A trend in popular nonfiction books is the microhistory in which authors tell in detail stories about specific products, such as salt or toothpicks. Invariably topics are hooks that intrigues readers who then learn about much more than they are promised by the modest sounding topics. I feel the article "Ready Reference Collections: A History" by Carol A. Singer in the Spring 2010 issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly is in this same spirit. It sounds like a small topic - what reference tools have librarians kept close at hand to answer client questions quickly. But the article does more, bringing in the history of the librarian-client relationships, of database access, of reference books on CD-ROMs, of Internet resources, of search engines in service of reference librarians, and of the demise of the printed reference book.
In any other publication than Reference & User Services Quarterly, I suspect many reader would bypass the article, but luckily it is placed where many reference fanatics will spot it. I read with recognition. The article really sums up my professional career. While I was never at a library that could afford the higher priced resources that Singer mentions, I used many of the mainstream reference titles and services, including the World Almanac, Dialog database searching, and CD-ROM towers. I nodded my head as she told about the super-sizing of ready reference collections in busy libraries. I remember a library around 1994 with a huge desk that had three columns of reference books blocked off from client-access. Reference statistics were kept high just by making the clients ask for the books.
What jumps out at me is that with many online resources and clients helping themselves, the print ready reference collection has now returned to its origins, a few items useful for answering questions quickly. The criteria for selecting these items may have shifted slightly (what is better in print than online), but the small shelf close at hand looks familiar to an old reference librarian.
Singer's article has not yet appeared on the RUSQ website, but watch for it there in the future.