Reference resources

The reference collection exemplifies the shift from print to digital resources. This guide will help school library teams rethink the reference collection, exploring purpose, content, and accessibility for all library users.


Reference collections in 21st century libraries
The role of the school library reference collection
Selection of resources: general criteria
Selection of reference resources: criteria for specific resources
Selection of reference resources: responsibilities and procedures
Reference resources: access and management
Location of your print reference collection
Processing reference resources
Maintaining the reference collection
Sources of online reference material
A core reference collection: primary and Intermediate schools
A core reference collection: secondary schools

Reference collections in 21st century school libraries

Today’s learners expect that access to information should be free, easy and immediate.

In rethinking the purpose and development of reference collections, you also have to explore new ways to promote, support and embed the most appropriate resources into your students’ learning environment.

The reference collection becomes a key suite of resources in the toolbox of teaching and library staff, in their role as knowledge enablers and information literacy leaders.

A strong commitment to supporting information literacy among your learners will ensure that reference resources, digital and print, will be found easily and used regularly.

Your 21st century reference collection will:

  • reflect the information needs of your learners
  • comprise an increasingly growing range of digital resources promoted through the library catalogue, the library’s online presence (eg webpage, blog), and through PCs and mobile devices available in the library and classroom
  • complement a small print reference collection that is current, relevant and accessible to your learners before, during and after school.

The role of the school library reference collection

The school library reference collection acts as a catalyst, encouraging exploration by students at different stages along the research continuum.

The reference collection can meet a number of specific student information needs such as:

  • on the spot enquiries requiring rapid retrieval of information and a straightforward answer
  • introductory overviews of topics providing concepts and key terms to support students’ next steps in inquiry learning
  • subject information that is not covered elsewhere in the library’s collection

Note, the Browsing Collection of high interest non-fiction reading is not part of a Reference Collection, and falls outside the scope of this guide.

Reference resources must be:

  • dependable, authoritative, up-to-date, concise and systematically arranged
  • user-friendly, relevant to the curriculum with strong New Zealand content where appropriate
  • able to cater to a range of reading / ability levels and learning styles.

Selection of reference resources: general criteria

Refer to our selection guide for a list of basic selection criteria. When selecting reference resources look carefully at:

  • overall quality of the resource
  • ease of access to the information within the resource
  • appropriateness of scope, presentation and reading level
  • comprehensiveness of indexing, cross-referencing and digital links
  • ease of access to the resource, and how many users can access it simultaneously
  • how frequently and thoroughly the item is updated to ensure currency of information
  • any subscription, networking and supplier’s back-up support costs for digital resources
  • the quality and speed of your library ICT, and the stability and reliability of your computer network
  • the availability of back issues and archives and the added value of digital resources – including search functionality and inclusion of multimedia resources – over other formats
  • usability - including an interface that follows internet conventions, is easy to navigate, and responsive to users
  • a powerful, flexible search engine
  • a range of options for the capture, printing, downloading, citation and sharing of information
  • with any print reference material consider durability; suitability of shape and size

A stable web environment ensuring 24/7 availability with fast response and download times is critical to providing reliable and efficient access to resources.

Further criteria that you need to consider include:

  • how the resource accessed will be accessed
  • what methods of authentication are available
  • whether the resource is compatible across a range of browsers, platforms and devices
  • whether user training and support is available, and how it is accessed – online, remote, or face-to-face
  • whether the resource allows for customisation to individual user requirements?
  • what accessibility options are included to support students with sight or hearing impairment

Selection of reference resources: criteria for specific resources

Apps (Applications)

In providing 24/7 access to support your users' need for free, easy and immediate access to information, apps become an increasingly important element in the library reference arsenal.

The term app is used as shorthand for “application”.

Although in recent times the term app has become synonymous with applications designed for mobile devices such as smart phones and iPads, the term app actually refers to virtually any type of programme from an excel spreadsheet to media players such as iTunes and virtual reality games and includes programmes that may be used on PCs as well as on mobile devices.

The term specifically excludes operating systems software.

Many traditional reference resources are also available as apps and many more reference resources have been created solely as apps.

