Ready Reference Collections: A History

Carol A. Singer

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Ready reference collections were originally formed, and still exist, because they perform a valuable function in providing convenient access to information that is frequently used at the reference desk. As library collections have been transformed from print to electronic, some of the materials in these collections also have inevitably been replaced by electronic resources. This article explores the historical roots of ready reference collections and their recent evolution.

As Katz wrote, “In almost every library there is a small collection of print sources, usually near the reference desk, which can be labeled ready-reference works.”1 We don’t know when or where the first print ready reference collection was formed in the United States. However, we can assume several conditions had to be met before there was a need for a ready reference collection. There must have been sufficient reference activity to require the provision of a place dedicated to reference service. There also must have been a reference collection large enough to make it cumbersome to find the most heavily used items. Once those elements existed, the reference librarian would have wanted the most essential tools of the trade near to hand and a ready reference collection would have naturally been assembled.

Early History of Reference Services

The frequently cited 1876 article by Samuel Swett Green, “Personal Relations Between Librarians and Readers,” is generally regarded as the first published call for a program of help to library users.2 Reference service wasn’t invented by Green, as evidenced by the testimony of the Columbia College librarian that reported in 1857 that his work included helping students with their research. He explained, “The Librarian is really an instructor, as much so as a professor. … His business is not merely to suggest plans of reading, but actually to discuss a subject.”3 Even in 1876, Green was far from being the only librarian to promote the idea of assistance to readers. In that year, Librarian of Congress Spofford wrote, “That is the best library, and he is the most useful librarian, by whose aid every reader is enabled to put his finger on the fact he wants just when it is wanted.”4 A letter by Cutter, published in 1877, said, “To assist those who come to the library in finding what will suit their needs is the librarian’s highest work.”5

In 1880, the librarian of Rochester University wrote, “during the free hours on Saturday the professor of English, the professor of history, and the librarian are always present” to assist students. The president of the university and other faculty members also were sometimes available for assistance.6 However, Robinson made it clear that the reference work was being done primarily by the teaching faculty:

Professors come, not with a lecture prepared, but ready in a semi-official way to take up any subject which may be presented and show the inquirer how to chase it down. They understand that they do this at some risk. It is one thing to appear always before classes on carefully studied subjects in one department of learning. It is quite another thing to go into a library for several hours every week where scores of students are at work, take off your professional gown, and offer yourself for assistance on everything that comes to you.7

Robinson felt that “the demand which we often hear for library professorships” would be more effectively met if all teaching professors scheduled time each week to help students, because students profited from access to the subject specialists, and an individual librarian could not provide such broad subject expertise. Nevertheless, he believed that doing research in the library was extremely important for students: “Students who are thus encouraged and assisted, almost invariably become our best scholars while here, and after graduating look back to their work in the library as one of the most beneficial exercises of their college course.”8

Ware described the Harvard College Library in 1880: “It is safe to say that a public library does not exist to which readers are more cordially welcomed, or more intelligently and courteously aided in their researches, than the library of Harvard College under its present and modern management.” He noted that students “gratefully acknowledge the aid which an educated, trained librarian can afford, to lessen their labors, to save their time, to suggest what they need, to hint what they do not need.”9

In 1884, Melvil Dewey hired the first two known college reference librarians, George Baker and William G. Baker, to work at Columbia College.10 By 1895, there were still only a few college and university libraries with a staff member whose primary function was to provide reference service.11 However, by 1915 reference work was a standard service in many university libraries, and some libraries had recognized the importance of this service by forming a reference department.12 Reference staff often focused on answering ready reference questions, although they also compiled bibliographies and indexes.13

Early History of Reference Collections

Katz traced the history of reference books back to the beginning of writing, citing clay tablets or papyrus used by Egyptian and Mesopotamian scribes.14 In late-nineteenth-century America, most reference collections were limited to a few books in the reading room. Rather than being on open shelves, these collections were sometimes kept behind a railing or desk. These were not ready reference collections, except for the fact that the reference collection in many libraries was so small as to be made up entirely of frequently used resources. However, library collections were growing rapidly. In 1876 there were only 18 libraries with fifty thousand books or more in their collection. By 1900 there were more than 140 libraries with collections of this size. As new libraries were built to accommodate these larger collections, reference rooms were incorporated into the design.15

