I have always given a lot of thought to reference in the academic library where I work. I used to walk past the reference desk, say hello to the reference librarians, walk over to the reference collection and count the number of users, and then walk back and say "Only one, I'm afraid", or whatever number was appropriate. When we abolished the reference desk, that was no longer possible, and there was a hiatus in these counts of reference collection users. Or an hiatus, for the purists.
Now, as I walk down the stairs I see the print reference collection every day, in its new location on level 3 - a prime position, although not the prime position. I always count the number of users, and the tally is always the same.
Reference collections have always been under-used, like any other just-in-case collection. They have also, unlike many other categories of printed books, been particularly well-suited to online deployment, where they can be continuously updated, linked to additional information, and made instananeously available. As a result, much reference material has moved online in a pretty dramatic way. Reference books which have not done so are starting to look rather quaint.
I thought these thoughts again while leafing through the book reviews in the latest issue of the Australian library journal, which include several reviews of books about reference. Reference, in academic libraries, is still around. But now, because of the move away from print, a significant part of the work of libraries has been providing systematic access to this mass of information. Michelle McLean's review entitled Reference Reference seems to say that this is what reference is now about. Interestingly, MIT has made available its virtual reference collection online - but parts of it are behind a licence wall. The MIT collection unaccountably omits some new reference favourites, like the Wikipedia and Google Earth.
I have not canvassed the varied and changing meanings of the term "reference", which a blog in part about words should have done. And I have not examined the phenomenon of differing evolution of the idea of reference in different kinds of libraries - it is hard to know what meaning to give the word in an academic library, while traditional reference seems alive and well in public and state libraries.
But I could be wrong, as always. What is the future of reference? Is it www.reference.com (or is this just a monetised site)? Has Google got it under control? Or Answers.com? Can libraries add value in other ways than just paying for access to information for our users? Should we be collaborating in doing this? How?
Let me know what you think.