Googling ‘Reference Work’ in the Age of Wikipedia

Sshhh! He's visiting the library.
Sshhh! He’s visiting the library.

Budgets are in free fall, patrons (and even librarians) seem to no longer recognize the concept of the ‘reference work,’ and Wikipedia and Google are eating market share percentage points like they were M&Ms. What’s a reference librarian to do?

First off, don’t panic, Elisabeth Leonard reports in a just-released white paper (PDF here) on The State of Reference Collections. (SAGE is the parent of Social Science Space.) Accept that budgets are shifting to digital, that dogmatic adherence to something as ‘reference’ may be outmoded, and become a docent for the online explorer.

“The future of reference is far from grim, despite competition from Google, Wikipedia, and other resources and despite budgetary constraints,” she writes.

Reference white paper coverLeonard, a former research librarian now an executive market research manager with SAGE, drew her conclusions from a survey of 482 librarians from schools, business and government, mostly (90 percent) from North America. Some 58 percent of the librarians surveyed worked at college or university libraries. Those results were augmented with focus group sessions providing more qualitative results from practitioners.

One of the first hurdles they face is that the notion of reference itself is fading, even as the need for it (and arguably access to it) is increasing. “We have tried to use the term [reference] less since today’s students do not identify with the term,” one business librarian at an academic institution said. Those “patrons” may not just be people on the other side of the desk; “librarians who still teach patrons to use reference are dismayed that their coworkers are ostensibly as unaware of the benefits of reference as their patrons are.”

While that may upset some traditionalists, it doesn’t mean whatever catchall tem we come up with to mean reference is also destined for the dustbin:

One academic library director wrote that “differentiating ‘reference’ material in the digital age from other content resources or information assets has blurred beyond recognition. A good source of information, reference or not, is one that answers the question, period.”

Pragmatic agnosticism is the rule of the new day, says Leonard. “The usefulness of the resource is judged not only by preferred format but also in terms of which resource seems most appropriate for the audience.” This means both speed of the right answer but also the ability of the patron to use the format.

But is the library of tomorrow totally self-serve?

For some librarians, Google is positioned to take over as the sole source of information, as is illustrated by one participant who commented that, “Google will take over all knowledge” and referenced “more self-service by users who have grown up with online search engines (such as Google and Bing) and don’t see the need to consult with a trained information professional in their quest to solve an information need.”

Sadly—or happily for librarians hoping for a hint of job security, happily – no: “I’ve noticed [college] students’ researching skills are extremely poor, probably worse than that of a high schooler …” says one respondent.

And so reference librarians have already started sipping the e-Kool-Aid. While print collections retain their retro allure, at least half (special librarians) if not more (academic librarians) of those contacted for the white paper reported either a preference for online reference or no preference at all. (“Only 5% of the respondents expressed a preference for print reference, and even fewer bought only print reference.”)

In many libraries, “as long as the electronic version is affordable, the electronic is preferred.” And that’s not just for snazzy search capabilities or multimedia add-ons. “Features are nice,” said one respondent, “but content is king.”

Part of this re-orientation lies in the very hard truths of the library budget. Some 65 percent of public librarians reported their budgets had decreased in the last five years, while 59 percent of academic and special librarians did.

As a special librarian reported, “Being continually told to cut my budget each year and vendors raising prices 7 percent to 10 percent annually, you do the math. It’s not a pretty picture.” But while there’s less money every year for officially branded “reference works,” there’s often more money available for e-collections.  When you get done doing the math, start connecting the dots.

“Academic librarians expecting to increase reference spending,” Leonard wrote, “cited a drive to purchase more e-reference as well as an overall increase in the collections budget.”

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