Ok to ask people you havent been in contact with in years for a reference. This would be applicable with a college professor. Also, should you ask them in an email first if they would provide reference or should you just put their name down in the form and let the institution approach them? Danke Mooergen!

I would ask them in an email first.

A reference means nothing unless you have a reference on the reference.

email them first, one of my professors that I wanted to include as a reference was on sabbatical at that time and I had no idea about it, pretty much of no use

yeah, contact first.