Does anyone still care about reference collections?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

Open Books-9043447Imagine you are a customer service librarian being forced to choose just three reference tools out of your entire reference collection and discard the rest. What would they be? Librarians and grad students used to mull over questions like this while hobnobbing at conferences or gathering in coffee shops. But what was once a philosophical reflection about the most valuable reference books (with the assumption being that of course every library needs them), has become a much simpler and more realistic question: “Does anyone care about reference collections anymore?”

It’s 2018. What three tools would any good customer service librarian choose to keep?

  1. The Internet
  2. A good search engine
  3. A smartphone

No, you’re right, they aren’t books, but you have to admit that they are indispensable. Goodbye “Encyclopedia Britannica,” farewell “World Almanac,” adiós “Famous First Facts.” Full disclosure: I got my start in the reference department of a large public library, using standards such as “The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature,” “The United States Government Manual,” and “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” I cut my eyeteeth on them. I fell in love with many, many reference titles and I could not stifle my affection. I loved those musty tomes passionately.

Today it’s a different world—one with different patrons, who have different needs and are asking different questions. About the only thing a reference collection gives me today is warm fuzzies. OK, I am exaggerating…somewhat. Yes, there are some valid exceptions. But let’s look at what’s happening across the country.

Kyle King, at the North Independence branch of Mid-Continent Public Library (Independence, Mo.), works in the district’s reference center. Since he started there 10 years ago, the collection has shrunk from 38,000 volumes to 18,000. He says the nature of the questions he receives has changed. Computer Search-456214333A lot of what used to be ready reference is now solved by patrons themselves who hop onto a search engine for answers. The library has become an educator in information literacy and is taking a major stance as a resource for mastering digital technologies. He notes, “Twenty-five years ago, questions were informational, but now they involve demonstrating skills. For a car repair question, we handed the customer a manual rather than joining them under the hood. Today, though, we do hands-on demos of using email, navigating websites, and filling out forms.” The print reference collection still receives some use, especially in areas where no equivalent online tool is available for free or a reasonable price, such as collectibles, legal materials, building codes, and style manuals. Many reference books have been moved to the circulating collection, and some reference books are occasionally sent to another branch for a patron to use.

Kathi Woodward, Reference Department manager at Springfield-Greene County Library (Mo.), is a relative newcomer to the profession, having started in 2012 after more than two decades in the world of bookstores. During her six years as manager, the reference collection has decreased to half its size. Women Man Computer-289539899She has retained some print materials because there is no comparable or affordable online equivalent, such as various medical reference titles, collectibles, and Jane’s “All the World’s Aircraft.” Woodward agrees that the nature of the questions has changed and there is considerable focus on technology, job applications, IRS, and “How do I…?” queries.  However, the homework question—that old familiar friend of ours—still crops up often.

For Ben Lathrop, Information and Reference Department Manager for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, one challenge is the size of the reference collection. The library weeds based on condition only. Two floors of its main library—closed to the public—house large numbers of nonfiction and reference volumes. Lathrop has pulled together a collection of approximately 1,000 volumes located adjacent to reference staff for quick, daily use. In his 12 years with the library, some types of questions have largely disappeared, with library users now asking Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant instead of librarians or their friends. Some customers, though, still ask the library for phone numbers, addresses, and such. While encyclopedias and atlases sit unused, building codes, price guides for antiques and collectibles, and a few titles such as “Corporate Affiliations Directory” remain invaluable. In many cases, the library allows reference titles to be checked out. Lathrop noted that reference librarians used to practice the “teach a person to fish” approach by helping customers use reference books, but that today they’re doing the opposite: answering the question directly without going into teaching mode.

In early 2016, Jessica Parij, Manager of Adult Services at Rochester Hills Public Library (Mich.), posed this question to ALA’s Think Tank Facebook Group : “What’s your print reference section look like nowadays? Still big? Small? Interfiled? Gone completely?” With close to 40 comments, the most common responses were:

  • Heavily weeded
  • Getting smaller
  • Shrinking
  • Moving to circulating collection
  • Replaced by online resources
  • Sad but tossing the outdated and unused books

These individual comments are particularly noteworthy:

  • “I’m about to decimate mine.”
  • “I just discarded three quarters of mine.”
  • “Gone. A few ready ref at the desk but other than that, all gone!”

Andy Woodworth, manager of reference and adult services at Cherry Hill Public Library (N.J.), a 2010 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, is author of the blog Agnostic, Maybe: the Neverending Reference Interview of Life. Woodworth offered what is perhaps the best response to this post’s featured question in the article he wrote for INALJ (the website formerly known as I Need a Library Job). In the entry titled “Reference Isn’t Dead, Just Different,” Andy says, “I turn downright ornery towards the physical reference collection as a continuing concept that libraries should embrace…. (After weeding the reference collection) I am presently looking at a leaner, meaner physical collection that covers the topics better than their online counterparts.”

