Library's reference collection evolving—April 13, 2012
Is Reference Dead? This was the title of a workshop I attended last month at the Public Library Association’s national conference. For those of you who hate jargon, “reference” has two meanings in library world. It can mean the act of answering questions for library customers, or it can mean the expensive, authoritative and sacred collection of books you can’t take out of the library. In this article I will discuss the physical book definition of reference. Later on this month I will discuss the act or service of providing answers to “reference” questions.
For decades libraries relied on a core group of books to provide the public with the ultimate answers to our quests for knowledge as well as obscure facts and figures. And then along came the Internet and Google. In a very short amount of time, those facts and figures have become available to anyone with a device and some sort of Internet connection or signal. As search engines developed and got better and faster, it became much easier to look something up online than in a book. However, both books and the Internet have their faults. Online, the researcher has to wade through pages of ads and links having nothing to do with his topic before finding just the right source. The book, on the other hand, is expensive. Libraries often can only replace expensive volumes every 5 years or, at best, every other year.
So it’s not hard to deduce how the Internet has slowly replaced our reference collection over the last 20 years. What’s hard is for librarians to let go of these wonderful treasured collections that they invested time and money into building. Especially when they know exactly in which book lies the answer to a particular question. And though I may be a young librarian who rarely used her college library’s physical collection, I still see value and importance in our 20-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
But libraries have always had to prioritize services and collections as their communities grow. We are given a finite amount of space to house the most relevant and important materials in our community. In light of this, you will soon see our reference collection adapting into a “Nebraska Collection.” Current reference materials will be made part of the non-fiction collection where we can better measure usage and age, and our “reference” materials will become those important, valuable and sacred works about Nebraska and our local heritage. The exact make up and location of this collection will be determined this summer with the help of a student intern specializing in preservation and history. We hope this plan makes more materials more available to our customers and highlights the uniqueness of our community for residents and visitors alike. The History of Adams County, Nebraska, Volumes 1 & 2 are after all, far more important and valuable in our community than a 20 volume dictionary.