Reference is dead. Don’t worry though, fiction and nonfiction will keep it good company in the great resting place in the sky for obsolete library sections. These days, it’s the Common Core standards that should be driving collection development in the school library, and CC requirements extend well beyond fiction, nonfiction, and reference.
I’m not suggesting you jettison all reference materials. Quite the contrary, we must free these valuable resources from reference shelves in the off chance that someone will need to ask a question without having easy access to Wikipedia (I’m joking, sort of). The information locked within our reference resources is valuable—but needs reformatting to meet current needs. Many traditional reference publishers like ABC-CLIO, M. E. Sharpe, World Book, and Encyclopaedia Britannica have taken their print content and created successful digital versions. Pushing the envelope a bit further, these resources need to live within the regular circulating sections of our libraries.
The Common Core calls for primary sources and short pieces on social studies and scientific topics. Our reference collections are primed to deliver in that category, just not in their current format. What if an encyclopedia didn’t cover everything about the Civil War and instead offered a set of 10 short passages rich with primary sources? Now that reference book is a perfect supplementary resource for a history class. For this to work, however, we need a new name. “Reference” is a loaded word that conjures up noncirculating books. So what do we call these new texts?
Definitely not “nonfiction.” I think it’s time to excise that confusing concept. For every student who’s asked why nonfiction encompasses fairy tales, books about monsters, and everything boys want to know about Star Wars, let go of the idea of nonfiction. You can even see the struggle in the language of the Common Core. “Literary nonfiction?” Isn’t that simply well-written informational texts?
For me, that’s the answer: “informational texts.” Reference books still hold a wealth of content that students need for research and independent learning. Why not collect them into a large informational section?
Then let’s look at books that are primarily about a narrative. These can be collected together in the… well, the narrative section. This means the fairy tales, literature, and so many of the graphic novels that would be tucked away in the 700’s per Dewey can instead be shelved together based around a common narrative structure. Referring to “narrative” and “informational” books also alleviates the use of a negative term—nonfiction—to describe works that aren’t fiction and thus are true even though they may be books about ghosts and monsters. For younger children, perhaps we could subtitle the sections according to books that most overtly “tell me a story” or “teach me about something.”
Clearer terminology can also help in assisting teacher peers. Educators looking for Common Core texts are being told to seek out nonfiction, when, really, the standards are just pushing for more informational texts. Fiction can be written in a highly informational style, case in point: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. Meanwhile, much nonfiction is highly narrative (think Bill Bryson’s travelogues).
A shift around the Common Core is one that libraries might need to make to realign our top-level collection descriptors with how students access and use books. Instead of contrived separations that section off fiction and call everything else nonfiction, let’s turn instead to the texts themselves. Let us ask of each book: are you telling me a story? Or are you teaching me something? Then, we can start building the next big thing in our libraries.