One thing we have not discussed on this blog is the role of libraries, and particularly of reference rooms, in colleges. Today’s NY Times forum titled “libraries through students’ eyes” suggests some predictable student responses to the question of whether libraries are needed: students enjoy the tactile feel of books and the quiet of a space dedicated to reading. Very few, if any, however, discussed the printed reference works to be found there. The value of the reference room was not mentioned.
The NYTImes forum pointed to twin pedagogical and institutional problems faculty, librarians, and students now face. Forced to hunt for more space to accommodate computers, librarians look for printed texts that can be deleted from the reference room. Are there rigorous strategies in place for what to do when an electronic source replaces a printed reference work? Do colleges that subscribe to the new online Oxford Dictionary of English Biography, for example, simply throw out the older printed multi-volume set? Does the online Encylopedia Britannica adequately replace its printed forerunner? How do we evaluate an online “updated” version of a printed reference work to decide whether it ought to replace or merely supplement the older printed version?
Secondly, how can faculty best remain up-to-speed on the reference works students most use and, more importantly, be helpful in directing them to the sources, both printed and electronic, that are most appropriate for their work? What strategies exist for encouraging greater and more transparent dialogue between instructors and librarians? How do we help students make use of the two reference rooms–material and virtual–to which they have access?
Lastly, will the promising platforms of the future like 18thConnect include first-phase research tools, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, or the ODNB? Will these platforms acknowledge printed resources that are also essential to research? To what extent will these platforms be designed as introductions to research?