or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Out With The Old, In With The New

   January 4th, 2011

Emptying the Reference AreaThis project has been underway at my library for the last month or two, and the beginning of a new year seems like a very appropriate time to mention it. We are in the process of removing our Reference shelves so we can repurpose the space.

This is a major project for us. It was brought about by two main factors:

  • The community primarily uses my library for popular materials and assistance with projects (homework, hobbies, etc) - hardly anyone does in-library research, so our Reference collection hardly every got used
  • Our patrons are constantly asking to reserve our (single) quiet study room, and we often had more requests for it than we could accommodate

So, we came up with a plan to build three new 8' x 8' study rooms. Big enough for one or two people, but small enough that we could fit more than one into the available space.

To make space for them, we developed a new approach (for us) to our Reference collection. For the last month or so, I've been weeding with these new criteria:

  • Anything that seemed like a reference book and could be easily photocopied - World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica, Farmer's Almanac, Statistical Abstract of the United States - remained "Reference" and will be shelved close to the Reference Desk (more on shelving in a minute)
  • Anything that seemed like a reference book but required more reading is being recataloged with a new "7 Day Loan" designation. These books will circulate for only 7 days (instead of our regular 3 week loan for books), but cannot be renewed or requested by other libraries. The goal here is to make the books more useful to people by letting patrons take them home when needed, but make the circulation rules such that the books will also get back on the shelves quickly and so be available when other patrons or staff need them. Also, very importantly, these will be interfiled on our regular non-fiction shelves, so all information on a subject will be same place*
  • Anything that wasn't pure reference, and didn't seem like something someone would need to lay their hands on immediately, was recataloged as regular circulating non-fiction. There were far more of these than the 7 Day Loan books, which I thought was a good thing
  • Everything else got weeded. I've been wanting to do this for the last few years, so have been slowly deemphasizing the Reference Collection by putting new books as they came in into our circulating collection. As a result, quite a few Reference books could be deleted because we already had newer editions in the circulating collection. Others got deleted because it was a duplicate copy, we had lots of other material on the subject, we had better resources available online, or it was simply outdated (I've been ordering new items as updates). Another criteria was the good old "dust test" - if blowing on the book produced a plume of dust, I took that as a sign that it was not used, and only kept it if I felt it was absolutely vital. This process illustrated how bad of a job I did with regularly weeding the Reference Collection, because we had lots of shelf space to keep things

My goal for this project, in addition to providing study space that our community is demanding, is to increase the usefulness of our entire collection by letting patrons use it the way they want to - at home. Also, by interfiling all of our material, hopefully the "reference" books will get a new lease on life, as many patrons previously couldn't even be enticed into the Reference area - more than once I handed a patron a reference book open to the page that answered their question, but since they couldn't take it home they wouldn't even look at it.

Of course, there have been problems, too. Most notably, we don't have the space on our non-fiction shelves to absorb all of the Reference books we're shifting down there. This prompted major weeding of the circulating collection (which, again, was probably overdue).

Another solution was to pull out discreet subjects and reshelve them elsewhere in the library. The study rooms we're building won't take up all of the floor space in the Reference area, so we're putting in three new index tables and using them as "subject tables." These subjects will be auto repair (629.287), career (331.702 and 650.14), genealogy (929, plus a few other hand-chosen items), and maps (mostly our oversized atlases, but also geography reference like the Columbia Gazetteer). All of the general encyclopedias and other books that are remaining true Reference items will also be on one of these tables.

Another issue has been peoples' concern about how many books we're getting rid of. It certainly has been a lot, and I understand why it might shock some people. But I'm evaluating the entire collection almost on a book-by-book basis, so I have a reason for every decision I made. Like I said above, usually it's because the book is out-of-date or we have enough complimentary materials and don't have room for everything. Again though, if I had been weeding properly all along, it wouldn't be such a monumental task right now.