So it seems that after ruthless weeding and a focus on the immediate goal of meeting the needs of 2018 library users, those beloved reference books have been replaced by fast Internet, smart searching, and strong technology. The remaining titles have to earn their shelf space. So what should stay? The titles should be solid, dependable, reliable, easy to access, quicker than going online for an answer, and offer beautifully arranged, succinct answers to frequently asked questions. Simple, eh? To paraphrase a great Zen saying, “The way is easy, except for the picking and choosing.” I confess, it still pains me to discard a reference title I have long loved, but I can do it.

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Where Have All the Readers Gone?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

“I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.” —Neil Gaiman

Recently, I wrote here about print versus shutterstock_548101636digital and raised the question as to whether the physical book is dying. My question today may seem very similar but it’s really more broad and speculative. In fact, it’s a series of questions.

Is reading on the decline? Are we in a “post-literate era?” Is the act of reading itself on the way out, to be replaced by video, the spoken word, game apps, data implants to the brain, knowledge pills, or what have you?

If the answer is yes, it is in decline, then who or what do we pin the blame on? What can we, as librarians, do to combat it? And why do we want to push back against the trend, other than to save our own profession?

To begin, while it may be trite, we Americans have become multi-taskers, switching from e-mail to social media to news to game apps, then back to our latest ebook. Coupled with this, our attention spans have shrunk. We have increasingly shifted from print to moving images. This trend is not necessarily “bad.” It simply describes the direction in which contemporary culture is moving.

So, what’s happened to reading? We librarians have witnessed the rise of “short reads,” or, to use James Patterson’s term, BookShots. But “James Patterson, Inc.” isn’t the only provider offering something to readers with limited time and short attention spans. The Libraries Transform Campaign recently wrote about short reading on their website, giving many examples of other short reads that are being delivered in print and digital formats.

How else does this “time-attention-focus” shortage affect our reading? Are fewer of us reading, period? Happily, it would seem not. The 2016 Pew Research Center survey on book reading provides a richly detailed series of answers. Among many interesting statistics, 73% of Americans say they have read at least one book in the last year. For 18 to 29 year-olds, that number is higher: 80%. Along with this, a 2014 article from The Atlantic reports:

Last year, the NEA found that 52 percent of 18-24 year-olds had read a book outside of work or school, the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002. If book culture were in terminal decline, this is the demographic where you’d expect it to be fading fastest.

So much for the misconception that young people don’t read.

In 2012, Pew conducted a survey to identify why people like to read. The theme of “quiet entertainment” was popular among respondents. Here are some individual quotes:

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What are some factors that tend to be a positive catalyst for reading? Nothing beats the age-old practice of a parent reading to their child. Adults who were read to as children tend to continue the practice of reading throughout their lives. Along with this, according to a Pew Research Center Study, education level and income both seem to influence reading. Those with college degrees read more than those without. Those in middle to upper-middle income brackets tend to read more than those with lower incomes.

We Americans pride ourselves on being highly educated and literate, but when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, how do we as a country stack up in regard to reading? According to the NOP World Culture Score Index on hours of reading per week per person, India is #1, at 10 hours, 42 minutes per week. China is at eight hours, Russia and Sweden are at seven, and Canada, Germany, and the U.S. are about five hours,45 minutes each. Mexico is slightly below America, at five hours, 30 minutes. This suggests there is not a correlation in other countries between standard of living or education and reading.

shutterstock_450545746What librarians can do to foster reading is exactly what we have been doing: promoting reading through storytimes, publicizing summer reading programs, fostering book discussion groups, and promoting literacy by partnering with literacy organizations. Beyond that, we know every book a child is given makes him or her more likely to become a lifelong reader. We know that families who are well educated will be more enthusiastic readers, as well as users of libraries. We know that fostering efforts to raise families out of poverty will tend to move them more into the camp of those who love and find value in reading.

In our present hyped-up, frenetic world of doing, working, chatting, and surfing, perhaps our best stance as librarians is to take every opportunity to water the seeds of imagination in individuals. To be a catalyst for discovery, and to offer not so much a reflection of the culture, but rather a pathway to a life of the mind that offers rich rewards for personal and social development.

Is the librarian’s push to promote reading a kind of self-serving insurance policy to protect our livelihood? Perhaps, to some degree, it is. But more importantly, we understand the secret of reading. And this is what we seek to share.

Ultimately, we as librarians work not to save the institution, not to maintain the status quo, not to save “the book,” and not to act as luddites. The crux of the issue revolves around fostering “the good life.” We believe with all our hearts that reading is a magic elixir that takes us out of ourselves, broadens our perspectives, leads us to ask questions, and brings us into connection with the world around us.

