Implications of Expanded Library Electronic Reference Collections

Article excerpt

From my vantage point, the movement from paper library reference works to electronic products is picking up speed.

That vantage point is as systems librarian at the Patrick Power Library of Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia on the Canadian east coast. I have been involved in developing online library resources since before the emergence of the World Wide Web, and I teach students to use the latest online resources, as well as providing regular service on the reference desk. Electronic versions of reference products have been part of the online library mix for a number of years, but the pace of conversion to online reference tools is quickening. There are several reasons for the growing pressure to go electronic, some particular to individual libraries and their users, but others related to broader trends and publishers' situations.

We are rapidly reaching the stage where we no longer think in terms of reference book-like packages of information but rather in terms of large, continuously changing streams of e-content to be viewed and manipulated in an endless variety of ways.

Electronic reference sources have many advantages. They offer powerful searching capabilities, quick and easy access to multiple years of information. Continuously updated Web versions dramatically improve the currency compared to annually updated paper volumes or periodically updated loose-leaf products. Electronic products are also often accessible outside the library building and outside library hours, greatly improving the convenience of reference information. Multiple users can access materials at the same time, and there is little risk of loss or damage to the reference material.

Along with their advantages, however, electronic materials are presenting libraries with a number of difficult new challenges. How libraries address these challenges will determine the shape of library reference services in the future.

DISCONTINUING PAPER REFERENCE TOOLS

In Canada, vendors are beginning to discontinue paper versions of long-standing reference works. The cancellations of the Canadian Periodicals Index and the card version of Financial Post Investment service are examples of this change. In government, Statistics Canada, which began a migration away from paper publications 10 years ago, is now moving more and more of its materials to Web-based delivery.

There's a substantial increase in the number of online reference products being announced and brought to us by publishers' representatives. This marketing emphasis, along with the recent cancellation of paper versions of several important reference products, leads me to expect many more cancellations in the near future.

Two vendor representatives confirm that subscriptions to paper reference tools are declining. For most products, it's not to the point where the continuation of print is in question. Bonnie Hawkwood, product manager, General Reference, with the Gale Group, allowed that the decision to discontinue Canadian Periodicals Index and focus on the CPIQ full-text online product was partly based on customer demand, but she made it clear that this was an individual product decision. She does not expect other paper product cancellations to follow. Hawkwood indicated that online delivery is where Gale is moving, although it will continue to serve all current markets, including print. Frank Musselmen, key accounts manager with Financial Post DataGroup, suggested that more paper cancellations might be expected in the future.

Suzanne Mantell's article "Working Out a Peaceful Coexistence" [Publishers Weekly, v.249, 50, December 16, 2002, p 34] looks at the state of electronic and paper reference publishing. This article confirms that although online reference is becoming a focus of the market, paper reference sources still have an important role to play. New forms of reference publishing are bringing together the best elements of electronic and paper materials. …