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

Update on Eliminating Our Reference Collection

   April 7th, 2011

What the former reference area looks like nowThis might be my longest 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 were:

  • Revamp the reference collection, to make the majority of it circulating and interfiled with the regular non-fiction collection
  • Use the space formerly housing the reference collection to make popular subjects easier to find and use
  • Build new study rooms

Because we were moving so much material around, all of this had to happen at the same time (although it dragged out a couple extra months because of problems with the building contractor). A breakdown of what we did is below, and you can see photos of the construction, and some "before" pictures.

Rethinking Reference

For the last few years, it was pretty clear that our reference collection was underused (which is an understatement). There were many times I would take a patron over there, hand them the book and point to the information they were looking for, but when they found out the book couldn't leave the library, their response was, "nevermind, I'll just look it up on the internet."

That drove me crazy, but also illustrated that our collection no longer met the needs of our community. For better or worse, books they couldn't take home were useless to them, and for me to keep spending thousands of dollars on it was wasting their tax dollars.

So the plan we came up with was to convert about 90% of the "reference" collection to books that could be checked out and taken home. The only thing that remained as "library use only" are our current encyclopedias (Britannica and World Book), almanacs (The Old Farmer's Almanac and the World Almanac), statistics books (Statistical Abstract of the United States), and also our ready-reference collection.

The rest of the reference collection fell into one of three categories:

  • Weeded - I'd estimate that at least half of our collection went this route. We had a lot of space for reference books, so I tended to hang onto them much longer than I should have. Also, for the last couple years I was buying more for non-fiction than reference, so in quite a few instances we had a newer edition in non-fiction than the reference edition
  • Converted to regular non-fiction - about 20%-40% of the collection were converted to regular non-fiction books. I made an effort to put as much into this category as I could, because these would be the most useful to patrons
  • Made "7 Day Loan" - this was a new item type we created as a result of this project. Into this category when all the big sets, expensive books, or books that we used a lot but not enough to keep as ready-reference. Each of these books got a bright red "7 Day Loan" sticker on the spine, and circulate under three caveats:
    • They circulate for 7 days - by allowing limited circulation, they will be more useful to patrons, and we'll get a better value for the money we spend on them
    • They are non-requestable - because we're part of a consortium, making them non-requestable means they're more likely to be available when a local patron or staff needs them. However, if another library calls and asks us to set a book aside for a patron because they're coming to pick it up, we will
    • They are non-renewable - again, the goal here is to make sure there is turnover on these books, and that they are available to most people most of the time. We did need to create a new "24 hour waiting period" for checkouts though - when a patron returns a 7 Day Loan book, they need to wait 24 hours before they can check it out again - otherwise, one patron could monopolize a resource, and I wanted to avoid that

Since the non-fiction collection would be absorbing a lot of newly recataloged books, the Reference staff spent months weeding that collection also, and got rid of a ton of outdated or underused books. Then, as Tech Services recataloged books either as regular non-fiction or 7 Day Loan books, Reference staff would interfile them with the regular non-fiction collection.

This is really my favorite part of the project, because it means all books on a topic were in one place, instead of having to show patrons the non-fiction books, then walk them across the room to show them the same Dewey number in the Reference Collection.

Space, and How to Best Fill it

As the Reference area cleared out, we had a lot of floor space we could now repurpose. I had two ideas for this.

1. More Study Rooms
View from the Reference Desk of the three new study room being builtBy far, the biggest unmet need in my department was for quiet study rooms. We had one room that people could reserve, but it was always booked. It was definitely a hot commodity, and we sometimes had mild altercations between tutors or students or parents, who all wanted to use the room.

This need had been growing over the years (and especially in the summers), and money finally became available in our budget to build new study rooms. Given the space available, we decided on three new 8' x 8' rooms. Each room had two chairs and a work counter along one wall - this maximized table space, without actually putting a table in the room (which would have required the rooms to be bigger to make them ADA-compliant). We also wired all the rooms with power outlets and ethernet jacks (above the counters to make them easy to access), and put a clock and recycle bin in each room. For security, the fronts of each room are floor-to-ceiling glass, which many tutors actually thanked us for.

These rooms are now almost constantly in use, and being able to accommodate the needs of our patrons - instead of always apologizing for our limited resources, feels really good.

2. Subject Tables
New study tablesWe built the study rooms along the back wall of the Reference area, which left open floor space between them and the Reference Desk. Into this space went three new index tables (basically, a table with a book shelf down the center). I like these tables because they let you combine a book collection with a work surface. They are also low and open, and therefore inviting and easy to use.

These three tables became "subject tables" for some of our commonly-used collection areas - career resources, auto repair, genealogy, and maps (continuing what we started in 2009).