Things to look for when evaluating apps:

  • Is the app user friendly – in particular is it easy for children to navigate?
  • Does it have customisable features such as the ability to alter the settings (easy / medium / hard) and accessibility options (font size / narration speed)?
  • Is it available for a wide variety of devices?
  • Is the app interactive and does it encourage creative thinking and problem solving?

Further reading on e-resource collections:

Key issues for e-resource collection development: a guide for libraries / IFLA, 2012

Dictionaries and thesauri

There are many dictionaries and thesauri available freely online. The following criteria will help you assess their appropriateness for your collection:

  • Different meanings for words are numbered and easy to follow
  • Headwords in a thesaurus are words commonly used, with synonyms, alternative words, slang and antonyms identified
  • They reflect current language styles – new words, changes in idiom
  • Check for any biases by looking up political and social terms
  • Differences in spelling are indicated, e.g. disk / disc, program / programme
  • Etymology and pronunciation are indicated, where applicable
  • Offer audio for pronunciation

Maps and atlases

Digital maps and atlases are continually being enhanced making them indispensable sources of geographic information. The following criteria are specific to maps and atlases, so check out:

  • Adequate scope given to different geographical and political regions, including New Zealand
  • The range of place-names is suitable for intended users
  • Maps are divided into continents giving a logical browsing approach; overview of the world included which enables students to see countries in relation to each other
  • Colour used for geological features has good contrast, symbols are easy to use
  • Labelling of maps is clear and legible – i.e. font, style, size, colour, contrast

If you decide to have a print atlas also watch for:

  • publication date (print atlases become dated after about five years), dates of sources given for any statistical information, and names of cities and countries currently in the news
  • a good index in alphabetical sequence with references to exact page, map, latitude and longitude and grid information, font size and spacing to make index easy to read.

Current statistics (yearbooks, almanacs and directories)

Increasingly, current information of this type is located on the internet, much free of charge.

  • Their general purpose is to update standard information by providing current data including statistics and current names and addresses.
  • Before considering items for purchase assess who is likely to use them, and evaluate whether costs are justified in each case.

Selection of reference resources: responsibilities and procedures

Selection, development and maintenance of your school library’s reference resources is the responsibility of your library yeam, in consultation with teachers and your library users.

List the selection procedures and criteria for your reference collection in your guiding statement.

To select reference resources:

  • Identify present and future needs. Your school library collection supports the needs and interests of your particular community. Use the Services to Schools guidelines on developing a community profile
  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your school library’s current collection. Use the Services to Schools guidelines on assessing and weeding your collection
  • Research currently available resources and identify which ones will support your school community’s needs
  • Prioritise needs and include in the library’s collection requirements plan and budget for the coming year
  • Allocate the budget
  • Select reference resources. Use alerting services from book vendors and suppliers to keep up to date with new titles

Reference resources: access and management

Here are some ideas on ways to provide access to your digital reference collection:

  • Incorporate links to digital references sources on the school library online catalogue and the school library online presence so that teachers and students can locate these resources readily when searching for a topic.
  • Collaborate with teachers to embed links to library resources within the school online learning network to enhance seamless access to critical resources between the classroom and library
  • Use a content curation tool (such as Scoop.It, LiveBinders, or one of the range available) to curate your online reference tools under different headings.
  • Provide access to digital resources on library computers located near the print reference collection, as well as in other locations in the library and throughout the school.
  • Deploy Library Reference iPads loaded with selected reference resources and apps in both the library and classrooms.
  • Use a variety of ways to promote the use of digital reference resources, e.g. bookmarking URLs, providing links from the school Intranet, and highlighting new websites, or websites of topical interest
  • Provide user guidance and support through proactive information literacy engagement and close collaboration with teaching teams.
  • Alert users to complementary print resources with appropriate online messages.

As students have more and more access to the internet - for example in a 1:1 bring-your-own-device learning environment - digital resources, particularly those developed for use on mobile devices will be an increasingly significant part of your collection.

Further reading on using mobile devices, see: Using the iPad for reference services: librarians go mobile.

Location of your print reference collection

  • Traditionally, print reference collections have been placed in a defined area of the library where students have access to tables and chairs, and which allows easy adult assistance and supervision
  • However, you may want to try interfiling reference materials with your general collection to make these tools more visible and maximise usage.
  • Where feasible, place your print reference collection near to a photocopier and printer. Clearly display current copyright information and obligations near the photocopier and/or printer.

