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Accordion List

It may not be possible to speak of a “reference collection” per se because reference titles are acquired by all the collection development librarians. The focus here is on the reference collection at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. It serves a broad segment of the University community including undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, researchers, and staff, especially those affiliated with the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Social Work, the Graduate School of Education, and Liberal and Professional Studies. In addition, students and faculty from other Schools, notably the Graduate School of Fine Arts, Wharton School, and the School of Nursing make regular use of this collection. It also serves many special groups who participate in the University's extensive community outreach programs.

Van Pelt houses a general social sciences and humanities reference collection. A significant reference collection was in place in the University's Furness Library over 50 years ago. (See the 1940 Faculty Survey of the University Libraries for a brief description). That collection has grown considerably since the Library moved to the new Van Pelt building in 1962. Major additions to the reference collection resulted from the consolidation of the Penniman Education Library and the School of Social Work Library into the Van Pelt collections. The growth of electronic reference sources has been dramatic in the past few decades. Currently most of the major indexing and abstracting sources are available as networked, web-based products. Most include links to full-text articles. In June 2022 the collection no longer had a separate physical location but was distributed into the Van Pelt stacks or sent to storage.

1. Chronological 

The chronological periods covered vary according to discipline. For most social science disciplines, reference tools in the Van Pelt collections emphasize contemporary concerns. A few major tools on the history of the discipline may be included in the collection. Reference sources in the humanities may include older publications. Important general reference tools from the 19th century, such as biographical dictionaries and comprehensive bibliographies, are still retained.

2. Formats 

Selection decisions about format (networked electronic or print, rarely CD-ROM and raw datasets) consider several factors: means of access, anticipated use, cost, and frequency of updating. 

Since a large portion of the reference budget is devoted to online sources, the criteria for selection deserve elaboration. Preferred characteristics are: 

  • permanent access [demonstrated through long-term use elsewhere or clear financial stability of the provider] 
  • vendor-provided domain-restricted access 
  • site licensing which allows for unlimited simultaneous use or an adequate number of simultaneous connections 
  • web-based graphical interface which does not require distribution of client software to a user's desktop 
  • ease of use in combination with sophisticated search capabilities, minimally including Boolean functionality, positional operators, and field-specific searching 
  • variety of output choices and formats, preferably e-mail, print and file-save 
  • vendor responsiveness and commitment to ongoing development 
  • frequent updating 
  • inclusion of graphics especially tables, charts, and maps. 

3. Geographical 

There are no geographical limits, but emphasis is on North America and Europe. 

4. Language 

Though English is the primary language of print publications and access protocols for online sources, language is not an essential criterion for selection. However, the collection does emphasize western languages and deliberately excludes works solely in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian languages since these are covered in area studies seminar collections. 

5. Publication Dates 

The collection is continually coordinated with the University's curriculum and research programs and its materials must be timely and authoritative. 

6. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

As indicated above, reference sources must be among the most responsive to the contemporary world and to the research needs of the university. Consequently, they are inseparable from our concerns for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Serials, especially annuals, make up approximately 40% of the titles in the collection. Materials received on approval, acquired through blanket orders (ALA publications), and received through depository arrangements (US, UN, EEC) are reviewed for addition to reference. However, because many reference titles fall outside the scope of these programs, due to cost and distribution factors, many firm orders are necessary.

Reference staff regularly read the following sources for new acquisitions: American Reference Books Annual (ARBA), American Libraries, Choice, College and Research Libraries, Journal of Academic Librarianship, Library Journal, RQ, and Reference Services Review. In addition, Reference receives a large number of publishers' flyers and catalogs. Often salespeople from major vendors visit promoting their products. Staff responsible for selection of French, German, Spanish and Portuguese, Russian, and Italian materials often suggest additional titles.

Subject Level

A. Verification tools


The primary tools for verification are online databases, especially OCLC/Worldcat.  Historically, national bibliographies were important, but these have become less so with so many online catalogs being available.


B. Indexes and abstracting services.


Van Peltcollects multi-disciplinary, national, subject-specific, and narrowly focused indexes and abstracts that will enable users to find sub-volume level materials (articles in journals and newspapers, primarily) in Penn's library collections and elsewhere. Many online indexes and abstracts now include the full-text of the materials they index. These databases are especially attractive to users and are a high priority for acquisition. Paper subscriptions are usually canceled when online versions are selected.


C. Encyclopedias, Topical Dictionaries, Handbooks, Fact Books, Almanac, and Yearbooks


Van Peltcollects current English and other Western language materials of these types in all the subject areas for which it takes responsibility. As important general and specialized titles become available online we are likely to purchase them in that form.


D. Subject or Topical Bibliographies


Van Peltcollects bibliographies of secondary literature in all areas of the social sciences and humanities. However, Reference does not select bibliographies on individuals. Narrowly focused bibliographies may be selected for high interest, with the understanding that they will be transferred to the Van Pelt stacks when interest wanes and other topics emerge. These types of bibliographies are not published as frequently as they once were but can occasionally be important.


E. Statistical compendia


Van Pelt collects statistical abstracts, yearbooks, and comparative or historical statistical works for all states in the United States and all countries of the world. Currency is especially critical with these titles. As they appear in electronic form, we will prefer networked versions when possible.


