Libraries in the digital age; the death of reference books?

We have been talking about e-books and what they mean to our beloved print books. Some people think e-books are the death of print books while others scoff at such notions. Let me tell you a sad tale my local librarian told me this weekend. It really made me stop and wonder if those who think e-books are the death of print are on to something.

For one of my finals I am to research scholarly articles and books; we are not to use what we find surfing the web. As I tried to maneuver through my school’s library website I recalled what we students did in the old days. We used to go to the library to use their reference books. Many of you may groan at the memories of sitting at a table taking notes from large texts. Others may smile at the memory of the friendly reference desk librarian who would spend countless hours helping you find just what you were looking for. I remember both.

Saturday I took pen and paper to the library. I went over the information center and asked for help. I had no idea where I would find information on the evolution of the Victorian education system. The librarian jumped up and whisked me over to the reference section. Oh she was so excited someone was asking for help and wanted to see the reference collection. What a collection it is! There are tomes on history, religion (oh I would kill for some of these books), cooking, gardening, mechanics, math and many more. I stopped more than once to admire the encyclopedias and books with so much information they needed volumes. Remember volumes? As I admired the books the librarian sighed. No one looks at these books anymore she told me. Students now rely on the internet and online editions of these books. She no longer orders reference books and wonders if she should get rid of these to make more room for fiction. I felt a tremendous loss and sadness for these books. How terrible that they sit collecting dust forgotten and unappreciated. I asked if she ever sold books from this collection, and was told from time to time she does. I wanted to whip out my checkbook and offer money for many of them. I would take them home and love them! If I had the money this is what I would do, but since I do not, all I can do is visit them more often.

After we looked for what I wanted to no avail we ended up standing in front of a computer screen. Here the friendly librarian showed me how to log onto their larger online reference collection and how to find what I am looking for. Sadly I will have to use the internet library for my research and wonder what this means for students worldwide. Will the large reference collections disappear? Will we be forced to always find scholarly information online? What will happen to these wonderful books? Slowly they will disappear and someday people may forget there was a time when we students sat at tables scribbling notes from books that were full of information and delight. Sigh…I feel old and wonder what e-books mean to print.

So dear Readers, the next time you are in the library go over to the reference collection and ask yourself if these books deserve to disappear. Ask yourself if books may one day be a thing of the past.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

7 thoughts on “Libraries in the digital age; the death of reference books?”

  1. Sari,You make valid points. I worked in a library for 7 years, and this is exactly what seems to be the trend with reference materials (on line data bases).I was glad to hear that a helpful reference librarian was available to help.


  2. Unfortunately I think this is the future, it is cheaper, space saving and allows for remote access. But I know just what you mean, one of the things I hate about external study is the inability to just walk into my uni library and just explore the hard copies of resources, even though I have remote access I miss that process of just wandering through texts sometimes you stumble on treasure. I do miss that and having that face to face contact with a reference librarian who are great resources themselves. I know some academic libraries are going to maintain hard copies of materials that are very specialised and that they may have built special collections of, but generally the future is digital. I think we are witnessing the end of an era.


  3. First off, many thanks to the Bookpusher for introducing me to your blog. I posted about the effect of e-readers/digitization in my blog recently. It is a very scary thing that eventually, it seems, all research will be done online. I wonder how students will be able to discern between good, credible resources for information and not (such as Wikipedia or any of the "questions" type web sites with user-driven information and no quality checking, both of which usually appear early in search results). Will new guidelines appear, or are the youth raised to gather information this way already aware to these subtleties?As a "budding librarian" I'm very interested to see where digital technology takes us. We are definitely on the verge of some very large changes to the way people gather information.


  4. What’s just as sad is the fact that there’s a generation of educators now coming in who have already gone over to the dark side and rarely used reference books themselves.

    About seven or so years ago, just before I retired, I was looking at some past A-level Music essays which had been submitted, read by the teacher I was covering lessons for, moderated and then approved by the exam board.

    I was appalled to find these students, on the cusp of going to college or uni, had simply done cut-and-paste exercises from the usual online sources, linked with a few passages that showed they had no real comprehension of the material and no analytical or critical skills. And, what was worst of all, this had supposedly gone through a rigorous monitoring and checking system before approval.

    It’s worse than I ever imagined it would be, this lack of academic focus. Sorry, I’m off now to check on Facebook…


    1. So, I have to know, did you ever speak up about this? I am always shocked when one of my professors allows us to use Wikipedia. I asked once, if I could just make my own shit up, since this is how many of the Wiki pages are made. She honestly had no understanding of how the site worked, but was convinced someone must ensure all the information is correct.
      And as a sad follow up to this library story, it has no more reference books. It redid the entire top floor and turned it into an “information room” for kids. Here you see rows of computer terminals and not much else.


      1. Devastating, the loss of that reference library. At some stage future generations will ask, how did people allow that to happen then?

        It was too late to speak up about cut’n’paste, Sari: I was doing maternity cover for the teacher, the students had been given their grades and had moved on to higher education, so all I could do was try to inculcate good practice with the current students temporarily iny charge. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t.


      2. I hope it did! I wish more teachers would instill good research habits. Students should be made to learn that this is a valuable life skill. Cutting and pasting habits will only come to grief. Imagine the first time one of these students is faced with actually having to write a paper.


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