Reference is dead, claims SLJ contributor Christopher Harris. Harris, always the provocateur, goes on to explain that reference materials are still relevant but they should circulate. You’ll get no argument from me there, providing that a library has enough encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries, etc. to satisfy that demand. And electronic access isn’t the same; this week’s Pew study, The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future, showed that several hundred thousand Philadelphians lack Internet access, meaning that unless their children can access a traditional reference collection or plentiful circulating reference materials, their school work will badly suffer. And Philadelphia is hardly alone in that. At SLJ‘s ALA midwinter reference roundtable (see coverage in the May, 2012 issue of SLJ), World Book‘s John Gregory noted that circulating copies of World Book are the County of Los Angeles Public Library’s highest circulating item, despite the material being available online.
The answering of reference questions in libraries has gone down in recent years, yes. But this is not because reference questions have gone down. It’s just that patrons are attempting to answer the questions themselves. This is a marketing opportunity, not a call to dismantle our reference sections. Library patrons need guidance, whether they know it or not, and we’re the ones to provide it. And we have the information they need at our fingertips. The Pew report states that the Free Library of Philadelphia subscribes to 1,601 databases. The cost to the library must be staggering, and those funds are wasting away if patrons are not taught of the existence of these fabulous, free resources that only have vetted information. With that problem in mind, I’m planning webcasts for later this spring to show you how to market your databases‚Ä¶watch this space.
I also disagree with Harris that libraries should be rearranged according to Common Core standards requirements, with texts that tell a story in one place and those that teach you something in another. The overlap is too confusing (and too rich!) and we’ve seen too many fads come and go to reorganize libraries around this one. I’ll admit, though, that the reference section needs renaming. Harris suggests informational texts, which sounds, at least to me, a little too edifying. Get your thinking caps on and tweet me at @ettathornton with your new names.