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Sep 03

End of the hybrid library

Through all my years as a librarian and the different roles I have had, I have always worked with reference collections, usually pretty closely.  Until recently, where my role has been working with the virtual more than print of any type.

But as part of my appraisal this year, one of my goals was to weed the reference collection at our biggest branch.  This collection has filled 17 bays of 5 shelves each.

It has been quite a few years since it has been weeded well, beyond replacing superseded editions.  And it shows.  I went in expecting to weed maybe up to 40% of the collection.  So far, I have weeded just over half of the collection and the proportion of the collection that had been weeded out is over 60%.

It may have been much higher, but that included our motor manual collection – which coincidentally is the best used part of reference and which, therefore,  will not be hitting the lending shelves or withdrawals anytime soon. And there are other classic titles too, which are much too precious for their unique content, that likewise will not make that journey.

fair price on the scales

Fair price on the scales by purplbutrfly

The weeding hasn’t been hard to do either.  I’m a chucker rather than a hoarder, but I think that even a hoarder would be hard pressed to keep more than 50% of the collection.  The amount of dust accumulated on each title shows how little the majority of the collection is used in these days of online information domination.

Fortunately, a lot of what I have weeded has gone straight to our lending collection.  It is good quality information, if just a bit dated now, but I’m sure that most of it will do well there, much better than it has done in reference in recent times.

Which brings me back to the hybrid idea.  Print reference is not dead in my library, not yet, but it is no longer the force that it was.  Now it seems that print reference is a backstop to our online resources and the internet, whereas it was always the other way around.  Now its where you go, when its too hard or really to obscure to find something online. And even that’s changing.

For a long time, when talking collection development, we talked about the hybrid library – finding the balance between print and electronic resources. When it comes to reference type material, the scales are now definitely tipped in favour of the electronic.

Its funny though. Even though I work on the library’s virtual spaces and spend a lot of my time online and love it, it has been surprising in a way to see the stalwart of information services – the reference collection, whittled away so, in importance as well as in collection size.  I have long appreciated going to the reference shelves and being virtually guaranteed of finding a book that would help with that immediate user need. I think that I still have some of the romance of the book attached to the librarian in me.

So as our print reference collections dwindle, alongside their corresponding budgets, I say goodbye to the hybrid library.  Online is now dominant in the world of reference, both in the eyes of staff and users.  This is not a bad thing, as there are things online that people seek which we would likely never had in a print reference resource.  But as they go, I cant help but feel a tiny bit wistful for what was.

Maybe because it was the bastion of librarian’s assistance to our users – where we could take them to discover the world of information – something that is not so easy or so common in the online world? Maybe its as I said before that there is romance in books and reference books are  a category all of their own. Maybe its because reference books were always something special, a unique type of book not appropriate for any other location.  Maybe its because each reference book was a treasure just waiting to be discovered.

I’m not sure why it is, I just know that the end of this era is coming fast and its one I will miss.

How about you?

10 comments

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  1. Helen K

    I reccently visited a new library in Victoria (opened within the last 12 months), and their reference collection (pristine), was larger than their non fiction collection. It looked like it had been purchased for the new library, but not used, as there was dust on the books and shelves. Many people are still hanging onto their collections, as it fits into the too hard to deal with basket. But I do agree with you… electronic information is king.

    Your comments about the books you weeded being moved to the lending collection which are in good condition but dated, were interesting. If the information is dated why keep it, when you may be deleting it in a year’s time.

    HK

  2. Michelle McLean

    Helen,

    There is much of the too-hard basket mentality about reference and I can understand why.

    I guess when I say dated, I meant that it was not appropriate any more for reference but that had good content still which could be valuable to a borrower. Not explaining it too well, but I hope you get the gist.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Andrew Finegan

    I think there is the potential, but not necessarily soon.

    Firstly, online resources – at least the authoritative ones that public libraries pay a crapload for – are still under-utilised by the general public, and I daresay that print reference is still used in public libraries more than subscribed online services. For the uninitiate, the process of familiarising with the login procedure, then finding the right database, and then successfully undergoing a boolean search, is going to be more work than going to the reference collection.

    And whilst user-generated content has been proven to be reliable most of the time, students need authoritative sources. As we all know, sources such as Wikipedia can a great starting point, but should never be the be-all and end-all of research.

    I think the biggest problem, though, is that we’ll soon be at a point where people will assume that “if it isn’t online, then it doesn’t exist.” And as the capacity to store information online grows, so too does the difficulty in organising that information and making it easily searchable. As this becomes more problematic, perhaps people will start longing for the old days when all the reference information you needed was organised in order on a shelf at your local public library… 😉

  4. walt crawford

    I don’t quite get how the move of most reference to primarily digital–which makes a whole lot of sense, as books were never the ideal format for a lot of reference material–equates to the library as a whole turning all-digital. Am I missing something here?

  5. Michelle McLean

    Andrew,

    Firstly I agree that our public users aren’t making the most of our online resources – for the reasons you outlined and more. Unfortunately, they are also not using our authoritative print resources. Which begs the question, are they finding what they need by themselves – if not, what are they doing then and if so, is it the best information or are they just making do?

    We already see the mentality of if its not online where they can find it, it doesn’t exist. Almost daily we get library users delighted to find more of what they need through online resources we point them to. How we improve the interfaces and raise the profile of our online resources to our users are both ongoing issues.

    Walt, I’m with you. Although I see print reference dying, I see no corresponding actions with our lending collections. The book is here to stay for quite some time as far as I’m concerned.

  6. Pru Menzies

    Well said – point noted for reference & Information section of our next Collection Development and Contect Policy, but we still need to be better promoting our informations resources and services (print or online!) to our users so we stay relevant as a “go to” point for information assistance!

  7. Andrew Finegan

    Yes, well, it comes back to that old argument of:

    Do we bombard our users with information literacy training so that they can get the best results from using online reference resources?

    or

    Do we invest in usability testing of our online resources and lobby our vendors to make our online databases intuitive for the layperson, and hope for the best?

    I mean, it’s really saying something if the average person is preferring public domain online information over print reference or subscription-based online reference. Both you and I know that a library’s collections and databases are absolutely necessary to find authoritative sources for study purposes, but are these skills of finding evaluating information not being taught in classes anymore? Where they ever?

  8. Andrew Finegan

    (That was meant to be “were”, not “where”. My proofreading skills fail me today.)

  9. Michelle McLean

    Andrew,

    It has to be improving our interfaces, but as that is taking a long time to happen, we do what we can in the area of information literacy, so as to not see these rich resources go to waste.

    I think the information evaluation skills have skipped a generation or two, so unless you went to uni (and even then not always), you missed out. I know they are starting to teach it at school now, but for many people its too late.

  10. comradeharps

    A print reference collection is still handy for when the customer has no instant access to online (this will only be for the immediate future) or is not computer experienced (again, a transitional experience).

    My local print reference collection collection is full of stuff that is either obscure and not looked at or of stuff that is in demand, but not looked at because people use the web equivalent. You don’t need half a dozen books on movies like Halliwells when there’s IMDB etc, a dozen English dictionaries when every Google search (and Word) offers a definition or a pile of atlases when there’s Google Maps or ALOT maps toolbars. All this can fit in a pocket and plenty of our ustomer have this already.

    We can simply chuck at least half and use that money and space for more productive purposes.

    Still, I will know that print reference is absoluetly done for when I go a week without seeing the Melways in use.

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