Friday, May 17, 2013

Less is More: A Leaner Print Reference Collection at Carmichael

This week, Lauren Wallis and I completed a substantial weeding of the print reference collection at Carmichael. Over the course of a year, we evaluated the content of our collection and made decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. When we started, I admit that I wondered what the payoff of this project would be. Does anyone actually read printed, physical, hard copy books anymore? In particular, why would anyone consult with a print reference book in the age of Google?

Crowded shelves in the print reference collection, July 2012
I'm being a little facetious by asking these questions, of course, but I am reacting to touchstone moments in the library and publishing world that perhaps indicate the era of print reference is fading into the distance. Earlier this year, Encyclopedia Britannica announced that after 244 years of appearing in print, the encyclopedia will now be available in an online format only. Other studies in the professional literature indicate that even in the busiest months of the academic cycle, 90 percent of print reference titles aren't used at all. There are many reasons for these trends: shrinking budgets, changes in how information is circulated, shifts in information seeking patterns (especially among students of the digital age), and redistribution of library spaces are just a few that come to mind.

At Carmichael, I think one of the biggest reasons for the under-usage of our print reference collection has been overcrowded shelves. There were simply too many books, and library patrons may have had difficulty separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff (to continue with the agrarian metaphors). Sue Polanka has also recognized this as a problem at her library (Wright State University). When people seek out print sources, they want to know that what they are reading is valuable and unique when compared to other kinds of information that they could find online. In short, we weeded to reaffirm that the print reference has a valuable place in the research process.

We began our weeding process with the dictum of "less is more" in mind. We primarily got rid of things like annotated bibliographies, old almanacs, redundant encyclopedias, and quotation anthologies. These are sources of information that can be better located online or perhaps are products of earlier, unfortunate moments in intellectual history. I kept thinking about the time I read Edward Said's Orientalism or Michel Foucault's The Order of Things when we purged the collection. We took out books like Selwyn Gurney's Racial Proverbs: A Selection of the World's Proverbs Arranged Linguistically (1938), a detestable collection of sayings attributed to Japanese, Irish, and Mexican people (to name a few).

The worst reference book ever.
Books like Racial Proverbs certainly are the residue of knowledge rooted in post-Enlightenment orientalism and should not be in our collection, but our weeding invoked other rationales as well. For instance, we removed an encyclopedia on global weather patterns that was published in 1996 mainly because other, better encyclopedias have been published since then that reflect the latest scholarship from the scientific community on global warming.

Personally examining every book in the print reference collection was a valuable experience for me because it put me in touch with a lot of excellent (and quirky) sources that we own and should be used more frequently by our community. And I discovered that the collection is not without ironies.

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism is located next to the Encyclopedia of Human Rights.
But in the end, I learned that we have a great deal of excellent print reference resources that contain information students can't find anywhere else. Some of my favorite titles we hold include The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace, Encyclopedia of Hair:  A Cultural History, and the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Sources like these provide concentrated windows into scholarship that are valuable and efficient. They organize knowledge in unexpected ways that model for students patterns of making connections of their own.   

Most importantly, we've created room for our print reference collection to grow. True, we won't be buying as many print titles as we have in past years, and we are constantly growing our Virtual Reference Shelf, but we will continue to add the best handbooks, encyclopedias, and companions that are published each year. Now that our collection is leaner and more efficient, we encourage you to check it out. If you are teaching a class, you might want to design a specific session in which you bring students to the first floor of the library and have them work with print reference resources only. And to all of those books that we don't need anymore, I say "good riddance."