I visited a local library yesterday that has done away with its Reference collection. The books are gone, the space has been repurposed. There is a small ready reference collection behind the Information desk. I noticed several copies of the most popular college guides in the circulating non-fiction collection. I hope some of their other reference works have also been moved to circulating non-fiction. There is a print encyclopedia in a corner of the YA department. The head of Adult Reference explained that she felt the collection was unused and therefore unnecessary.
The Reference collection is the most underused collection in the library. But does that mean it is unnecessary? I don't think so. I think it is time to re-think the Reference collection.
To that end I did a little (very little) research and found this blog post from Brian Herzog, the Swiss Army Librarian (cool library blog), about the overhaul he gave the reference collection in his library in Massachusetts. In brief, they weeded the heck out of the collection, moved many of the single volume books into circulating non-fiction, and converted the remaining reference collection into small, free-standing, easily accessible subject collections. The circulating reference is 7-day, non-renewable, and non-requestable (by other libraries). They converted the space into three 8x8 quiet study rooms.
I like it.
I like that there's still a Reference collection. If we dump the entire collection aren't we throwing up our hands and saying 'Google wins'? I like the fact that Herzog recognized that patrons want more access to the books not less. Is it scary to let a big, expensive reference book walk out under the arm of a teenager? Absolutely. But isn't it scarier to let that kid go home thinking the library is a pain in the butt and it's easier to find his answers on Google?
I think it's time to reintroduce our patrons to the Reference collection. Tell them what we've got. Show them how it can help. It's time for a little good old fashioned marketing. Maybe some subject heading signs next to the Dewey numbers. Maybe a display of some eye-catching Reference. Could we make the first 5 photocopies free if its a Reference Book? And maybe, just maybe it's time to let them check a few of our babies out.