Magazine article Online

Electronic Reference Options: How They Stack Up in Research Libraries

Magazine article Online

Electronic Reference Options: How They Stack Up in Research Libraries

Article excerpt

Electronic reference in a variety of forms is becoming a reality in libraries today. Whether it is online, CD-ROM, or databases loaded from magnetic tapes or a combination of several options, patrons have access to more electronic resources than ever before. We recently surveyed research libraries in the U.S. and Canada to see which electronic reference options they offer. ARL libraries may not be typical because they tend to be heavy users of technology and have relatively large budgets, but they can be considered trendsetters. What these libraries are offering now will be found in all types of libraries within the next few years.

Academic and other research libraries have been in the forefront of electronic database access since online searching first became available in the early 1970s. They were some of the first libraries to offer intermediary online services, and by 1979 almost half (49%) of academic research libraries offered intermediary services [1]. In the mid-1980s some research libraries added end-user online searching on systems such as BRS/After Dark or DIALOG's Knowledge Index [2]. These systems usually supplemented, but did not replace, intermediary search services.

CD-ROM databases were added to reference departments starting in the mid-1980s. By 1987 approximately 30% of academic libraries in the United States had databases on CD-ROM [3]. In just one more year the percentage increased to almost 60%.

Although it predates even online intermediary searching, end-user searching of databases loaded on an in-house computer has become popular with the recent widespread use of online public access catalogs (OPACs). An increasing number of database producers are entering into agreements with OPAC vendors so magnetic tapes of reference databases will be compatible with a library's OPAC [4]. A 1990 survey by ALA found about 8% to 35% of all academic libraries had databases loaded on their OPACs [5]. The low end was for two-year and liberal arts colleges; the high end for doctorate-granting institutions.

Many research libraries now offer two or even three or four of electronic options for database searching. In May 1991 we surveyed the libraries that are members of the Association for Research Libraries (ARL) to discover how many offer each four electronic options and how the addition of each new option impacts the others. We also asked for information on what the libraries are offering now and what they plan to do in the future.

This article presents the survey results and paints a factual picture of electronic reference in 1991 in ARL libraries. In addition to the facts," many respondents responded with detailed comments about how electronic reference sources are changing their libraries, their workload, and their users. In a later article we will discuss these issues based on more in-depth interviews with selected librarians.


Surveys were sent in May 1991 to the 119 ARL members. Of these, 96 (81%) responded [6]. The Association of Research Libraries is an organization of libraries that have research as a primary mission. According to the Encyclopedia of Associations, its goal is to "identify and solve problems fundamental to large research libraries so that the libraries may effectively serve the needs of students, faculty, and the research community; to strengthen and extend the capacity of member libraries; to provide the recorded information needed, both now and in the future, by the research community" [7].

The members are mostly university libraries, with a few large public, government, and other special libraries. More than half the libraries that responded to our questionnaire serve constituencies of 20,000 or more (including students, faculty, or researchers), and have six or more branch libraries.

Online catalogs are common in these libraries - 94 of the 96 responding libraries (98%) have their catalogs online. …

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