The tables were lined up in such a way that each section got its own little pod, along with clear signage. We also created new call numbers for each subject, so patrons searching the catalog would know they were in a special section. The system we used is roughly:

  • Career/331.702 and Career/650.14 - plus a few stragglers from other Dewey numbers
  • Car Repair/629.287
  • Genealogy/929
  • Maps/910 and Maps/911 - plus a few others, with more to come including a lot of atlases that ended up being banished to the Oversized collection

By just appending logical subject words to the beginning of the Dewey numbers, we were able to make things easier to find without reinventing the wheel. This allowed us to get things recataloged quicker, and kept my Cataloger from tampering with my car's brake lines.

A couple happy results of the layout of our building and the tables: the table closest the Reference Desk is where I put the remainder of our Reference collection - the encyclopedia, almanacs and statistical books. This is the best place for them, so I was happy it worked out. On the other end of the tables is where I put the Genealogy books, which just happens to be right outside of our Local History Room. Again, not exactly just a happy accident, but really the best place for them considering the patrons that use both of those collections.

So Far, So Good

The project took longer than it should have, and the transition period was rocky at times. The biggest complaints (from both patrons and staff) were:

  • weeding so many books in such a short period
  • letting expensive books be checked out
  • not having a reference collection
  • building study rooms instead of spending that money on something else

Through it all, I kept coming back to my bottom line: the needs of our patrons have changed, and we need to change too. No one uses reference books, and everyone wants quiet study rooms.

Now that things have been in place for a month or so, I think everyone is adjusting to the changes. I honestly still do cringe any time I see a middle school kid walking out with a Grzimek's volume under his arm, but I also know that patron is far better served by being able to take that book home.

One last detail: total cost for the construction of the three study rooms, plus purchase of the custom-made wooden subject table and chairs, ran about $16,000. This doesn't factor in all the staff time involved in weeding, shifting, recataloging, or other duties, but I think this is not only a great investment, but a small price to pay to make sure our library evolves to continue to serve the needs of our patrons.

I'm sorry this post was so long, and sorrier that I know I left important parts out. If anyone has any questions about this project, my goals or logic, or how things have been going, please let me know.

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22 Responses to “Update on Eliminating Our Reference Collection”

  1. Marcie Says:

    From the pictures your new reference area looks great! Study rooms are definitely in demand and traditional reference books are not, so kudos to you for being willing (and able) to make a positive change.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Marcie: Thank you – quite a few people have said that the rooms look so good that they look like they’ve always been there. I’m happy (and know I’m lucky) that we were able to do it, but it has been quite positive overall.

  3. Anne Paluck Says:

    We went through this process as well and our space formerly known as reference will soon be converted into an instruction area with 25 student computers!

  4. Michelle Says:

    What a great project. We are in a similar transition process and have given me some good food for thought. Thanks!

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Anne: I love the phrase “space formerly known as reference” – with no reference collection, we might even need to change the name of the department to really reflect what we actually do.

    @Michelle: good luck – I’m happy to share anything I can, so if you have any questions, just let me know.

  6. Cam Says:

    The finished project sounds great; I really like the idea of the subject tables with the commonly used materials there.

    We’re in the process of repurposing our reference space for our burgeoning YA section (currently relegated to the edges of non-fiction room. Not very friendly for teens).

    When we started the project, we had a degree-holding reference librarian working on the project. Now it’s me–paraprofessional, no reference training.

    I’ve got myself a CREW-method manual but would love it if you’ve got some tips for weeding, updating, and reassigning a section I didn’t help create and don’t purchase for.

  7. Heather Says:

    The idea of subject tables is really intriguing, and a great way to combine all the resources that patrons REALLY want with a place to use them. It’s also really great that you put the ready-reference books on a table. I never realized it before, but I’m often frustrated when I just need to flip through the r-r book I’ve pulled off the shelf and there’s nowhere convenient to set it down.

    On changing the name of the Reference department, please do a post if you do. The academic library I work at recently switched the name from “Reference Desk” to “Research Center” and it’s been interesting to say the least.

  8. Links of interest: April 8th, 2011 « A Modern Hypatia Says:

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  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Cam: we thought about making the space formerly known as reference in a new YA area (which would be nice because it’d be right next to the desk which would hopefully keep the unruliness in check), but decided it just wasn’t big enough. Good luck with your project, and I’ll post again when I put together a few other tips.

    @Heather: actually, it was the auto repair books that gave me that idea – those Chilton books are so big and heavy, being able to sit them down somewhere close is great. It’s just a bonus for everything else.

    And yes, I will post if we change the name. Another required revamp is our budget – since I’m basically not buying “reference” books anymore, the reference budget should be reallocated between electronic resources and regular non-fiction, which gives us as opportunity to put down on paper the new direction we want the library to go in.