Perhaps Neil Gaiman said it best:

“You’re also finding out something as you read [that is] vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

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Is Print Dead?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

shutterstock_1031453560It goes without saying that most of us who work in libraries love books. What do we do, then, when people start sounding the death knell for the printed word? Some of us may be dismayed by the statistics about print that we read and hear, including the news release from Amazon that it now sells more Kindle-formatted books than those in traditional format. But the statistics do not indicate any clear death notice, and they fail to tell us the real story.

Let’s consider this.

It’s clear that those heralding the coming death of print never sat in on the university forecasting class taught by noted IBM business planner Ollie Wight in the mid-decades of the last century. Each of Wight’s opening lectures began with Wight stating, “Remember that all forecasts are wrong from the moment they are made.” And so it goes with the predictions about the death of print. These predictions seemed to take on a strident pitch with the emergence of portable electronic tablets more than a decade ago. These days, amidst the proliferation of electronic reference databases, downloadable library e-books, and the ease of hyperlinking, what thinking person wouldn’t wonder how soon the obituary of print would be—pardon me—printed?

I am struck by sociology professor and author John Thompson’s (“Merchants of Culture”) observation that “Few … challenges were foreseen in the feverish hype of the 1990s that the days of the book were numbered. Paper texts were clunky and old fashioned; digital versions were smart and sleek.” Many have jumped onto the perceived coffin of books, Pull-Quote-1newspapers, and magazines and enthusiastically heralded a new day. Indeed, yes, it is a new day—with many more to come for those of us who work in libraries. The rapid changes facilitated by technology will continue and the pace will become even faster than it is at the moment. However, does this mean that print will soon be dead? Perhaps not. When radio appeared, forecasters predicted that newspapers would disappear. The advent of television led to the same prediction for radio.

Going back to 1894, there was speculation that the (then) new technology of phonograph records (à la audiobooks) would bring about the demise of books. Earlier cries were that the newspaper would kill the book. Today’s newspaper, while certainly challenged, is still with us, as is the book it was going to replace. Except for high-end audiophiles, the phonograph record is dead.  So is its successor, the audiotape.  For some of its applications, print is in great decline. Think about reference collections today versus twenty years ago.

Humans, wired as we are by our genetic heritage, tend to like tactile objects. Gutenberg’s invention was a vast improvement over cuneiform tablets and parchment scrolls. Do digital editions and databases offer a similar leaping improvement over print? We humans prefer convenience and practicality along with the sensory and tactile. You, the reader, are right now looking into an electronic screen, not a printed page.  When you pack for a long trip, you may well be packing yourshutterstock_229026028 iPad or other portable reading device along with a laptop. Who wants to lug around a suitcase made heavier by adding several books and magazines?  So, yes, reading digitally is sensible, practical, and convenient. And its integration into our daily lives and into libraries is a no-brainer.

Certainly, digital reading offers splendid possibilities and conveniences. What librarian wants to return to the days of hunting for magazine back issues, finding missing or mutilated copies, or lugging reference books around that are too expensive to be duplicated at all branch locations? Digital reading is wonderful for some applications—but not for all of us all the time.

Stephen Fry, comedian, actor, and writer, summed things up well when he wrote: “This is the point. One technology doesn’t replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” I think this is where we are in the print versus digital buzz. Print is holding its place well for many applications and users, while the adoption of digital formats continues to become more widespread. It isn’t one against the other. There aren’t winners and losers. We simply have more choices these days.

Pull-Quote-2I believe that print is going to maintain a presence in our lives—for the present and near future, and probably for a long time. Why? Many people prefer it for long reading and various aesthetic reasons. Who doesn’t thrill at receiving a handwritten card or letter from a friend? What child does not delight at having an adult share a picture book with them? What emotions do we experience when we pull a long-treasured book off our personal bookshelf and find a pressed flower, a scribbled note, or a bookmark that triggers memories? A while back, I relocated to another city and my books were stored in heavy boxes for a few months. I was able to put them back onto bookshelves recently. The experience was more than I expected it would be. I was so moved that I began to write:

Poem2

Print and digital are close cousins, not warring tribes. Underneath the emotional aspects of an attachment to print, the solid ground is that print works for us. And digital works for us. New technology benefits us and gives us choices we did not have before. The thrill of the new can sometimes obscure the benefits of the old-fashioned. We winnow our way as librarians and help translate the truths of the library into today’s vernacular. We flow with and help interpret the tide and lend a hand to customers as we explore and adapt today’s technologies.

Premature Obituaries for Printed Books:shutterstock_228824866.jpg

  • “Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” —Written by Thomas Edison, in the summer of 1913
  • In 1966, in a Life magazine profile, Marshall McLuhan lumped books with other antiques: “Clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs — all are obsolete.”
  • “The physical book will be dead in five years.” —Declared by Nicholas Negroponte, father of the One Laptop Per Child project, at a conference in 2010
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Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.