases that could help them learn–and help them pass state-mandated tests. Teachers who are overwhelmed don’t take advantage of terrific tools to enhance classroom learning and foster basic research skills. I’m well aware that in many school libraries around the country, the situation is very different: librarians and teachers work in concert to help students use all the resources at their disposal. However, I would be willing to bet that this particular school library is not all that unusual, either.
While all this is lamentably true, and while I could go on an on about the larger problems that this underscores with our educational system, I want to focus on one group that shares culpability for this scenario: reference publishers ourselves.
For too long–decades now, really–reference publishers have pumped out a cascade of books (and now databases) but done very little to address a fundamental problem: discoverability. Reference books have always required a conduit–the librarian–to be used properly and fully, because their contents don’t show up in any card catalog. A student writing a paper about the Battle of Gettysburg has no idea that the multivolume encyclopedia buried away in a far corner of the library has wonderful information that can tell her everything she needs to know, unless a librarian is there to help her, and unless that librarian himself is familiar with that set. As a result, as studies have shown, print reference sections in all libraries have been gathering dust, day by day, year by year, decade by decade. The familiar library convention discussion group topic–”Is Print Reference Dying?”–is both mordantly funny and also terrifyingly legitimate. The truth is that lots of print reference is still published and bought, but most of the new stuff joins its ancestors–it sits on a shelf, unused.
The situation is only modestly better with electronic reference. Tech-savvy students may indeed be more likely to stumble upon resources that they can use in this setting, but “stumble” is still the operative word. First, they have to navigate a myriad of unique, siloed databases, with inscrutable names and idiosyncratic search interfaces. Then, they have to be careful enough to pick the search results gems from what may be a torrent of hits.
What have reference publishers done to address these longstanding problems? We’ve stuck our heads in the sand. As long as libraries were buying our products, we didn’t worry our pretty little heads over something as pedestrian as usage. We may have spent ungodly amounts of time and money to produce one wonderful set after another, but as long as enough libraries bought our titles, we didn’t care. We had decades to come up with user-friendly solutions to the problems of discoverability and usage, but we couldn’t be bothered.
In the past few years, however, chickens have begun coming home to roost. New companies and resources–Google, Wikipedia–have come along that have great discoverability (and phenomenal usage), and the traditional reference industry has been shaken. And rightly so.
Now what? First, we have to work harder to help librarians understand what’s in our products and how they might be useful to students, teachers, job seekers, and other researchers. It’s incredibly short-sighted to spend so much money to publish a title and then leave its usage to fate–and the hands of a superb reference librarian. Librarians are overwhelmed like everyone else these days; they need our help in selling our publications to their patrons. Second, for those of us publishing titles aimed at students, we have to reach out to teachers and help them understand how our titles can help them teach their kids. Third, we have to reach kids directly, through better electronic interfaces, easier searching, floor displays, flyers, bookmarks–whatever can help persuade a student to take a volume off the shelf or browse a database.
It seems like a no-brainer, but if you sell a product that isn’t used, sooner or later people will stop buying it. Our resources don’t sit unused because they lack value. Quite the contrary. But we can no longer afford to sit idly by and assume that whether our publications get used is someone else’s problem.