Processing reference resources

  • Catalogue and process your reference resources in the same way as other library resources. You can include catalogue records for websites on your school library online catalogue.
  • Identify print items as Reference on catalogue records, and add an ‘R’ or ‘REF’ sticker to the spine above or below the Dewey classification number to aid shelving and retrieval.

Maintaining the reference collection

  • Monitor usage and currency of your reference resources to ensure they are meeting student and staff needs
  • Identify gaps and take these into account when you are reviewing your school library’s collection requirements plan
  • Include reference resources when weeding the print collection, and review your subscriptions and access to digital reference sources, checking URLs for currency and appropriateness.

Sources of online reference materials

You can find a range of appropriately selected and levelled online resources at the following sites:

A core reference collection: primary and Intermediate schools

A core reference collection may include:

  • A general encyclopedia such as Encyclopedia Britannica online (PreK to 8) available on EPIC. Available as an app for iPad. Also available as a series of thematic apps for children.
  • New Zealand encyclopedica such as Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  • A homework help site such as Any Questions and Many Answers.
  • Website portals such as Fact Hound.
  • Online websites that provide quick, current information, eg weather, seismological data, breaking news.
  • Dictionaries and thesauri.
    • Encyclopedia Britannica online has a dictionary tab available.
    • Māori, Pasifika dictionaries.
    • dictionaries covering languages taught in your school, and languages used by members of the school community.
  • Atlases - Encyclopedia Britannica online has the research tools, Facts Matter and Discover our world sections with maps and quick facts.
    • Provide links to Google Earth and Google Maps.
  • Local information – street maps, telephone directories, community directories. Provide access to the digital version where this is available eg. the White pages and Yellow pages.

A core reference collection: secondary schools

  • Online websites that provide quick, current information
    • e.g. weather, seismological data, breaking news eg Encyclopedia Britannica Online – free on TKI - has news feeds from the NZ Herald, the BBC and the ABC
  • A general encyclopedia
  • Facts and records
  • Subject-specific resources:
    • New Zealand related: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
    • Oxford Art Online, available as one of the EPIC suite of online resources – free on TKI
    • Oxford Music Online, available through EPIC – free on TKI
    • The Gale Virtual Reference Library, available through EPIC – free on TKI, includes volumes on the arts and humanities, business, the environment, history, literature, religion, science and social science
    • World History in Context, another EPIC resource – free on TKI
    • Other subject areas as required
  • Language dictionaries
    • Oxford English Dictionary online, available through EPIC – free on TKI
    • Also available as an app for iPad and Android
    • Māori, Pasifika
    • Languages taught as part of the school curriculum, and languages used by members of the school community
  • Thesauri
  • Biography in Context - available through EPIC – free on TKI
  • Tikanga Māori – place names, proverbs, whakatauki, marae protocols
  • Maps and atlases – contemporary and historical, local (e.g. street maps) New Zealand, Pacific Islands, and World
  • Apps such as Google Earth and Google Maps
  • Local information – telephone directories, community directories. Provide access to the digital version where this is available eg. the White pages and Yellow pages.
  • New Zealand flora and fauna identification guides (if required - you may just prefer to have these able to be borrowed, for field trips and general usage).
  • Indexes, yearbooks, almanacs and directories as appropriate, including the New Zealand Official Yearbook. The digital version includes a complete archive of Yearbooks from 1983 and is fully searchable.
  • Several publishers are producing single volume reference works on a variety of subjects which are ideal for school libraries. These include companions to music, literature and art; pocket books of statistics, etc; handbooks on wildlife, science and other topics; and works on interesting facts and outstanding achievements. These are increasingly becoming available as thematic apps such as those available from Britannica.

EPIC resources - for New Zealand schools

The EPIC collection of databases contains thousands of international and New Zealand magazines, newspapers, biographies, substantial reference works, and images. EPIC lets you access up-to-date full text articles covering a huge range of subjects and is freely available to all schools in New Zealand.

Schools have to register first, and the details are on the TKI site (use the link to EPIC above). To access the databases either from home or school, teachers and students have to use their school log-in and password.