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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Reference Books - Online Today

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, February 7, 2016

The man on the other end of the phone call said, “You know, many of the subscriptions that your library has for our reference books will terminate by the end of 2016.”


I told him that I was aware of the situation, and that we were reviewing the use of those items and the cost of converting to online systems.


I was getting a mental picture of the Reference Room of libraries that trained me in Library Science back in the 1970s,


Every academic library associated with a college or university had high-ceilinged rooms with dark wood shelving filled to the gills with massive books, usually in sets; with that wonderful smell of a cork floor and paper.


Sometimes the huge tables and desks in the room had reading lamps attached to assist in reading what was sometimes small print in these massive lexicons of literature.


New additional volumes were added to these sets of books, or a revised index, to keep them up-to-date to that year --- the expected current information for that day.


Sometimes there would be a Princeton File (upright open box) on the shelf to hold monthly updates usually in paperback.


Libraries spent a lot of their book budget on keeping their Reference Room “up to par” as it was usually how people judged the library since the Reference Room was open to the public and usually the “front room” of the library.


Today, the only other room in an academic library that is probably as useless is the former card catalog room, where endless cabinets of 3 x 5 cards guided the user to the entire collection of materials housed in the library.


These spaces are often filled today with banks of computers, or lounges of seating where a person can sit and use their laptop or tablet to access the same information (and more) that is at everyone’s fingertips.


The number of publishers that sell “Reference Books” has shrunk to about five, through merger and closings, and they have become “data load” centers.


Some publish books and provide online databases, but more and more are moving toward only online systems.


Their information is not spilled across the Internet for everyone to use, you have to use a Password and access code to enter their systems.


Libraries use I.P. authentication to make their computers access the databases, and some companies allow libraries to provide home access through their library cards.


The move from books to online databases has not helped the library budget, as the cost is either the same, or more for the expanded capabilities of online systems.


I will be the first to admit that online systems have enormous capabilities when compared to the print book, which remains stuck-in-time with the contained information.


Online systems are continuously updating and replacing data, as well as loading historical data to their products.


Librarians used to view Reference Books as an investment for the library and its users.  If someone had purchased a 1975 “History of Art” 10 volume set of books, they could be used forever without any continued investment.


Today, if you acquired the “History of Art” with an online system, if you didn’t buy it next year, it would “go away.”


Of course, we often hear that everything is on the Internet.


Is it?  Information remains on the Internet as long as someone maintains the equipment upon which it operates and is saved.


And how much is simply garbage, posted by someone with no qualifications in a subject?


And so it goes in our nation’s libraries; we are still here doing what American libraries have done forever, providing information to the public.  It is just our tools that change.