Magazine article Online

The Digital Reference World of Academic Libraries

Magazine article Online

The Digital Reference World of Academic Libraries

Article excerpt

Print is not yet obsolete-it is still the most visible part of nearly every academic library's collection. But, throughout the 1990s, the reference departments of academic libraries have seen a rapid evolution from a print-centered world to a digital-intensive one. Bookshelves that for years held print volumes of abstracting and indexing publications are being replaced by faster workstations. Online, CD-ROM, and World Wide Web resources are often the first choice of both library users and reference librarians. Complex mixtures of local area networks, wide area networks, the Internet, and intranets are making information resources available to the academic user community in campus libraries and in their offices, dormitories, and homes.

By now, many reference librarians expect constant change and have become adept at juggling a vast array of print and online resources. We have tracked these changes by surveying reference librarians at academic research libraries in the United States and Canada three times this decade, in 1991,1994, and 1997, [1,2,3]. For this latest measure of how academic libraries incorporate electronic information sources into their reference activities and the effect on library services, a questionnaire was sent to all academic members of the Association of Research Libraries in the fourth quarter of 1997.


The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) includes 110 academic library members in the United States and Canada. Of these, 68 libraries responded to our survey (for a response rate of 62%). ARL academic members are primarily large universities that offer bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees in a variety of subjects. They typically have many academic departments and more than one library on campus. Of the libraries that responded to our survey, none had only one library, 71% (48 universities) had between two and ten libraries, and the rest had 11 or more.

Over 91% of the respondents are in universities with 10,000 or more fulltime students. These are big universities with obligations to support research and needs for a strong library system. Compared to other types of libraries, ARL libraries have large budgets and a commitment to innovation, but we suspect that few have seen actual increases in buying power in this decade and some have suffered budget reductions.

OPTIONS: 1991-1997

In 1994, approximately 59% of the ARL libraries had more than 100 workstations or terminals available for public use in all main and branch libraries on their campus. In the 1997 survey, over 73% report more than 100 workstations or terminals (Figure 1). An additional 18% reported between 41 and 100 workstations or terminals. One library added that it "has about 120 databases networked to about 500 public terminals on campus." Another reported an increase of "about 400%-from ten public workstations to more than 40. Beginning in the spring (1998) semester, there will be more than 200 public service workstations located in the library."

Increasingly, these are higher-end computers and client-server workstations, instead of dumb terminals connected to a mainframe. (One librarian volunteered that they are "not typical" because they have "lots of dumb terminals and no printers...We need to upgrade but lack the funds.")

Library workstations are connecting users to a wide range of electronic options. As seen in Figure 2, libraries are continuing to offer access to the options reported in earlier surveys, including online through an intermediary, end-user online, CD-ROM, locally-loaded databases or those accessible through the library catalog, and Internet.

Not surprisingly, the big growth area between 1994 and 1997 is in end-user access to the World Wide Web. All but two of the libraries in the 1997 survey support patron access to the Web, and many commented that they answer an increasing number of reference questions through Web resources. …

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