Online Reference Tools: A Threat to the Traditional Print Reference?

Print reference collections have traditionally been considered as essential holdings of libraries of all types: public, academic, special and national. It is not very uncommon to see many librarians who are proud of their reference treasures. This may explain the keen interest shown by library managers in the development of their reference collections by providing adequate budgets and the right level of staffing. Very often the reference service in libraries is placed under the direct responsibility of a qualified reference librarian. Regular stock taking, shelf-editing, weeding out old stocks and adding newer editions of reference tools have also been normal activities in the reference unit of libraries. The rationale behind this commitment to the development of the reference collection is that there cannot be any proper reference service without a comprehensive and updated collection. Dictionaries, biographies, bibliographies, encyclopaedias, Periodicals indexes, Atlases, Maps and Gazetteers and other reference tools in print format have always occupied prominent shelf space in libraries.

During the past few decades dramatic changes have been noted in most libraries as far as their reference collections are considered. Constraints on budget have resulted in the shrinking of the size of the collection. Weeding out of outdated materials has not been followed by the purchase of newer editions for their replacement on the shelves. To worsen the situation, there has also been recorded a low usage of reference materials in many libraries.

What are the factors that have brought this change? In the absence of reliable data from scientific investigation in local libraries, it is not advisable to jump to easy conclusions. However, it is reasonable to assume that free access to fast and quick online information from the Web may be one of the reasons of the low usage of print reference materials in libraries. The convenience and ease with which information is available from the Internet may also partly explain why users turn away from the library. After all, why should a user walk in a library when he can access the same information “at the touch of a button” (from his desk top)? Many foreign libraries have developed online reference services known under various names such as “Online Reference Shelf”, “Reference E-Resources”, or “Virtual Reference Shelf” and these are available to any user.

In the local context, it is a known fact that libraries are facing stringent budgets. The decline in usage of print reference materials may be attributed to the:

  • quality of the collection itself
  •  quality of the service
  •  size and comprehensiveness of the collection, and
  •  availability of online sources.

Users having access to online versions at their fingertips are reluctant to consult print versions at the library. Moreover, who among us have not come across reference collections in local libraries which are outdated? I personally know the case of at least one big library whose reference collection has never been updated. Some items have not been consulted even once since the opening of the library! Management of that library could not dare to relegate the unused items to the stacks without running the risks to show empty shelves. The simplistic logic in the case is to show a fully stocked library (with outdated materials) rather than with depleted shelves! After all statistics of the library shows numerical growth of the collection but not a single word about collection development.

In the face of low usage of print reference materials, should libraries continue with the same “modus operandi”? Should they keep on providing their print collections and then wait for readers to come to the library? Are our library service planners so short-sighted not to see the change? Are they totally outpaced by current rapid developments taking place in the library and information field? The need for information has not changed. Users are still there. The shift has occurred only on the means to access the information. Earlier, it was exclusively print materials, now the trend is for online access. The solution is to adapt policies and operations of libraries to meet users’ needs. Whether providing information in print format or online, libraries are still in the business of providing access to information. We should not loose sight of this simple fact.

R. Hauroo

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