Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Article Note: On Print Reference Collections

Citation for the article:

Bradford, Jane T. "What's Coming Off the Shelves? A Reference Use Study Analyzing Print Reference Sources Used in University Library." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 31.6 (November 2005): 546-558.

I read the article via OmniFile.

This article caught my eye because our library is moving towards a major weeding project for the print reference collection. Personally, I believe that a library should have a print reference collection, even if it is a small ready reference collection. While there are many electronic resources, free and fee-based, that can fulfill many reference needs, I still think a library should have access to good print reference sources as well. There are various reasons for this ranging from "what happens when the computers are down" to "there are just some answers one can find faster in a reference book." Part of it for me is a matter of preparedness, something that very often seems to be missing from library planning as it moves more and more towards making libraries into electronic information bazaars. Nothing wrong with having electronic resources and using them, but regardless of what certain advocates may say, books are not going away, and they can still be quite useful. These were some of my thoughts as I got ready to read this article.

I also started thinking more about my workplace's situation. We face a major space problem; it is one of crisis proportions, but I won't go further. The problem provides an incentive to weed the print reference collection dramatically. For one, our Systems Librarian is proposing the addition of 25 or so new computers to our computer lab. That would eliminate at least half of the collection we have now along with its shelving. Given that our small computer lab now gets a lot of demand, an expansion as proposed would alleviate some of the crowding that occurs at certain times of the day. Second, most of my colleagues say that they barely use the print reference collection. I use some of the items for some classes but certainly not enough to deter the collections shrinking. Overall, I think if we did a similar study here it would find a big, underused collection. I'd be curious, but I know that at any rate the weed will happen. It is a matter of when. So, let me get to the article.

The article describes a study done at Stetson University, a small private university of about 2,100 FTE's. The study sought to learn how much was the print reference collection used by librarians and patrons. It also studied what sources were used and how often. The literature review goes back to the mid 1980s. Eugene Engeldinger's 1986 study is considered a landmark by Bradford. This study took place before the prevalence of electronic resources, yet it is still valuable. Bradford then points to other studies, but she shows that more research can be done in this area. I found it interesting how the literature review reveals a change in librarian attitudes over time regarding print reference collections as more electronic resources become available.

Bradford then goes on to explain the study's method and how the data was collected. She describes some of the problems faced. This part of the article is useful to any researcher wanting to conduct similar studies at their institutions. The article also includes various tables to illustrate the findings. So, what were some of the findings?
  • "The bottom line is that only 8.5 percent of the total volumes in the print reference collection were used during the study period" (550).
  • "Clearly, currency is a significant factor in the use of the reference collection. Before weeding older volumes, however, librarians should review which older titles were used in order to retain those that are being used" (552).
Bradford further on provides a good discussion of the implications from the research. I personally found this valuable. She suggests, based on her data, that there are two options for our print reference collections. Option one is to increase the collection's usage. Option two is to decrease the size of the print reference collection and shift its funding to other areas. Given the current realities of funding many libraries face, option two would be seen as the way to go. I think we should strive for a balance of both options. Her suggestions for implementing both options are sensible, so I am noting them here with some of my thoughts.

On increasing the use of the print reference collection, these are three of Bradford's suggestions:
"Librarians can act to increase the use of the print reference collection first by becoming more familiar with it themselves and thus more often suggest reference books to patrons when appropriate. Second, use of print reference books can be highlighted more in library instruction classes. Third, new reference books can be brought to the attention of faculty with more publicity" (554).

I think it is a given that a librarian should be well acquainted with his or her library's reference collection. However, this is not always the case for various reasons. In some large libraries, the collection may be too big, and reference librarians usually know what is in their subject area. Yet they should know at least a basic core of ready reference items. Another reason may be time, as in not enough time to do this. I am sure many in library school did various exercises to learn reference sources. Maybe it's time for some people to revive some of these exercises in their professional practice. Maybe making notes on various reference items and contributing those notes to a knowledge base or wiki, or even a notebook; all of these could be helpful for librarians to better learn about the contents of their own reference collections. While I am not perfect, I do strive to know what is in my reference collection. Since I do a lot of teaching, that gives me an incentive as well. A third reason for some librarians not knowing their print reference collections may be the complacency of information being online. I will only say that yes, there is a lot of good stuff online, but now and then you can get something quicker if you crack open a book.

As for instruction, I do bring in reference books if they are relevant to the class. I often promote use of print reference sources with the following statements:
  • A good reference book will give you a solid topic overview.
  • It will provide you with vocabulary, words and ideas that can be used for searching in databases and the Web.
  • It can give you leads for further reading.
As for publicity to faculty, library blogs are one place where new reference books can be highlighted. This should be a collaborative effort for reference librarians. If your library already has a blog, use it for this as well. If not, maybe this could be a small prompt to try it out. Also, library newsletters and other publications can be used for this as well. And of course, subject specialists should be talking to their faculty, and while they do that, they can promote any new resources as well.

Getting back to Bradford, she writes in regard to option two, reducing the reference collection:

"First, fewer reference books can be purchased. Second, the collection can be weeded heavily. Third, several books now in reference can be sent instead to the circulating collection" (554).

I don't want to take the way of an elegy, but I know print reference collections will continue to decline given the realities of funding and the efficiencies of electronic resources. I do believe at the very least that a small and lean print reference collection should be available in a library. This assumes we're are still calling the place a library. Maybe we need to consider this further before we simply toss out all books for the sake of places like information commons. And before anyone says anything, I worked in such a place, and it had a reference collection. It also had a paperbacks browsing collection. Anyways, I am not ready to just eliminate all print reference.

Bradford ends the article with suggestions for further research. She suggests that similar studies should be done repeatedly over time. She concludes that her study can be helpful as a starting point for librarians to reappraise the size of their collections as well as determine how much weeding and budget allocation is needed (555).

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