Those of use who study or teach about scientific information have this model of how it goes:
(this image is lifted from my dissertation, fwiw, and it more or less reproduces Garvey & Griffith, 1967; Garvey & Griffith, 1972)
Conference papers (in many fields) are supposed to be more cutting edge - really understandable to people in the field with a deep understanding but who need that icing on the cake of what's new. Journal articles are for more or less after substantive parts of the work are complete and take a while for review and publication (letters journals are supposed to be much faster), and then monographs and textbooks are more for when the information is more stable. More recently, there's a category of shorter books that are sort of like extended reviews but are faster than monographs. Morgan & Claypool, Foundations and Trends, and the new series coming from Cambridge University Press (no endorsement here) are examples. (Note the model omits things like protocols, videos, and datasets).
Reference books are even slower moving. They are used to look up fairly stable information. Here are some examples:
- encyclopedias (and not just Worldbook, but Kirk-Othmer, Ullman's, and technical encylopedias)
- handbooks (not just for engineers!)
- gazetteers (well, maybe less so for the sciences), maps
- guidebooks (like in geology, biology)
- sometimes things like catalogs...
You may think, hey, all I really need are the journal articles and Google and maybe Wikipedia. Or at least publishers and librarians think you're thinking that. And reference books are sort of disappearing. It doesn't make any sense to devote precious real estate to the print versions and the online versions are super expensive and also often not used.
The thing is that these tools are really still needed and they have condensed very useful information down into small(er) packages. If you're concerned about efficiency and authority then starting with a reference book is probably a good idea if you want an overview or to look up a detail.
The publishers don't want to lose our money so they're taking a few different approaches. Some are making large topical digital libraries that combine journal articles, book chapters, and reference materials. This can be really good - you can look up information on a topic when you're reading a journal article or look up a definition, etc. You can start with an overview from an encyclopedia and then dive deeper to learn what's new. The problem from a librarian and user point of view is that the best information may come from multiple different publishers and you just won't get that. You won't get a recommendation for someone else's product.
Another thing publishers are doing is to make reference materials more dynamic. First, they can charge you more and and more frequently. Second, even if the updates are quite small, it makes the resource more attractive to potential users to have a recent date updated. One publisher in particular has commissioned sort of a portal approach that gathers materials from various places and has commissioned new overviews.
There's a tool to sort of search across more traditional reference materials, but... meh.
Of course if you have a well-developed model of what type of reference tool will have your needed information, then you can use the catalog (subjects like engineering - handbooks, engineering - encyclopedias). Back in the day, I wrote about how senior engineers gathered and created their own handbooks from pieces they'd found useful over time.
So here's where librarians come in. I've never taught the basic undergrad science welcome-to-the-library class (I attended one <cough> years ago), so I really don't know if they go over these distinctions or not. So that leaves our guides to try to get people to the best source of information. Guides that are merely laundry lists of tools by format/type are frowned upon because they are generally not useful. That's what we used to do though: here's a list of dictionaries, here's a list of encyclopedias... etc. What we try to do more now is make them problem based. Somewhat easier in like business: need to understand an industry? need to look up a company? Also maybe in materials science and or chemistry (although SciFinder and Reaxys' way of doing properties may be supplanting).
Ok, so beyond the difficulty of expressing the value of each of these tools and in which situations they are useful, we have the affordances of our websites and the tools that produce them. Most are database driven now, which makes sense because you don't want to have to go a million places to update a url. Except... one reference might be useful for one purpose in one guide, and another in another, and then how do you get that to display? How do you balance chatty to educate when needed verses quick links for when not?
Also, do you list a digital library collection of handbooks or, more commonly, monographs mixed with handbooks, as a database? As what?
The reviews and overviews and encyclopedias... do you call them out separately? By series?
Users sometimes happen upon reference books from web searches - but that's mostly things like encyclopedias. If they need an equation or a property... well, if they're an engineer they probably know exactly what handbook... so then, I guess, if they don't have their own copy, they would use the catalog and get to the current edition which we may have online. Getting a phase diagram or other property of a material - I'm guessing users would probably start online but for some materials we have entire references (like titanium, aluminum... and then things like hydrazine).
I'm thinking we could have on an engineering guide, a feed from the catalog with engineering - handbooks? Likewise a feed physics-handbooks? What about things like encyclopedia of optics. Call out "major reference works" and then catalog feed of [subject] - handbooks|encyclopedias|etc....
OR.. hey... what about the shelf display model:
But, instead of all books, just the books for that guide that match [guide name] -- encyclopedia|dictionary|handbook, etc.
What other methods can we use?