Monday, June 12, 2006

Do I Still Use Reference Books?

In early May, I attended a meeting of the Zone 1 Reference Librarians at the Clarendon Hills Public Library. According to our tradition, the eight of us used the May meeting to plan next year’s meetings and to discuss our favorite new reference resources. Five or more years ago we just passed around new reference books at this May meeting, but since then we have also been discussing websites and databases. This year a couple of us did not bring any books. We all agreed that we buy fewer reference books and use them less.

Later back at my library I began wondering how often I use reference books. There seem to be days that I use none and days that I use many. Not knowing exactly what portion of my reference work involves books I decided to keep a log of resources used.

I started the log on May 6 and ended June 3. I recorded each item that I used in responding to a library client inquiry. I often used more than one item during the answering of a question.

I did not include resources used selecting library materials or making library management decisions. I also did not include my virtual reference sessions at which I usually stick to online resources.


After the four weeks of log keeping, I totaled the results according to types of reference tools. Here is what I found.

Finding 1. I use a great variety of tools answering reference questions.

Reference books – 20%

Circulating books – 6%

Magazines – 5%

Newspapers – 2%

Online library catalogs – 29 %

Online databases – 15%

Free web resources – 20%

Library produced literature – 3%

Finding 2. I used more online sources than print sources.

Print – 33%

Online – 64%

Library produced literature – 3%

Finding 3. There are no typical days. Every day seems unique. There were four reference desk sessions out of nineteen in which I used no reference books. There were five days that I did not use the online catalog.

More details

Reference books included bound print items in our reference collection.

The count of circulating books includes titles that I found without using the online library catalogs. (It helps to know Dewey and the collection well.) I either found reference answers in these books or gave them to our clients to borrow. I did not count circulating books that I found through the online catalog for the clients to borrow.

Much of the print magazine use was consulting Consumer Reports at the reference desk.

The local newspapers are not online, so I use them in print.

The online library catalogs total includes 26% SWAN catalog to which we belong, 2% WorldCat, and 1% other library catalogs.

Nearly half of my online database work was use of EBSCO’s Masterfile Elite to which my library subscribes.

Half of the use of free web resources involved using the Google search engine, which means I used Google in more than 10% of my reference work during the period. Some people might think this is a lower than expected figure.

Library produced literature in this case meant using our procedures manual and our events calendar to answer some reference inquiries. I am trying to remember now why I thought they were reference inquiries instead of “other help.” It may be because I actually did have to look up the answer to the inquiry. I am not certain.


During the period I logged, the library had many slow days, as area public and private schools were ending their years, and the weather induced many residents into their backyards and local parks. Results might differ during a busier part of the year, when reference book use might be higher. They might also differ during the summer, when I assume use of reference books might be lower.

Thomas Ford is a medium small library with a good basic reference collection. If we had a large reference collection, I might have used more books. I still envy big libraries with lots of specialized encyclopedias.


What does this all mean? It means I am still using tradition reference books about 20% of the time, which is definitely lower than in the past, but still seems significant to me.

Every librarian is different. I suspect every one would use a different mix of reference tools. I would be interested in seeing other reports.

UPDATE: I just saw a report from Evidence Based Library and Information Practice that says online resources were used six times as often as reference books to answer questions at a small university library in 2002-3.


Anonymous said...

It is fascinating. . . I'm somewhat tempted to keep a similar log, except we get so few reference questions around here that it would take a long time.

We have so little space for books, though, that I often find myself discarding print items when similar information is available online and the books haven't been used in years.

Anonymous said...

This post was submitted to the Carnival of the Infosciences #42 which can be found at:

Going Crunchy said...

Excellent idea to keep a log. I am interested to see if your data may influence future reference collection acquisitions. Keep us posted on your decisions.

Anonymous said...

There is to be a poster session on this topic at ALA later this week. Check it out!

Anonymous said...

Since I am not even a librarian, let alone a reference librarian, I probably shouldn't venture to comment, but I will. I've never gone to the library to research a topic and found the card catalog unavailable because of other users, but I often find the computers in use so that I have to take a number and wait my turn. I think I am at heart a Luddite.

Anonymous said...

I designed the study that was cited in the link in one of the above comments. One reason I think our study was statistically valid is that all seven reference librarians recorded every reference question and every source used to answer the question during the 4-month trial period, so if one librarian is more biased toward print or online, that bias should be balanced by another person's leaning toward online or print. Our seven librarians have a combined 104 YEARS working in this library, so presumably we know the print collection well and the majority of us worked here pre-Internet and pre-online databases.

We did two follow-up studies on "what comes off the shelves" (a total of 8 months of data) which showed similar low usage of print reference materials. We are now half-way through replicating the original question-source study and the results so far show even LESS use of print sources than in 2002-03.

The bottom line of all four studies (two studies, each replicated once) is that a tiny fraction of our print reference collection has been used even ONCE during the months and months of use studies.

To address one of the criticisms in the review that was linked above, we did record HOW questions came in (by phone, email), but the number of questions that were not presented in person were so statistically insignificant that we did not report them in the final article. They are, however, evident in our raw data which we have posted for anyone to look at:

As a result of our four studies on the use of print reference works, we are beginning an aggressive weeding of our reference collection and are substituting e-ref books whenever possible. Usage statistics show high use of the reference e-books, primarily, we believe, because we have linked them from our subject web pages (eg: Psych dictionary put on the psych page).

Our next study is going to be of the reference questions themselves -- which is an interesting discussion in itself (our view -- most could be answered easily by a minimally trained non-librarian), but that goes beyond the scope of this discussion!

Susan Ryan, Stetson University