Lamenting the Disappearance of the Academic Collection | Reference Backtalk

By Alex Rolfe

Reference texts were some of the first books to go online and for good reason‚ they offer so much more than their print counterparts. Partly through a decade of purchasing them individually and partly through package deals, the e-reference collections at George Fox University Libraries, Newberg, OR, are bigger than ever before and growing fast. We’ve added 120,000 ebooks to our catalog in the past year and a half alone, which has made for a quantity much too large to list on libguides or similar title-by-title displays. Our problem is that e-reference materials are far from being as visible as their print ancestors, causing students fall back on Wikipedia, a source they know and that doesn’t take training to use.

Wikipedia warnings

It’s not that we don’t warn students about the dangers of relying solely on Wikipedia. In our instruction sessions we also spend time telling them about subject encyclopedias and what they have to offer. Unlike Wikipedia, we explain, you can cite them without rebuke from your professor, and they provide up-to-date, easily digestible overviews written by experts.

But the material in those subject encyclopedias, our best hope for competing with the online behemoth, is becoming less and less visible as it migrates online, where it is immune to serendipity. All the while relevant, quality print materials are gathering dust on the shelves, as a single catalog record for a wonderful, expensive, four-volume print reference set can’t compete successfully for attention anymore.

Currently available technologies such as discovery systems and products that search the indexes of print works fail to deliver the convenience that students want along with the thoroughness required by librarians. We’ve tried Paratext’s Reference Universe, which allows users to explore the indexes and tables of contents of thousands of print and ebook reference titles. When we used it, we found that almost 4000 items in our library (including all sorts of handbooks and companions that we put in our circulating collection) were indexed, and we’re a small university. It’s wonderful to enter a topic and see multiple relevant reference books listed from 20-plus ebook platforms, and our print collection, all in one interface and searchable at the index-entry level.

Usability remains a major hurdle, though. It takes multiple clicks and reexecuting the search to get to the material, and students want full text or nothing. Forcing them to navigate an interface that requires librarian assistance is no way to compete with Wikipedia. Until discovery system vendors make the full text of all materials, print and electronic, accessible to novice searchers, I can’t justify buying one.

Lost in the stacks

Sadly, the downturn in the visibility of reference resources also means that librarians will be less able to point toward the library’s riches. In the old days, we at least walked past some of those books daily, and reference librarians were in the stacks enough to gain familiarity with what was there. 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 now our print collection is becoming an archive of old editions that are superseded by online updates‚ not to mention that there is an increasing number of titles we never owned in print. How will new librarians know what we have?

So I’m on the horns of a dilemma. Print reference doesn’t make sense anymore. Returning to those restrictions is not the answer. Yet I have an increasingly difficult time paying top dollar for ebooks that possibly nobody will ever see and that not even my colleagues will be able to bring to mind.

Alex Rolfe ( is Technical Services Librarian/System Administrator, Murdock Learning Resource Center, George Fox University Libraries, Newberg, OR. He writes at



  1. Tim Dodge says:

    As an old-school librarian (M.L.S., 1980), I too, am increasingly discouraged about the fact that so many of today’s students automatically turn to Wikipedia or Google even when authoritative and reliable reference sources are available online. I try my best to appeal to the students’ self-interest by stressing the fact that these sources can help them write an “A” paper as opposed to a “C” paper and that most of these sources are easily available online if they don’t want to or can’t come to the library. I wish there were a more compelling way of getting this across because very often when I do get a question at the reference desk (or via e-mail or computer chat), the student will start off expressing his/her frustration that they have been trying to find the needed information “online” which almost always turns out to be Wikipedia, Google, etc. without success. So many of these students express genuine surprise when I alert them to the fact that, yes, we have excellent, reliable reference sources and databases easily accessible via the library homepage. It’s a shame the students don’t turn to the library as the place of FIRST resort instead of coming to the library only out of desperation. Somehow the basic life lesson of “no pain, no gain” seems to be an unfamiliar concept to most of today’s students not that I would regard pointing and clicking to an electronic reference source or database via the library homepage exactly as a “painful” experience.
    Times have changed alot since I earned my M.L.S. in 1980 and not necessarily for the better.

  2. CDK says:

    Why exactly does print reference not “make sense” anymore? Sometimes I have to chuckle at our addiction to the electronic screen: Why are we so bewitched by a “tool” that, we openly admit, results in poorer academic work? It’s as if we don’t know the difference between means and ends, or what the library exists to do. There’s no dilemma: libraries increasingly do not own any materials and are forced to rent, at extortionate prices, bundles of “books” most of which they would never purchase individually. Libraries are being privatized and sucked dry through our own professional obsession with gadgetry. We are choosing, usually with gladness in our heart, to participate in the destruction of our institutions and our careers. We could resist it simply by not playing along, not buying the blasted databases under such terms. We could demand printed equivalents at reasonable prices, which we would then own rather than paying over and over for the same content like the suckers we are. We could take intellectual, rather just physical, care of our print collections by EDUCATING our patrons in their use rather than wondering why, oh why, the internet generation doesn’t automatically abandon their google crutches the second they enter college. If students prove unwilling to learn, then why do the college faculty grant them degrees for persisting in ignorance? Enabling the serious reading of books should define what libraries are established for, rather than the dumbed-down provision of “information access” which, after all, hardly requires the existence of the library at all if we listen to men like Bill Gates. We sold our souls to the likes of Elsevier and EBSCO long ago, and now we cry when the devil comes to claim his due. Print isn’t the problem and never was: we are the problem, the librarians who are embarassed even to call themselves by that name.