Are Reference Books Worth It?

It seems like most libraries are downsizing their reference collections in favor or more electronic resources and a heavier reliance on free websites, but most are still purchasing reference books to some degree. The Scholarly Kitchen blog recently posted a recap of a debate that happened at the Profession and Scholarly Publishing Annual Conference.

Here’s an excerpt:

Prior to the debate, a text-message polling system was used to take the temperature of the room. At the start, 56% felt that reference books and journals would endure, 35% felt they would perish, and 9% were unsure.

Crawford and Fisher defended the role of expertise, stressed the relative immutability of the functions of the reference book and journal in both academic life and intellectual output, spoke to the power of the tenure and promotion system in a publish-or-perish culture, and underscored the importance of trusted brands in an information realm that is exploding with choice.

O’Leary and I observed that while research reporting and reference works are still important, their containers are changing, evolving from time-limited and space-limited entities into updated, boundless, and interactive forms we’re still exploring. These changes will change editorial and authorship functions, and are already changing how readers access and evaluate content.

Many familiar themes were sounded during the debate, including:

  • Expertise vs. elitism
  • Trust networks vs. brand power
  • Linking vs. referencing
  • Crowd-sourcing vs. editorial control
  • Motivations vs. inducements
  • Timeliness vs. thoroughness
  • Relevance vs. trust

So, what do you think? Will reference books and journals survive? How is your library handling this question?

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