November 29, 2011

Why I Can’t Buy Reference Books Anymore

Electronic reference books are a great step forward.  For institutions with far-flung campuses or online courses, they make great sense.  Even traditional undergraduates living on campus benefit when reference material is free of the traditional “library use only” and one-user-at-a-time limitations.  Reference books were some of the first books to go online, and for good reason.  Even though they cost more than print, they offer much more.  It is especially painful, then, to see our reference collections dispersing into the ether, invisible to librarians and patrons.

Lost in the shuffle
And this is exactly what is happening.  Partly through a decade of purchasing them individually, and partly through package deals, reference collections are bigger than ever before, and growing fast.  We have far too many to list on libguides or similar title-by-title displays.  Anyone who thinks otherwise has already lost sight of most of their reference collection, or works at a very cash-strapped library.  We have added 120,000 e-books to our catalog in the past year and a half, most of them costing less than a dollar per volume.  If your library doesn’t have as many, it will soon.  Naturally, the institutions that are most in need of e-reference are also the ones most likely to be flooding their catalogs or discovery systems with e-monographs.  A single catalog record for a wonderful, expensive, 4-volume reference set can’t compete successfully for attention in that environment.
Limited to memory
And sadly, we librarians will be less able to point the way.  In the days of print reference, the librarian at least walked past the some of those books every day, and most reference librarians were in the collection enough that they were pretty familiar with them.  If not, they could always lead a patron to a certain call number range and see what they had.  The collection was at hand, and classification made it easily findable.  But our print reference collection is becoming a relic of old editions, superseded by online ones—not to mention the many online titles we never owned in print.  We are hiring two new reference librarians this summer.  How will they know what we have?
An embarrassment of riches
We warn students about Wikipedia in instruction sessions, and may even devote some time to telling them about subject encyclopedias, and what they have to offer: unlike Wikipedia, you can cite them without rebuke from your professor; they provide up-to-date, easily digestible overviews written by experts in the field.  But how is a student writing a paper on, say, rare earth metals, supposed to come across the 5-volume Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, published just this year?  It won’t show up in a catalog search for “rare earth metals.”  Perhaps she remembers a librarian’s presentation showing Credo Reference, or Oxford Reference Online, or Oxford Handbooks Online (that’s a separate platform), or Gale Virtual Reference Library, or Salem Press, or Sage Reference Online, or, or,-- but this set may have been purchased through EBL or MyiLibrary.  Our best content to compete with Wikipedia is becoming the hardest to find.
Help is on the way…maybe
I know of only one product that tries to fill this need, but it’s so clunky that it should perhaps be limited to librarians using it in a back room, like the old days of carefully guarded DIALOG access.  Reference Universe, from Paratext, lets you search the indexes and contents of thousands of reference books, print and online.  By uploading your ISBNs from the last twenty years, you apprise it of your school’s reference collection; we had almost 4,000 matches (including all sorts of handbooks and companions that we put in our circulating collection), and we’re a small university.  It’s wonderful to type in “rare earth metals” and see every reference book listed that has an article on it.  That’s twenty-some e-book platforms, and our print collection, all in one interface and searchable at the index entry level.  But usability remains a major hurdle.  It takes multiple clicks and re-executing the search to get to the article you want.  To offer this would result in more complaints than accolades, because every student would feel the frustrations, and few would appreciate the great advance that it actually is.  Requiring students to navigate through all that is no way to compete with Wikipedia.
So I remain on the horns of a dilemma.  I can’t buy print reference, because it just doesn’t make sense anymore.  Returning to those restrictions is not the answer.  Yet I have an increasingly difficult time bringing myself to pay top dollar for reference books that possibly nobody will ever see, and that not even my colleagues will remember.
What am I to do?

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