  10. Erin Says:

    Sounds like you’re bringing to life some great innovations, Brian. Thanks for sharing the details with us all!

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  12. Stephanie Willen Brown Says:

    My thought about “a middle school kid walking out with a Grzimek‘s volume under his arm” is to quote Ranganathan’s first Law of Library Science: *books are for use.* If books aren’t being used *in* the library, let ’em go out. The 7-day non-requestable loan idea is a good one.

    Also: yay! Grzimek’s!

  13. Mark Hudson Says:

    Interesting that your print reference collection “isn’t meeting the needs of the community.” I use our print reference materials every day at the reference desk. The depth and quality of information is so much higher than what exists online, including even our best online databases. When the government of our state cut the budget for reference databases, I was very glad we had put so much time and energy into developing a solid, up-to-date print reference collection, because we weren’t dependent on the databases the way libraries that have downsized or eliminated their print reference collections were.

  14. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Mark: I think @Stephanie actually addresses your comment. I didn’t mean to imply that reference books themselves weren’t worthwhile – they certainly are. The problem, at least in my community, is that no one used them because they couldn’t take them home. So, instead of just getting rid of them, we just got rid of the “Reference” designation and as many as possible circulating – that way, patrons actually could use these valuable resources in a way that fit their needs (which is the need to use it at home).

    Here’s how I worked things out:
    Keeping them reference = patrons didn’t use them = zero value to library

    Let them go out = patrons actually use them = more valuable to everyone

    But I recognize this might not be true for all libraries. Mine is a medium-size public library, focusing on popular materials, homework help, and general reference assistance. In a library where the staff is doing serious academic research, a traditional reference collection makes more sense. But in my library, if a patron can’t take it home, they couldn’t care less about it – even when I pointed right to the answer on a page in the book. They wouldn’t even photocopy it. This is the reality of my community that we’re responding to.

  15. Mark Hudson Says:

    Brian: It sounds like this was the right decision for your library and community. But in the medium-sized public library where I work, patrons rarely if ever refuse to photocopy or take notes from a page in a reference book. We help many students from the local high school and community college, and they seem to understand the concept of “library use only” pretty well. I would be concerned that, if we circulated the reference books, they might not be there when other patrons needed them. Reference books are much more expensive to replace than regular non-fiction books, and if a volume in a multi-volume set goes missing, it can be quite difficult to replace that single volume. I don’t want to be showing someone the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, and then have to explain that the article they need isn’t there because the volume containing that article is checked out or permanently gone from the collection.

  16. Erika B Says:

    We have talked about this whole idea a number of times in my library. I would be interested to hear how you worked out the collection development budget. At my library we have a much larger $ amount for reference than for the other subject areas individually. Did you divide it up or allocate the “Reference” budget throughout the rest of the collection budgets?

  17. Mark Hudson Says:

    To my previous comments I would just add that our library already makes a considerable amount of reference material available in circulating non-fiction. For example, most of the brief single-volume Facts on File titles in the natural sciences, social sciences, world literatures and religion, etc. circulate in non-fiction. But more extensive reference titles, and particularly multi-volume sets, are “library use only” for the reasons stated earlier.

  18. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Mark: I agree – although, we’d have individual volumes from reference sets go missing even before people could check them out. In fact, I was hoping by legally letting people take them home, it would reduce the risk of them just being outright stolen. We did leave the full set price on each volume, so if a patron does check one out and not return it, they’re faced with the full replacement cost. We’ll see what actually happens if we do lose one that had been checked out.

    Oh, and as for being available when patrons need it: that’s why we reduced the loan period to just a week for these items (instead of our regular three week non-fiction loans). They are also non-requestable and non-renewable, which I am hoping will mean they are available more often than not. This is just our first attempt at this though, and if we find it not working, we’ll modify to improve.

    @Erika: I’m actually kind of curious about that myself. I’ve talked a little about this with my director, and she agreed that it makes sense to totally revamp the reference budget. We haven’t started developing the budget for our next fiscal year, but I expect we’ll create a new “online reference” budget and use that just for databases, and the rest of the materials budget will be absorbed into non-fiction. We’ll still keep a small reference budget, for our ready reference collection, microfilm, and a few other odds and ends, but I think this will be extremely small, and that our non-fiction budget will increase dramatically.

  19. Martha Patten Says:

    That looks great – it seems like it will do a good job of meeting your patrons’ needs! A couple of us might drop by from Carlisle tomorrow to take a look – we’re brainstorming ideas for reconfiguring our own space.

  20. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Martha: any time – I’d be happy to give you a tour, if you like. Just let me know.

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