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Sandy Frank's assistance (she's the head of the circulation department), we have inventoried the collection, weeded out-of-date and worn-out materials, and changed the circulation system status for each record.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:
- 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.
- Clients occasionally ask to borrow the reference books so they can use them at home or work.
- Much of the information in the reference books is available to us though our databases. Reference librarians will still have resources to answer questions.
- With less money to buy nonfiction books this year, it provides more items to loan students and other clients interested in nonfiction topics.
- 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.