We're still in the process of weeding, recataloging, and shifting. Construction of the new rooms is suppose to start next week, and everything should be finished by the end of the month. Transition periods are always difficult, but I think once things are finished our collection will be much better and more useful.

Something else that makes me happy is that all of these changes were driven by patron behavior. I'm glad that we can adapt to the changing needs our our community.


*Damn you, Oversized Books - you are the bane of my existence. Sadly, much of our recataloged Reference collection is ending up on our Oversized shelves, but that is a project for a later date.

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9 Responses to “Out With The Old, In With The New”

  1. lesbrarian Says:

    “Another issue has been peoples’ concern about how many books we’re getting rid of.” Do you mean patrons or staff?

    That’s an excellent project you’ve taken on, and I’m actually a little bit envious, because I just love to weed. In all seriousness, it’s my favorite part of collection development. But there have been times when my energetic efforts have alarmed other colleagues.

  2. Holly Hibner Says:

    I agree completely with your weeding method and philosophy. I especially love that some books are given another chance in a different collection before out-and-out weeding – and the fact that it’s made you look at THOSE collections carefully for space too. If you come across anything “Awful Library Books” worthy, send a scan our way! http://www.awfullibrarybooks.net

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @lesbrarian: Yeah, both patrons and staff. Once people hear our reasoning, they understand, but it’s still counterintuitive sometimes for a library to be getting rid of books.

    @Holly: Oh, there have been too many. I did save some, but otherwise they would have slowed me down. And some weren’t so much awful as just out of date – the ones that made me laugh are the “Getting on the internet with Windows 3.0” type books.

    Also, I need to say that this certainly isn’t an original idea, and many libraries have already gone this route (including Westerville, OH and Wilmington, MA) – and I’m stealing ideas from all of them.

  4. Stephanie Willen Brown Says:

    Fascinating — and such a helpful use of space for patrons!

    This reminds me of my new favorite website/blog: http://awfullibrarybooks.net/. One of the librarians’ comments is “hoarding is NOT collection development.” I also love to weed, as it keeps the collection fresh and useful.

    Congrats — I hope you post photos when you’re done!

  5. Sarah Debraski Says:

    Kudos to you and your library for being willing to adapt and reassess how we serve patrons. As I read your process I kept thinking how completely sensible and logical it was. Good luck with the construction! And, how long ago did you decide to do this and start the project? Sounds like it would take many months!

  6. Lori Fisher Says:

    Great post Brian…we undertook a similar project last year with terrific results. We now have a “ready reference” section by our circulation desk, and have integrated the rest of the reference materials we kept into the non-fiction shelving. Patrons are happy because now they don’t have to go to three separate areas to find resources for their research. We used the space created for a quiet study area (which we didn’t have before) and for our large print collection. We didn’t have any seating near our previous large print area, and found through a bookmark survey and good old observation that many large print users want/need to sit down and peruse the books (most of the users are older and want seating for physical reasons). It’s great to respond in such a positive way to changes in our community needs!

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Sarah: Thanks – my middle name is “sensible and logical.” As for the project, I’ve been planning it in the back of my head for about three years, so when funding became available in November and I got approval, we jumped at it. There’s a lot of planning-as-we-go, which is fine with me. I try to stay one step ahead of where we are, but also not let anything get slowed down.

    @Lori: I’m happy to hear a success story, and it sounds like opening up your large print area is exactly what your community wanted. Good for you too.

  8. Links of interest: January 21, 2011 « A Modern Hypatia Says:

    […] Herzog talks about some major material shifting at his library, and about how it’s going to open up space in a wonderful new way, for the ways people are now wanting to use the library. Weeding materials, in particular, is a challenging topic, and I’m always glad when I see […]

  9. Swiss Army Librarian » Update on Eliminating Our Reference Collection :: Brian Herzog Says:

    […] post ever, but I’ve got a lot to talk about. My library just finished a major project I mentioned earlier this year – the three parts of this project […]