In the papers published for the World’s Library Congress, held at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Librarian of Princeton College wrote, “At least a small selection of the best reference books should be accessible to the public. These have come to be known as the reference department, and are in general usage, par excellence, reference books.”16 By 1902 there were so many reference books that Kroeger wrote her Guide to the Study and Use of Reference Books.17 This was not the earliest list of recommended reference books published in the United States, but the first that was large enough to publish as a book itself. In 1876, Librarian of Congress Spofford had written a twenty-five-page list of recommended reference books for libraries.18

History of Ready Reference Collections

The term “ready reference” has been used in libraries since at least the nineteenth century. The preface to Spofford’s 1876 list of recommended reference books refers to dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, and biographical dictionaries as “ready reference” tools. Spofford also described a “central bureau of reference” that he said should be in every library:

Here should be assembled, whether on a circular case made to revolve on a pivot, or on a rectangular case, with volumes covering both sides, or in a central alcove forming a portion of the shelves of the main library, all those books of reference and volumes incessantly needed by students in pursuit of their various inquiries.19

Although this could be a description of a ready reference collection, Spofford was urging libraries to make such a collection accessible to the public.

The type of collection we now call ready reference was referred to—though not by using this term—in various articles throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1894, Foster wrote about answering questions at an information desk with “some one of those indispensable tools which such a desk should have within reach.”20 Describing a telephone reference service, Parham noted, “Many references as well as the Abridged Poole may be kept at the loan desk to answer questions quickly.”21 In 1915, Bishop recommended a reference librarian keep the most frequently used tools near at hand where they can be reached with little motion. … He will need as many works of quick reference as he can get about him, dictionaries, indexes, compends of statistics, recent bibliographies, directories, and so on. These are his first aids, his emergency tools.22

By 1919, ready reference books were used so frequently that Hazeltine recommended omitting them from notes about sources used to answer reference questions: “Generally speaking these records will not include the more obvious entries such as may readily be found in the ready reference books.”23 She also wrote that good sources for answering historical or literary questions were “the ready reference type of book, especially encyclopaedias and literary handbooks.”24

In 1930, Hughes wrote:

To answer these questions one should have a collection of fact finding or, as we have been taught to call them, ready reference books right at the desk. Such a collection might have the “World Almanac,” “U.S. Statistical Abstract,” “Who’s Who in America,” “Statesman”s Year Book,” “American Year Book,” Hoyt’s “Practical Quotations,” Lippincott’s “Biographical Dictionary,” Lippincott’s “Gazateer,” “Standard Dictionary,” “Congressional Directory,” legislative manual of the state and the directory of the city.25

Published in the same year, Wyer’s reference textbook echoed the same list for the collection of books to be placed at the reference desk.26

The utility of ready reference collections continued to be promoted when Shores wrote in 1941:

But as in the past, certain classes of reference sources are receiving particular attention, because of their frequent and characteristic use for answering questions. Chief among these collections of sources are the so-called “quick reference” tools usually placed behind the reference desk or in proximity to the information booth. These consist of yearbooks, directories, statistical and financial services, civil services manuals, receipt books, and, of course, a copy of the World Almanac.27

In the same year, Gifford described the Cleveland Public Library’s telephone service desk, which included a collection of approximately fifteen books, with another one hundred on shelves behind the desk.28 She wrote, “There are three essential factors in efficient telephone reference service: a good quick reference collection, the best telephone equipment and a well trained staff.”29 In her 1944 reference textbook, Hutchins wrote “Practically any reference department would want near or on the reference desk the sixteen books listed by Gifford.”30

Any longstanding collection may become too large as it matures. By the 1970s, Horn complained:

I consider desk collections either an expression of the “Thelma, peel me a grape” conception of the librarian as one who is there to be served rather than to serve or a quite meaningful gesture of defeat and despair. A little (at first) reference collection within the reference collection is formed. Initially it consists of the books most frequently used as well as those most frequently stolen, but it tends to grow and grow as the will or ability of the librarians diminish in the face of that long, long walk across the room and among all those tables and stares and mutterings.

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