Reference Books – Old Fashioned?

There’s a thread currently going around on the ALSC listserv I subscribe to regarding ready reference collections and how necessary it is to maintain one – the original poster asked two questions: what methods are librarians using to track reference usage (since they are non-circulating and thus have no check-out statistics), and if people are continuing to keep a reference section at all. Here’s my take:

At my library, we keep a very, very limited reference collection. We have the current World Book Encyclopedia, a science encyclopedia, an African-American cultural encyclopedia (three books), an Atlas and a handful of textbooks. I wasn’t working here when (and if) the library decided to downsize its reference collection, but that’s the impression I get – what we have may have been moved to the circulating collection, or just weeded for disuse.

The most practical reasons for downsizing reference collections are space and money. We live in an age where subscribing to the electronic versions of encyclopedias is cheaper and easier; they get updated automatically, they don’t take up precious shelf space, and they’re easier to navigate. When I was a student, and I had to write research papers, we had strict regulations on how many electronic versus paper resources we could use – a practice which is outdated and, I think, probably contributes pretty directly to the declining use of ready reference.

The other thing to consider, related to the time and money factor, is that by far the most popular service my library offers (at least to teens and young people) is the ready availability of computers, laptops, and wi-fi. I absolutely do not believe that libraries are in danger because “everything is online” – all you have to do is stick your head in our youth area after school to see the number of kids who rely on us to provide the electronic tools they need for academics and other purposes. Libraries and books aren’t going anywhere, but the internet (and the access we provide) has taken the place of many hard copy reference materials – which are at least a month to a year behind the information you can find on the internet.

This is not to say that ALL materials traditionally catalogued as reference have no use, but I do think it’s why most of those get rotated into the circulating collection. It’s no longer vitally important that they stay in the library for everyone to use; they are an option now, not the only source of information.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a media breakdown!

Watching: Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, Grey’s Anatomy. I REALLY wish Grey’s would stop doing legal storylines – now I know how people in the medical/CSI fields must feel about all of those horribly inaccurate procedural shows. One of the most recent episodes of Grey’s features a medical malpractice case that makes zero sense if you have any sort of legal background (two of the three attorneys I work part-time for are med mal lawyers, so…yeah). But Sleepy Hollow continues to be bananas in the most enjoyable way.

Reading: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black. I love that Holly Black isn’t afraid to go there when she writes; I am pretty much constantly surprised by how visceral and brutal Coldtown is. Which is good, because it’s a vampire book, and this is a book that never forgets that vampires are monsters.

Playing: Still Pokémon. I had to return a borrowed copy of Skyrim, which I hope to get for Christmas so that I can continue my journey of exploration and becoming the baddest ass character in all the land. Seriously, don’t mess with my wood elf, she will cut you.


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