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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2007

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Breathe New Life Into Your Science Reference Collection

Angela M. Gooden
Head, Geology-Mathematics-Physics Library
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati, Ohio

Copyright 2007, Angela M. Gooden. Used with permission.

Spring brings about the revelation that change is apparent and necessary. Thoughts of reorganization kept bouncing around in my mind as I pondered ways to make the library more inviting, appealing, and user-friendly. As I surveyed the first floor it hit me. The reliable associate I rarely take time to visit -- the reference collection. Apparently, according to a 2005 study, I am not the only one. J.T. Bradford et al. found that "the total number of reference titles used to answer questions was less than 2% of the total number of reference titles owned" (Bradford 2005a).

Isn't it time to send science reference books to the stacks? Don't they deserve to be exposed to settings outside the library? With more and more libraries creating information commons it is apparent that we are attracting the patrons, but how many are willing to leave their coveted seat, walk to the reference area, and thumb through an encyclopedia or dictionary?

Quick. Think fast. Can you name five print reference sources in your collection that patrons use often? Frankly, I am finding that most of my patrons rarely even peruse the reference collection. Alas, dust collects daily on these colorful tomes. Tyckoson's shelving statistics describe a 75% reduction in volumes that were reshelved during his study period (Tyckoson 2004). Bradford's assessment was even more shocking -- "less than 10% of the print reference collection was used once" (Bradford 2005b).

During my literature search I discovered that the Baltimore County Public Library integrated their reference collection into their circulating stacks (Frase 2007). The reference team at their Dana Medical Library successfully shrunk and revitalized their paper reference collection by weeding or moving titles to the stacks or to an off-site storage facility (Delwiche 2006).

Not ready to completely give up yours? Me neither, but here are some places to start:

Here are few titles to which my library has online access that I moved to circulating stacks:

By taking the steps above, I have lightened my reference collection and made it more visually appealing. The specialty dictionaries have more room to breathe and the more current reference books (e.g., Encyclopedia of Caves, 2005 or Oxford User's Guide to Mathematics, 2004) get to have their fifteen minutes of fame.


Bradford, J. T., Costello, B. & Lenholt, R. 2005a. Reference Service in the Digital Age: An Analysis of Sources Used to Answer Reference Questions. Journal of Academic Librarianship 31(3), 263-272.

Bradford, J. T. 2005b. What's Coming Off the Shelves? A Reference Use Study Analyzing Print Reference Sources Used in a University Library. Journal of Academic Librarianship 31(6), 546-558.

Delwiche, Frances A. & Bianchi, Nancy A. 2006. Transformation of a Print Reference Collection. Medical Reference Services Quarterly 25(1), 2:21-29.

Frase, R. M. & Salit-Mischel, B. 2007. Right-sizing the Reference Collection. Public Libraries 46(1), 40-44.

Tyckoson, D. 2004. Facts Go Online: Are Print Reference Collections Still Relevant? Against the Grain 16(4), 34-36.

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