A Library Primer (1899)/Chapter XIII
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Chapter XIII, Reference work
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Reference work in libraries large and small has for its first rule: Meet the inquirer more than half way. To the stranger a library is often an oppressive place, an awesome place—in his imagination. He comes in shyly; everyone appears busy, his question suddenly seems to him trivial; he won't trouble these wise and busy people with it—and goes out.
A good second rule is: Learn at once just exactly what the inquirer wishes to know. This is not always easy. Tact and a little patience will generally effect it.
A good third rule is: Whenever possible show the inquirer how the answer is found, so that he may next time in some measure help himself. It is surprising how many, especially of the younger people in a community, can be taught within one year, on their occasional visits, to make the proper use of at least a few reference books.
Another rule of very general application is: Go first to a dictionary. In many cases a question answers itself, or betrays where its answer may best be found, if it is once plainly stated. And nothing is better than reference to a few words in a dictionary for the clear statement of a question. The larger dictionaries, moreover, and notably the Century, will answer many more inquiries than even great readers often suppose.
Many questions come up again and again. Of these, and of the references which answered them, notes should be kept on cards for future use. In fact it is well to keep an index in this way of the references looked up for all the more important inquiries.
The following excellent advice is from an article on The use of periodicals in reference work, by Frederick Winthrop Faxon, in Public Libraries for June, 1898:
"In all reference work periodicals play a large part. They may be roughly divided into two great classes, the technical and the popular. The former are indispensable to the scholar, or the expert, and in the rapid advancement of science are the only real sources of information. Text-books or treatises are out of date before published; therefore for a correct present view, or a complete history of the development of any science, the technical reviews and society transactions must be consulted. These will be the principal part of a scientific library, and should be in the large public and college libraries in order to cover advanced study.
They have, on the other hand, little place in small libraries—they would seldom be of use, and are very expensive.
"But the popular periodicals every library needs. In the better class of these reviews it is possible, if we know where to look, to find several articles on both sides of almost any subject. Furthermore, these are often written by the foremost authors or scientists, and are in a language intelligible to all. The amateur cannot give the time or patience to wade two-volume deep in the subject his club wishes him to treat in half an hour's speech. The magazine gives just what he wants in several pages. There are periodicals exclusively devoted to every branch of every science, and magazines which, in their files, include articles on all subjects. This mine of information has been opened up by Poole's index. Since 1881, when the third and enlarged edition of Poole's index was published, all this is common property for the asking. Grouped around Poole and keeping pace with the times are the Poole supplements, which ought, perhaps, to be named the Fletchers, covering the five-year periods since 1881, ending respectively 1886, 1891, 1896. Then the Annual literary index gives a yearly index of subjects and authors, and serves as a supplement to the Poole supplement. For such as cannot be even a year without a periodical index we now have the admirable Cumulative index, bi-monthly, edited by the Cleveland public library. Thus all the principal periodicals since the beginning of the century may be consulted by reference to one or more of five single books or alphabets.
"The Review of reviews must be mentioned as a useful monthly index to current periodical literature, but of little value for study reference as compared with the indexes just mentioned. An annual index issued by the Review of reviews, since 1890, is good in its way, though rather superficial. Sargent's Reading for the young, and its supplement, index the juvenile sets of St Nicholas, Harper's young people, and Wide Awake. Poole and the Cumulative are of little use without a fair assortment of the sets therein indexed.
"Thus far 442 titles (practically all of them serials published since 1800) have been indexed. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that most of these are necessary in a small library before Poole's index should be purchased or can be of use. Given Poole and a complete set of Littell's living age, and Harper's monthly, more reference work can be done than with twice the number of reference books not periodicals. A small collection of sets has enabled more than one struggling library to hold its own with the students and club members, and to accomplish work which could not have been done as well with many works of reference, the purchase of which would have exhausted the whole book fund."