The Future of Reference Material in Public Libraries

In recent weeks I have heard rumblings on various boards about the Reference sections. Reference material in many area’s of the world are becoming extinct. It would seem that though the book has survived the E-book and Audio book trends, Reference material may not, particularly in the public library setting.

Many libraries are culling their reference section and turning to digital offerings from vendors such as Ebsco, Webster, and Encyclopedia Britannica. With Reference being what it is can it survive in the same way the book has survived?

I do not believe so. I think that reference being general knowledge, most of this is available online. When someone has a question about a generic topic the first resource they seek are not the library, but the internet. Online, general knowledge is freely available from one of the many search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc.) or from Wikipedia. Why would anyone go to a library to pick up a huge tome to look up general information? When was the last time you looked up something in a dictionary instead of googling it/checking

People may argue, what about specialize generalist information, like Medical dictionary or special interest books suc as the encyclopedia of Middle Earth, Bird Watchers encyclopedia or the Guide to Neo-Paganism.? Well these may be still sought out as special interest sources, but in a public library? Let us look at the Medical Dictionary.

With the medical dictionary we may consider that a great tool and guide to have. This may be true for some, but with the cost of updating medical information every 3-5 years it can get costly. The budgets of public libraries are not keeping up with the cost of reference material. Also that information is generally available online through Pubmed or Webmd, one would need to be purchased digitally, but is updated without much effort from the library, while the other is freely available online.

So now what about the special interests such as Encyclopedia of Middle – Earth or Guide to Neo-Paganism. Both these types of special interest books are not going to change much in 5,10, or 15 years, so they may be able to stay on the shelf a bit longer, without them being replaced. The problem is that spending money in a public library on stuff that is readily available through a simple google search just might not pass mustard with your library board.

At my library I am struggling with that question of keeping it, updating it or tossing it. Some people may think this is a no brainer, but in a small library do I keep the encyclopedia on Canada from 1989 or the Wordsworth dictionary? Do I ditch the books on general history that have not gone out in 15 years or do I minimize the collection to special interest/specific generalities like the Encyclopedia of Home Remedies. Whats a budget strapped public librarian to do?


One thought on “The Future of Reference Material in Public Libraries

  1. DitchTheBun

    I am currently doing this too. I am looking at my reference collection and honestly I think the whole thing needs revamping to stay relevant for my community. After much deliberation I am intending to do a massive cull and change the focus of the collection.
    We will be keeping information on historically important events in history, law books, medical and health books as well as some art and architecture books. We will also focus on having books that support the study of year 12 students undertaking their higher school certificate. This is where the most use of our reference collection comes from and by aiming the collection towards this we will not only be supporting their study, but will also have a good coverage of topics for general use.
    We will also retain our Aboriginal Reference Resources collection because relevant books surrounding this topic can be difficult to find and also because at this stage I feel it is important to retain it.
    The plan is to do this slowly, yet steadily so patrons don’t freak out too much.
    Literally just today I ran a reference stocktake, apparently this has not been done in MANY years because there are 1500 items missing!!!!! I am not going to lie, I freaked out!!!!!


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