Weeding Gone Wild: Planning and Implementing a Review of the Reference Collection

Carol A. Singer

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A major review of the reference collection in Bowling Green State University’s Jerome Library was made necessary by the decision to incorporate the materials from the reference collection in the science library. The process of planning and implementing this collection review is described, emphasizing how this process has been affected by changes in technology and the demands made by library users. Suggestions that may help ensure a successful review are included.

It had been five years since a complete review of the reference collection in the William T. Jerome Library at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) had been performed, but other priorities had delayed this chore. Once the decision was made to move the Ogg Science Library reference collection to Jerome Library, weeding both reference collections became a necessity before they were combined. As Pierce points out in his introduction to a Reference Librarian special issue on weeding, it is not unusual to delay weeding until a library is confronted with a space shortage.1

In addition to identifying obsolete and unused books to be removed from the collection, other objectives were to identify missing titles and volumes, superceded volumes for which the newer edition had not yet been purchased, and titles for which newer comparable materials could be purchased. Pierce explains that this large task is common because “As unplanned collections grow, shelf and seating space shrink, and works with needed information are lost in the clutter of outdated and inappropriate materials crowding the shelves.”2 In a 1982 article, Rettig equates reference collections composed of outdated information to a bibliographic Love Canal.3 Schlachter notes that the prevalence of obsolete reference sources in library collections had not improved by 1988 and at the time called for the American Library Association’s Reference and Adult Services Division to provide leadership to remedy the situation.4 In addition to the aforementioned tasks, Jerome Library reference staff also hoped to identify and fill any previously unidentified gaps in the collection. A properly conducted review can be an excellent method of improving the staff’s knowledge of the collection, resulting in improved reference service.

Reference librarians were concerned about the potential effects of adding the science reference collection into a space that was already rather crowded. They did not want to lose any of the seating in the reference area and did not want to replace the shelving in the reference area with compact shelving. Both had been suggested as possible solutions to the impending space problem.

Staff discussed the changes in reference services and resources brought about by improved technology and the move to online publishing. Students and faculty have developed an insatiable appetite for online resources, changing the types of questions asked and the forms those questions take. There has been a noticeable diminution in ready reference questions, although the number of these questions was easily replaced by requests for help with computer and printer problems.

As remote users proliferated, online resources replaced some of the familiar print ones. By 2005, the BGSU libraries had replaced a substantial number of print resources with online books, periodicals, and research databases. The availability of e-mail and chat reference service accelerated the migration from print to online resources.

The reference librarians had just finished a major review of standing orders and were acutely aware of how many formerly essential reference sources were now receiving little or no use. The discussions for this review included a consideration of the purpose of the reference collection. Mathews and Tyckoson identify two opposing philosophies of reference collection development. One, based on format, holds that any book that is formatted as a reference book, such as a handbook, encyclopedia, dictionary, or almanac, should be in the reference collection. The other theory is based on usage. Proponents of this theory believe the reference collection should include resources that contain the information needed to answer the reference questions expected at a particular library.5 The consensus among the reference librarians was that the library needed a reference collection that would conform to the second theory, based on usage.

Review of Standing Orders and Subscriptions

During the 2004–2005 academic year, the reference librarians reviewed the reference standing orders and subscriptions. Although the reference budget had increased in recent years, the cost of reference materials seemed to have risen even faster. The reference staff also did not want to allocate any portion of the reference budget to titles that were no longer used. Because of the high demand for online resources, the staff also wanted to shift some of the budget allocation from print to electronic format.

Throughout the spring semester, the reference librarians examined the standing orders and determined which titles were no longer used.

Some types of questions were not asked at the reference desk any longer, and this lack of interest resulted in cancellations of the corresponding types of books used to answer those questions. Directories were particularly affected. Even such standard sources as Congressional Yellow Book and the Washington Information Directory were receiving little use, although other directories such as the Encyclopedia of Associations and the Gale Directory of Publications still retained some usefulness. Other sources were no longer useful due to changes in the curriculum: courses were dropped or entire programs changed focus.

Some sources had been replaced by online databases, such as Facts on File and CQ Researcher. In some cases, the paper resource did not have an exact equivalent, but the type of information contained in the paper set was now available in one or more online databases, and the paper set was rarely used, such as Editorials on File and the majority of the law reporters in the collection. Of course, the libraries had replaced many paper indexes with research databases. The librarians decided to cancel some additional subscriptions to paper indexes either because most of the journals covered were included in other databases, or there was a database that was close enough in content that students and faculty had stopped using the paper index.

Harloe and Barber recommend that as many questions as possible about reference serials should be settled before a review of the reference collection takes place because these decisions can be very time-consuming.6 The discussions that accompanied the review of the standing orders and subscriptions were an excellent precursor to a complete review of the reference collection because they helped define and solidify a general consensus about what should and should not be in the collection. One article that was particularly useful in framing some discussions was Tyckoson’s “Facts Go Online,” where the author examined the current use of a list of core reference titles he had compiled a decade earlier and determined that most of them were now rarely used because of the increased use of the Internet and databases. As a result of his findings, Tyckson speculated on the current and future usefulness of a print reference collection.7

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