--Contents-- man yelling into megaphoneThe Curmudgeon's Corner

REFERENCE WORKS AS FALSE IDOLS
By Joe Lauer



As we all know, reference works are extremely important, and work on demonstratively useful projects should continue. But an uncritical approach to the compilation, acquisition, reviewing and use of reference works is a disservice to our users and employers. More specifically, I will argue 4 points:

  1. Too much time is spent in the compilation of reference works that are often redundant;
  2. Too much of library's budget goes for reference materials;
  3. Too many librarians are insufficiently critical when reviewing reference works; and
  4. Too much credence is given to what appears in reference works.

Unnecessary redundancy is usually both good publicity for the individual compiler and a waste of scarce resources. The enthusiasm that greeted a call for “a list of Universities with ETDs” is a symptom of the disease (of treating all new ideas as good and treating any new reference work as a useful contribution). Being a curmudgeon (per Walsh to ALClist, Jan. 3, 2006), I pointed out that the topic was already covered elsewhere. The dialogue that followed demonstrated that there are many librarians are willing to encourage needless projects without actually volunteering to do the work. An earlier instance occurred in 1998, when a junior librarian was encouraged to compile a list of the journals indexed in Africanist indexes. This was to be the first step in a new index that never had the slightest chance of getting off the ground.

My second point (Too much of library’s budget goes for reference materials.) is not supported by any hard data. I first sensed a problem when reviewing the low quality historical dictionaries; and I pointed out that every dollar spent on a secondary work is a dollar not available for a primary work. About ten years ago, our library took dollars from the various subject funds to increase the size of the reference budget. I argued to no avail that the mix between secondary (reference) literature and primary literature deserved as much scrutiny as the mix between serials and monographs. In the age of online databases, I am particularly scornful of bibliographies (especially those without useful annotations) that are necessarily outdated before they reach the shelves. And I strongly suspect that librarians privilege reference books (the works of their peers) when it comes to acquisitions, in a type of reverse affirmative action.

Too many librarians are insufficiently critical when reviewing reference works. There are exceptions, notably the reviews by Yvette Scheven or David Henige; and some non-librarians are also uncritical. The standard too often is usefulness (to the person holding the title) rather than whether the work is a significant contribution. An example, provided in Lauris Olson’s Jan. 30, 2003 message to the ALC list, are the 6 reviews of Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary (1996), by James S. Olson, a specialist in American history and the compiler of numerous reference works. Three reviews, including one by a historian at Mount Union College, found Peoples of Africa useful. Two others by librarians were mildly critical. Only an anthropologist writing for a history journal correctly described Peoples of Africa as “inaccurate or unhelpful.”

As for my fourth point, about too much credence given to reference works: Too many librarians take a fundamentalist approach. They assume the work in hand is authoritative and without error. Some brief points on what should be a much longer article on this issue.

Working on the Africana Subject Funnel project for SACO (Subject Authority Cooperative Program, of LC’s Program for Cooperative Cataloging), proposing new or revised subject headings, has given me new insights into the prevailing attitudes within CPSO (LC’s Cataloging Policy and Support Office). This is best demonstrated by its posted response to the following question (Are some research sources preferred over others?):

Note the sly switch from “research sources” in the question to “reference sources” in the reply. Note also that this FAQ runs counter to previously established principles on privileging primary rather than secondary sources of information. (When cataloging books, we establish the title on the basis of the chief source (usually the title page), and not on a title found in publishers’ catalogs, printed bibliographies or other secondary works.) LC’s Subject Cataloging Manual. Subject Headings states: Proposed subject headings and their associated “used for” references should reflect both the terminology used in current literature on the topic in question, and the system of language, construction, and style used in Library of Congress Subject Headings. … (see H202). An older work makes the point that current periodicals are more reliable for defining new words or concepts than printed dictionaries. (David Judson Haykin, Subject Headings: A Practical Guide (GPO, 1951), p. 8, as cited by Lois Mai Chan, Library of Congress Subject Headings: Principles and Application, 3d ed., 1995.

In most cases, there is no conflict between between primary and secondary sources. But problems arise when reference works use terminology that is never used by those writing on the topic. For example, Ngere appears only in reference works and general works on African art. Dfola (an apparent mistaken transcription for Djola), appears only in reference books as a cross-reference for Biafada. Rendile (instead of Rendille) appears almost exclusively in secondary works.

It is also obvious that many reference sources (outside of scientific fields) are compiled by non-specialists who fail to consult the current primary literature. There are also encyclopedias that continue to carry entries that were written decades ago. Compare the following useful summary from Wikipedia (The term Hamitic refers to peoples traditionally believed to have been descended from Ham, one of Noah's sons. ... During the Middle Ages and up until the early 19th century the term 'Hamitic' was used by Europeans to refer indiscriminately to Africans. In the 19th century the definition was refined. A Hamitic language group was proposed, uniting various, mainly North-African, languages. A Hamitic race was also identified, referring to those Africans that Europeans considered "advanced", or most similar to themselves and to Semitic peoples. Today the Hamitic concepts have been widely discredited and are often referred to as the Hamitic Myth. The term itself is considered by many to be pejorative. The Hamitic language group is no longer considered a useful concept, though the phrase Semito-Hamitic is a dated term for the Afro-Asiatic group. The notion of a Hamitic race is similarly problematic.) with definitions found in various other works such as Columbia Encyclopedia Online (6th ed., viewed Mar. 23, 2006: Hamites: African people of caucasoid descent who occupy the Horn of Africa ..., the western Sahara, and parts of Algeria and Tunisia) or World Book 2001 (E:369: Hamites are speakers of Cushitic languages).

None of this proves that any single reference source is bad. It is more a case of avoiding reference works which are almost entirely based on other reference sources; privilege those that show familiarity with primary sources; and do not follow dated or inappropriate information.

The value of reference works (or additional research in primary literature) can be demonstrated by showing what happens in a few cases where there was no additional source cited. The Halpulaar (African people) [sh 89005174] are the same as the Toucouleur (African people) [sh85136239]. The Sambia (Papua New Guinean people) [sh 86004816] do not exist except as a pseudonym created by Herdt for a tiny group.

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