Hot Topics in Frontline Reference Discussion Group
Summary of Discussion –
The Hot Topics in Frontline Reference Discussion Group met in
Committee chair, Cheryl Smith (University of Notre Dame), presided over the meeting assisted by steering committee members Russ Hall (Penn State University—New Kensington) and Rita Smith (
Cheryl opened the discussion topic “Print Reference: Dead or Alive?” by introducing the group to a timely article written by David Tyckoson. (Tyckoson, Dave. "Facts Go Online: Are Print Reference Collections Still Relevant?," Against the Grain 16(4), September, 2004, p. 34, 36, 38.) David was in attendance at the meeting, and he was invited to make some opening remarks relative to his article. He explained that in the process of designing space for Reference in new building, he had to begin thinking more about the size of the print reference collection, its future use, and the dilemma this presented. He described his reluctance to let go of print sources that he highly valued personally, but emphasized the need to face the reality of declining use in the 21st century. Reference librarians are faced with having to make difficult decisions regarding cancellation of some sources that have been considered standards throughout the years.
A wide variety of views were expressed regarding the value and use of reference print collections. Participants pointed out that…
· Subject matter makes a difference. Some fields such as art (with images) and literature rely more heavily on print.
· Specialization of the library makes a difference in how important print sources are and how much they are used. More specialized libraries may see more use of print resources important to their fields.
· Size of library and budget play a part, as those who are unable to purchase expensive online resources still rely heavily on traditional print reference collections and experience higher use.
· Clientele makes a difference, as well. For instance a public library with a senior clientele finds print resources more heavily used. On the other hand a public branch serving an affluent suburban clientele with wide access to broadband internet connections relies more heavily on electronic resources and remote access. Many students of all ages resist using print unless required to do so.
· Format makes a difference as access to resources such as statistics and maps may be more efficient in print than online.
· Context should be the determining factor. Reference librarians should use the resources that best answer the questions or research need whether it is print or online.
A question was posed to the group, as to whether anyone was conducting formal use analysis of their print reference collection. No one volunteered that they were engaged in such a study outside of just counting in-building use. But numerous anecdotal experiences convinced many in attendance that overall use of the reference collection continues to decline. Several people described the growing aversion to (and ignorance of) the use of reference books by a generation born into a world of computers and networked information. One participant added that it is a false assumption that print reference collections are being replaced by e-reference collections. The decline in use may be tied more to “Google” use than the advent of online reference collections. Additionally the fact that reference collections, particularly online collections are “invisible” to library users contributes to their low use.
The discussion also moved into a more philosophical debate waged by reference and instruction librarians for many years. That debate can be characterized by the questions, “Do we GIVE them what they want and design easy access, or do we TEACH them to do research for the sake of learning to use the best resources even though it may be a much harder process.” Devotees of both philosophies were present at the discussion and presented representative views. Some felt that it was time for librarians to face the fact that students could not be dragged to print resources and chances are they would not use them once they graduated from college and entered the workforce either. Librarians should be more user-focused or stand to lose our student clientele now and in the future when they are adults. One person added that students are five steps ahead of us and we need respond accordingly. However, many in attendance also believe strongly that education is the key and that we do have a responsibility to teach students how to structure a search and how to judge reliable sources of information. It was noted that if librarians teach about the best print reference sources, those reference materials will be utilized in the research process. One person added that students must be taught that learning is not easy and they have to work hard.
As the discussion time wound down, David Tyckoson added a concluding thought, by describing the reference librarian today as a reference consultant not the answer person of the past. The shift to internet use has changed the nature of the questions we handle. While the number of reference interactions and the use of print reference collections are declining, librarians spend more time serving as research consultants for our library users.
As a parting shot, a discussion participant added, ”the future of print and online reference publishing is dim.”
January 15, 2005