I always enjoy the RIEMA conference: it's small enough that you can actually catch up with people, but big enough to give you a nice selection of workshops. And there's free coffee all day. I attended Bonnie Lilienthal's reference workshop, and had some interesting conversation with her before and during. She said that many librarians tell her they're ordering fewer reference sets (which didn't surprise me) and fewer nonfiction titles in general (which did surprise me). They claim they're simply getting fewer reference questions, because kids use online resources to complete their homework.
I don't have that problem. I do have kids coming in with different kinds of information needs, so I am switching up the selection on my reference shelves. But I'm not eliminating that part of my collection. Frankly, I wish I knew one of the librarians who is buying less nonfiction so I could say: "That's so interesting! Tell me more!" when really I mean: "That's wack. Don't the kids in your school district still do reports on Native American Tribes, Countries, States, specific species of animals and ancient cultures? Don't the kids want world record, poetry, joke, and drawing books? Don't you have those ambitious early literacy teachers who want science books appropriate for 3-year-olds?" But every community's different, so I shouldn't judge.
So instead I'll focus on the new demands for reference. In some cases, I haven't found a good reference set to meet these demands, but here are the kinds of questions I'm getting:
- Images. Kids want maps of the regions where animals live or migrate through. They want pictures of the different stages in the life cycle and habitats. They need diagrams of animal and plant cells, skeletons, and photographs of famous people. Including people who existed before cameras. They need pictures of the foods Native Americans ate and examples of bronze art work from Ancient Chinese dynasties.
- Primary Sources. This one can be tough, because lots of times kids don't know what they mean by primary sources, particularly in literature classes. I keep having these kids ask me for primary sources related to, say, the work of Henry David Thoreau, and I don't know if they want contemporary newspaper accounts or letters by Thoreau or pictures of the original manuscript or a map of Walden pond or whether their teacher just meant for them to quote from the text they're studying.
- Science Fair Questions. This is another one where kids are often confused about what they need. They want a source on exactly what will happen if you water plants with colored water. I try to explain that I may not have a text which discusses their specific project. This disappoints them, and I hate disappointing children. Some questions are more answerable, like the physics behind skateboards, or how to build a waterwheel. But they're always a challenge.
As a final note, I admit that I'm not planning on buying World Book in print anymore, since everyone has online access, and I've been wondering if I should stop buying the biography and country reference sets for the same reason. However, I still get tons of kids coming in because they are required to have a book source for their homework projects. So even if the reference process is sort of symbolic in that case, I still need to have an encyclopedia of countries so I can give them a darn book source. (And curse you teachers who insist that an encyclopedia doesn't count! I have to tell children, it's a reference book, but it's not a general encyclopedia, so it's OK. Promise). I also need an encyclopedia of countries because there is not a single children's book on Cape Verde in the last 10 years. If you can find one, I'll dye my hair blue.