- Looking for the Answer
Libraries spend a significant portion of their budgets on reference books, publications that serve as guides to the literature of subjects, general and particular; that help to locate materials in other institutions; and that provide quick answers to specific questions. Reference tools may be heavily used ( Morton’s Medical Bibliography, 1 or the Bibliography of the History of Medicine, 2 for example), yet taken for granted. They are “silent [End Page 94]partners,” rarely footnoted or identified in papers or presentations. 3 While today’s texts may go out of date quickly in fields where technology drives change, reference compilations do not lose their value through age, though they may be reissued to incorporate new materials.
In fact, outdated texts become mirrors of the state of the discipline, statements of a level of knowledge tied to one point in time, and valuable for that very fact. Medical directories, for example, can offer information on “social space,” 4 on professional relationships as well as the more mundane facts of education and career. A selection of medical (dental, nursing) dictionaries or pharmacopoeias can reveal the evolving definition of terminology across time, changing concepts of disease, fads in therapy, social biases. Encyclopedia articles are fascinating snapshots of ideas and values arrested in time, disclosing much that was undreamed of by their authors. One has only to think of the Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences médicales, 5 a hundred volumes published across a quarter of a century, or A Reference Handbook of the Medical Sciences, 6 which appeared at the turn of the century. To look at the men who wrote the articles, their affiliations, their outlook, the breadth of their knowledge is to begin to draw the picture of their professional knowledge, to conjecture about the role of their profession in society.
Today, an enormous variety of reference (and reference-type) tools exist, offering information ranging from brief personal data to extensive listings of citations, sources for illustrations, guides to the literature of specific fields in specific periods, inventories of archival and manuscript collections, and dictionaries of languages and terminologies—and all designed for readers from neophytes to the highly knowledgeable and sophisticated. The first edition of A Handbook of Medical Library Practice(1943) included a bibliography of 458 historical works, and a list of 603 general medical reference works. 7 By 1967 the number of items in the [End Page 95]latter list had increased to more than 2,700 titles, precluding their inclusion in the expected third edition of the Handbookand requiring instead a separate publication. 8 There is no currently comprehensive publication of historical health science reference works, but a look at any major medical library’s historical reference collection will reveal the extent of documentatil. available. Of course, the very electronic technology that makes the gathering, compilation, and production of such information increasingly easy also contributes to the appearance of increased numbers of reference works. For some authors, such compilations are a labor of love, or a response to personal frustration over the lack of available information—for example, John Shaw Billings’s development of the collection represented in the Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office. 9
The primary qualities expected in reference works of any type are authority and accuracy, uniqueness, appropriate organization of the material (to facilitate access to the information), and a rationale for the compilation—all attributes suggested by J. S. Billings more than a century ago. 10 Authority is conferred by the author/compiler, and/or the publisher; the experience of the author in the field/subject represented in...