Re-thinking Ready Reference with GVRL

5 min read

By Holly Hibner and Mary Kelly

In the olden days before computers, ready reference collections were the soul of a library. Librarians helping patrons to answer questions or understand a topic always started in the reference section of the library. They were the most expensive materials and librarians were vigilant in guarding those precious items. I have been admonished by a librarian more than once for not handling these books carefully.

Ready reference collections have adapted to the new world of instant access, anywhere and anytime. Patrons still have questions and are trying to understand topics as always, but now they want it faster, more convenient, and always reliable. The reference need is still there, but now librarians have to think about access and delivery to patrons.

Internet information is ubiquitous. It is overwhelming even to seasoned information professionals. We constantly question if the information provided is any good. Librarians know that verified information from respected sources are often not found on the “anything goes” Internet. Ready reference providers are no longer focused only on accuracy of information, but also on formats and 24 hour, cross-platform access.

As a public librarian with limited space and funds, Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL) is one of my go-to resources. It’s filled with curated general information, just like the old print encyclopedias. Those same materials, once in book form, are now just a click away. With GVRL, patrons and librarians can enjoy access to this information without consideration of shelf space.

The delivery and management of the content in GVRL is available 24/7 without the need for individual title check-outs. There is no DRM restriction, so content can be downloaded to e-reader devices without any extra hoops to jump through. It’s like having the book in your hand with full-color, full-text, page-by-page content, but friendly for mobile devices and computer screens.

For Dummies and Complete Idiot’s Guides

Recently the GVRL expanded to include popular books on a variety of subjects. Patron favorites like the For Dummies and Complete Idiot’s Guides are now accessible. The variety of titles is astounding. They introduce topics and terminology with no assumptions of prior knowledge. They ease you in gently, but without sacrificing content. After reading any book in these series, you’ll feel like you have a basic understanding of the topic. They make for perfect refresher courses, too.

DK Eyewitness and Rough Guides

The DK Eyewitness travel guides are filled with gorgeous pictures, perfect for planning your trip or even just armchair traveling. They give the history and culture behind the sites they recommend seeing when you travel. That helps you decide what interests you most, and also makes these travel guides great for school reports. They still have all the useful maps, restaurant recommendations, and hotel choices of any good travel guide. Rough Guides take travelers off-the-beaten-path with all kinds of alternatives to the most popular sights. The beauty of this in electronic form is that it takes up no space and is current. With remote access, patrons can now tap into this information, regardless of where they are in the world. In other words, it is easy to pack!

Integrating a database into regular reference work is often difficult. Patrons are not tech savvy or are intimidated by a database. Librarians can also struggle when trying to integrate a new methodology when helping patrons. Here are 5 tips to help you integrate and demonstrate the power of a database with your patrons.

1. Don’t use the word “database.” Use generic words like “library” to describe the database. Many tech-hesitant patrons think that technology is not for them when we use computer language.

2. Emphasize the similarity of GVRL to books. Just like the card catalog of old, except instead of little white cards and call numbers, the whole book is just one or two clicks.

3. Create in-house, step-by-step instructions. Cheat sheets with pictures are a great way to comfort a patron who is convinced that they won’t remember anything. Even in the simplest interface, the computer can be intimidating.

4. Assure patrons that librarians help. Never turn away a patron who is uncomfortable with technology. Walk them through it as many times as needed. Customer service is essential to making any new product work in a library.

5. Use new resources as much as possible. Librarians tend to go on auto-pilot when helping patrons. Force yourself to use the database and talk about it with the public. Immerse yourself in the content.

The changing landscape of ready reference is constantly evolving. Librarians need to be leading the charge as new technologies and products are offered to our public. There is good curated information sitting in GVRL to help your patrons navigate the brave new world.


[alert-info]Holly Hibner Mary Kelly

About the Authors

Holly is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Plymouth District Library in Plymouth, MI. She has a mild obsession with collection quality (ok, maybe not so mild) and can be found at the Readers’ Advisory desk dreaming up read-alikes.

Mary is the Youth Services Librarian at the Lyon Township Public Library in South Lyon, MI. She, too, is obsessed with collection quality, and has taken it up a notch with never ending shelf lists, spreadsheets, and inventory. Mary has a special knack for linking books to readers of all ages.

Together Mary and Holly are the authors of “Making a Collection Count: a holistic approach to library collection management.” They also tweet at @awfullibbooks and blog at


Leave a Comment