Thursday, January 17, 2008

Weeding print reference

Although I am reference librarian, our reference collection is a mystery to me. It's true. I hardly ever actually look at those books, some dusty, some shiny, most probably unopened for years. We've just begun a project to weed the print reference collection and have also been talking a bit about the role of print reference now that so much information is available online.

Our reference collection is far, far larger than it should be. I really think it should be about half its current size. Patrons want books they can take out of the library, so for the most part the only people who would use these books are staff. But even for us, it's terribly difficult to find needed information in this collection. Doing a complicated catalog search to figure out which book to look in is time-consuming; we should be able to just walk to the shelf of the needed subject area and eyeball to find what we need, but with 6 aisles, it is far too large for this. And given the amount of use, the space being taken up is completely unjustified.

But size isn't the only problem - you can walk to any shelf and find a number of useless, out-of-date, and obscure books. I can't imagine what reference question would necessitate using the 1989 publication "The Encyclopedia of Monsters" or a computer buying guide published in 2001. Or the cartoonish "Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle," a book of feminist quotes with no index or apparent structure to it's organization, rendering it useless as anything other than a coffee table book. A Who's Who of Nobel Prize Winners that only goes up to 1990 may be of some limited usefulness, but I still say it has no place in a reference collection, which should only contain the most up to date, complete, accurate information available in print. Some would argue that having something on the shelf - even if out of date - is better than nothing, but I disagree. If it's not going to be used, it is only clutter and prevents us from easily finding the things that are useful.

Even more horrifying than the fact that we still have some of these items, is that many other libraries in our system also have them. I recently took a field trip with a co-worker to a neighboring town's library to see what their Reference collection looks like. Disappointingly, it was as large and dust-filled as ours. I felt a little better about the size of our collection, but felt like I had less ammunition to advocate for downsizing it. Why are libraries retaining this stuff for so long? Every time I start to withdraw an item and see that it's also held by 12 other libraries in our network, I second guess myself. But I forge on, knowing that I'd never direct a patron to that book, a good indication that it shouldn't be there.

So, what is the value of print reference, now that the internet provides up-to-date information literally at our fingertips? I dare say that most ready reference questions can be answered more efficiently and accurately online than through print resources. Only a small collection of print is needed to complement our online sources. So there. Weed away!


Anonymous said...

I once had a conversation with a reference librarian who told me that her main criteria for including an item in the reference collection (as opposed to somewhere else in the library) was the cost of the item. The result: a very expensive, very dusty room full of unused books.

I think that librarian need to think very hard about reference collections - how they are developed, how they are used, the purpose they serve - and make some tough decisions. Or maybe not so tough. :)

3goodrats said...

Yeah, I think we have some books in reference instead of circulating for that reason as well. Silliness!