F. Legislative Manuals and State Blue Books


Van Pelt collects directories (blue books) from all states in the US and legislative manuals (rules for law makers) from most states. Directories of foreign governments and legislative bodies, especially those of Western Europe, are also collected. Usually every fifth edition of these titles are chosen. Most legislatures make this information online. There are concerns about archiving however.


G. Biographical Sources


Van Pelt collects current "who's who" volumes for all countries of the world as well as: subject specific biographical sets, including discipline based, biographical finding tools, bibliographies of biographical sources; obituary indexes.


H. Book Review Sources


Van Pelt subscribes to the major serial English-language book review sources.


I. Atlases, Gazetteers, Maps


Van Pelt collects general, national, and, for the US, regional and state atlases. Both contemporary and historical atlases are selected.


J. Dictionaries


For major Western languages, Van Pelt collects unabridged, authoritative multi-volume dictionaries and primary etymological dictionaries. Other kinds of dictionaries—bilingual, slang, thesauri—are collected selectively. Bilingual dictionaries are collected for some languages from Asia and the Middle East.


K. Directories


Directories of organizations, associations, institutions of higher education, learned societies, social assistance agencies, federal/state/local and governmental agencies, libraries, archives, and publishers are selected. Increasingly these are available in electronic form. Van Pelt has preferred the networked versions. Again, currency is vital.


L. Serials bibliographies, union-lists.


Van Pelt acquires major bibliographies that allow staff and users to locate and identify serials worldwide. These are primarily of a historical nature but serve as back up to online union catalogs.


M. Newspaper Indexes, Bibliographies, Union Lists


Van Pelt collects historical and current bibliographies of newspapers for most countries of the world. Unions lists of newspaper holdings are purchased selectively. We try to acquire up-to-date listings of newspaper holdings, especially currently received papers, for local area libraries. Selecting online services providing full-text access is a priority.


N. Dissertation sources


Van Pelt collects major bibliographies of doctoral level dissertations done in the US and Canada and in Western European countries. The major source for this is now the Proquest Dissertation database but many countries are not included in it, so it is necessary to subscribe to bibliographies for these countries


O. Guides to the literature


Van Pelt collects authoritative guides to any social science or humanities discipline. Online guides exist for many subjects, but many older printed guides remain authoritative. Especially noteworthy are the Oxford Bibliographies.


P. Quotation Dictionaries.


Van Pelt buys quotation dictionaries in several languages and for specific subjects, as well as general works. Because quotations are notoriously difficult to verify, authoritative sources are essential.



Q. Any newly published catalogs from national (deposit arrangement) or subject specialized libraries are purchased very selectively. By policy, we prefer to create links to web sites of other libraries.


R. News Summaries and Services.


Van Pelt collects general English-language news summaries. For current materials, the most important news summaries are available electronically primarily through the Government Printing Office depository program.


S. Funding sources.


Van Pelt buys current sources on financial aid and directories of grants, granting agencies, foundations, public and private funding agencies, and sources aimed at specific groups(e.g. women, minorities) are collected.


T. Travel guides


The titles chosen emphasize historical and cultural aspects, rather than hotel or restaurant information. Many are also selected by area studies librarians.


U. Manuscript Catalogs


Van Pelt adds manuscript catalogs very selectively. A few examples aremajor collections, regional repositories, or subject-related bibliographies of mss. Most of these are housed in Van Pelt stacks.


V. Genealogical and Heraldic Reference sources


Van Pelt collects very selectively in this area, with the aim to serve historians and ethnic studies researchers.


Van Pelt collects very selectively in those areas of the social sciences and humanities which are covered by another library unit or are not central to the teaching and research activities of the University, such as journalism, sports and recreation, food and nutrition, agriculture, library science, and military science. The department does not buy how-to books or self-help manuals. We have no sources on consumer-oriented reference sources such as auto mechanics, computer games, childcare, pest control, used- or new-car prices, or airline schedules. Many of these are now on the web which makes this exclusion less problematic than in the past. 

Several seminar rooms within Van Pelt house important reference sources and/or entire reference collections. For example, the Music Seminar Room is in fact the music reference collection and the Music Librarian provides reference services. The East Asia, Middle East, and South Asia seminar rooms also hold most reference sources for those areas and all reference titles in non-Roman alphabets. The librarians/bibliographers for those areas provide reference services. The Classics and Judaica/Ancient Near East seminar rooms house major reference tools that are not duplicated in the general reference collection.

Some interdisciplinary subjects are covered by both Van Pelt and a departmental reference collection. The most important of these are: ecology and environment (Fisher Fine Arts Library, Holman Biotech Commons to some extent); energy resources and management (Fisher, Lippincott Library of the Wharton School, Engineering Library); film studies (Annenberg); the social, political, and economic aspects of health care (Lippincott, Holman); public opinion (Annenberg); urban studies (Fisher); transportation (Fisher, Lippincott, Engineering Library); and computer science (Lippincott, Engineering Library). Deliberate duplications are rare.

We rely on other area libraries, especially Drexel University and the Free Library of Philadelphia, for reference resources in areas that are peripheral to Penn's collections including childcare, auto repair, gardening, fashion, and for material types, such as sheet maps, pictures and prints, and some of the more extensive video catalogs. We direct members of the Penn community to the appropriate local public or alternate academic library. Subscriptions to electronic union catalogs and direct links, when possible, simplify such referrals and are common.