Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reference Books to Go: The Liberation of Our Reference Books

We are breaking with our past at Thomas Ford. One thing that you could always count on was that the reference books were here on the shelves. As good as that was in the past, the problem now is that the reference books are here on the shelves, but no one is here using them. They are just sitting. So we are liberating them. We're going to let them out to anyone with a card, just like other books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs.

The one precedent here is the liberating of the magazines a couple of decades ago. We used to keep the magazines close for all the students doing reports and term papers. We now have online databases with full texts, and those days are long gone. Finally, it is time to free the reference books as well.

Our Adult Services librarians have spent several weeks preparing to let reference books circulate. With Sandy Frank's assistance (she's the head of the circulation department), we have inventoried the collection, weeded out-of-date and worn-out materials, and changed the circulation system status for each record. The work is done and we are starting a quiet launch while we prepare marketing.

Here are reasons for this new service:

  1. Use of reference books in the library has fallen off significantly in the past several years. Librarians with access to online resources are using the print reference items less frequently. Fewer clients are spotted using reference books. We reshelve reference books less often. The reference shelves rarely need straightening.
  2. Clients occasionally ask to borrow the reference books so they can use them at home or work.
  3. Much of the information in the reference books is available to us though our databases. Reference librarians will still have resources to answer questions.
  4. With less money to buy nonfiction books this year, it provides more items to loan students and other clients interested in nonfiction topics.
  5. Other libraries have begun to loan their reference books. Meetings at the 2009 ALA Conference in Chicago and posts on the Booklist blog Points of Reference have discussed the new trend.


The primary objection I have heard is "What if a book from a set doesn't return, isn't the set ruined?" This is a possibility, maybe even a probability in time. Still having books sit idle seems a greater sorrow in a public library focused on current utility and not archival conservation. I think the greater good will be served by this service. I look froward to seeing some smiles when I let someone take a volume of Contemporary Literary Criticism or The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

We do not expect a rush of people coming for the reference books right away, but we hope for steady use. Maybe this liberation will even revive the section and make reference books worth buying again.

15 comments:

Esther said...

Our library has done the same thing. Over half of our reference books have wound there way to the regular non-fiction shelves. We kept certain reference sets and books as non circulating, but we do let those out for a short time if the circumstances justify it.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! This indicates to me that you understand how your collection is being used and you are responding appropriately. You aren't desperately clinging to "the way we've always done it". Bravo

Anonymous said...

So let me get this right - if an item or service is not popular you get rid of it or change it. Perhaps that works with new or ancillary services. To my thinking reference collections are a core service of any public library worth it salt. I know the future of libraries looks tenuous at best - it is disheartening when the road to demise is being paved by the librarians themselves. Keep it up and soon you'll have an Internet cafe on your hands !

ricklibrarian said...

Letting reference books circulate is not getting rid of reference service. I think it is expanding service, letting reference librarians better serve clients. We are still answering many reference requests. When we find a reference book answers the question, the client may take the book home instead of making photocopies. It is an environmentally sound idea.

Anonymous said...

How will the customer feel if they have to replace a more expensive reference work? "Your total is $179.00 plus a $10 records fee?" Keep smelling salts handy....

ricklibrarian said...

Our clients have shown great trust in us with their tax dollars, and we in turn trust them with stacks of books, DVDs, and CDs every day. We loan expensive art books, iPods, Kindles, and LeapPads without any problems. We will, of course, bill for lost books. We do not anticipate any problems.

The Online Librarian said...

In a way, the entire library collection is the reference collection. Librarians show patrons where sections are and how to find what they need in all kinds of books or sources, whether those books are designated as "reference" or not. With so much duplication between traditional reference books and online resources (whether free or not), having dusty books take up valuable shelf space may not be the best way to serve the patrons.

Anne said...

My library did this and wrote about it in Library Journal Reference BackTalk: Shift Happens–Moving Reference to Circulation. When I see a book formerly known as reference being checked out, I am very happy for a formerly ignored book!

ricklibrarian said...

Anne,

I saw that article. Sorry that I forgot to mention it.

Rick

Anonymous said...

We've done this at my library too, we cut the Reference collection in half and put most books into circulation. So many patrons are grateful for this decision!

Anonymous said...

"An environmentally sound decision"... OK now I am really doubting your motives. Playing the green card to disguise a sea change in collections is quite a fig leaf. Using that logic - you should replace your whole print collection with downloaded audio books. Give me a break. Just don't call my library to fax over pages from one of these obsolete books when you find that your circulation copy has been lost or stolen.

ricklibrarian said...

Resource sharing is a grand tradition in libraries. In my library, we gladly help other libraries by photocopying, faxing, or scanning into PDFs from our reference books. Now we will not only loan the reference books to other libraries but also let them loan them to their clients.

Anonymous said...

Consider this nightmare scenario- We all hang our collective hats on the idea that the Gale Virtual Ref collection and others like it will be sufficient for our needs. The logical next step is to abandon or severely modify the traditional print ref collection. Then many years hence the unthinkable happens and Gale folds - sounds unbelievable I know (think Enron and Lehman Brothers) - and I know they offer to send a DVD of the ref collections we buy - but how useful is that. Now step back a moment and look at that old fashion print ref collection and see it in a new light - it is a hedge against upheaval in the publishing industry. Once it is on your shelves you really don't care if the companies goes under. Just my two cents.

ricklibrarian said...

I agree that trusting vendors to hold and distribute our resources according to contracts is scary business. As a profession we need to plan and position ourselves so as not to be cut out of the deal. Of course, this is not easy when many publishers are looking for ways to make more profit from sales direct to users. This is much broader problem than just keeping reference books available.

Economics may drive more and more reference publications into to electronic only editions. There may not even be any print to preserve. The print we do have will in many cases be older editions.

Locking the reference books in the library will not slow this process. I believe we can better serve some people here and now better by giving them the best access we can instead of going into preservation mode and holding them for the use of some future when the electronic versions have been wrenched away from us.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion - to me I see the move to circulate ref book as one more step in the decentralization of knowledge. Taking the mystical printed tomes from the ref stacks and letting them circulate seems like an innocuous move. It may however be just one more step towards the further reduction in the viability of true traditional ref services - you know what I mean - from 10-15 years ago when we would often- have the old fashion ref interview with probing and clarifying question. Also remember how difficult it was to use certain printed titles such as the Thomas Register indexes, and Corporate Affiliation ? Having said that the popularity of library visits and circulation is up over 30% in my library . Just my random musings !