I have had responsibility for our library’s print reference collection. on and off since 1996.
When I first took on this role in 1996, our largest branch – which was both the local and regional reference collection, had 85 shelves of reference books. I’m talking full shelves, 2 metre high shelving and taking up a good length of the library’s walls.
The first change came when we started moving stock to make way for our first internet computers. Not that we got rid of it, we just moved it around to make room.
How things have changed. Our smaller branches now have only a token reference collection, which includes the Melway Street Directory, Country Roads Directory, Law Handbook, an atlas, a dictionary and a copy of the relevant local histories, with many one or two other tools.
Our largest branch is now down to 24 shelves from its original 85 and this will decrease further.
Why? Because print reference is the last stop for most information queries and that usually only in absolute desperation, or because the person requiring the information is more comfortable with the print rather than online and there is nothing in the lending collection (and yes, there are still many of those around…..).
And also because the online will always be more up-to-date, contain more information and be more easily accessible to all, even if the access is also through the library.
It was a milestone and I experienced some sadness too when I ordered what will be our last print copy of the World Book Encyclopedia. This stalwart of school assignments is no longer the treasure trove that it was. We have had Britannica online for over a decade and yet we still have World Book in print reference in our three largest branches. All done now.
Some staff still love print reference and fiercely protect its place in the library, but that place is shrinking and in some libraries has ceased to exist altogether.
Not yet for us. I think there is still a place for quick reference material and specialist rare resources, such as those in our local history collection.
But the time will come that it will be a rare thing indeed to see a book with the call number REF. Still, these collections have worked hard, have helped many an information seeker and will be fondly remembered by those dedicated reference staff.
And I, who loves the online and all that it brings, even I will be sad to see it go.