What To Do About That Reference Collection

Most school library media specialists are well along the path of developing a blended and balanced print/electronic collection. However, challenges remain when determining which format to choose to best serve our students. This can be particularly vexing in the reference area, where materials are often quite pricey.   And, in this era when students expect 24/7 access to materials, what is the point of the traditional reference collection anyway? When these collections got started eons ago, they were the gateway to information that was not available anyplace else. Because lots of the books came in sets and were expensive, librarians rationed access. Either students couldn’t check out the titles at all, or circulation was very limited. Times change.

By now, most of us agree that there are certain categories of information where there’s not much point in investing many reference dollars because there is ready access to reliable information online. Think of the excellent and continually updated resources available at sites like Web MD or Data.gov. Encyclopedias of various kinds offer an abundance of information organized in a way that is not easily found online, so these are still worthy purchases for school libraries. But gone are the days—thank heavens—when the librarian would have to deal with a despairing student who can’t find Volume 2, and that’s the one he needs–right now– because his person’s name starts with “B” and some creep took the book and didn’t check it out and the report is due tomorrow! Get the online version. Problem solved.   So, the question remains, what reference titles might you still want to purchase in print? I think there are three criteria to consider.

spaceThe first is Browsability.  Some books are designed to invite readers to wander through the pages in a serendipitous fashion to see what interesting things can be discovered. They don’t need to be accessed in a chronological fashion. The perennial student favorite, Guinness World Records is a great example. Although this is not exactly a scholarly work, it is endlessly fascinating to many people, young and old alike. While some of the information in the official yearbooks is available online, you can’t beat holding the book and looking at all those great photos! A more scholarly example would be National Geographic’s Space Atlas: Mapping the Universe and Beyond, by James Trefil. While there are lots of great space websites, a reasonably-priced title like this can still be a viable addition to a print collection.

militaryAnother criterion for choosing print is Comparability. By this I mean that some print titles allow the reader to make comparisons between two or more people, places, events, etc. in an easier and better way than an online search—at least by my way of thinking. Consider, for example, The Atlas of Military History, by Amanda Lomazoff. Arranged first by geography, then by chronology, the book allows for easy comparison of what was going on in various places in the world at various times. So a student can discover that Ivan the Terrible and the Japanese Samurai were wreaking havoc in their respective corners of the world in about the same era. Because of this feature, many atlases and timelines are still worthy print purchases.

artThe last criterion I’d like to highlight is Visual Appeal. Gorgeous photography and layout are still best viewed in print.   Ken Burns’ National Parks: America’s Best Idea, contains lush images of all of the national parks, accompanied by an excellent text narrative. While web sites for the individual parks will also provide this information, the book brings it all together in one place in a way that the Web does not.  Another example, Art That Changed the World, comes from DK, long known for its visually-appealing books. While all of the featured works of art can be viewed online, it’s the combination of the beautiful reproductions and the context of why this art is important that make the print version a great choice. The title is also available in e-book format, but, at this point, it must be re-purchased each year. The print book is a better bet, I think.

Deciding between print and e-book for reference collections is a very subjective choice depending on any given school library and its users.   Perhaps the whole concept of a sacrosanct section of the library where titles can’t be circulated is fast falling away. However, given that this specialized area of the collection still serves a purpose, albeit a changing one, I hope that these criteria might be a helpful part of the decision process.