A long-awaited project that's finally getting done this summer is weeding the print reference collection. While it wasn't that bad, a fair number of books are now slated for discard. The problem, if that's what to call it, is that much of the updated information is available free online (think U.S. government info) or accessible through our online resources, and so we're not inclined to shell out big bucks to replace the print sources. This leaves our print reference collection looking, frankly, a bit sad. And so we've been meditating on the state of the reference collection more broadly.
First, what is the reference collection? Once upon a time, it was the section of the library holding the expensive books not to be checked out. It was the place to find definitions, directories, and introductions. It was the place to orient yourself to a field or to a set of ideas. The reference collection was full of sources for facts, but not necessarily the types of sources that dominate a typical bibliography. A good deal of 'reference'-type information is considered common knowledge in the field.
Nowadays, the reference collection at our library is not heavily used, because so much of the information is online. It is no longer imperative to consult a book when recalling the succession of monarchs in England, for example, or when looking for a summary of Freud's dream theory.
Still, it's hard to stare at shelves of print volumes and declare them useless. Some books do not contain inaccurate as much as dated information and viewpoints. Consider perspectives from before this decade's historical events like the terrorist attacks of September 11 or the election of President Obama. (Never mind historical events that are currently unfolding, as in Iran.) Shouldn't a reference collection contain the most up-to-date information on given subjects? An encyclopedia of Dante retains its basic usefulness, but what about an encyclopedia of terrorism, or torture, or international human rights? (On a side note, here's a great TED talk about how information is now "global, social, ubiquitous and cheap.")
For many information needs, a modern reference collection is just...the web. The word 'reference' is dropping out of common vocabulary. I'm not sure how often it even occurs to many people to look in print sources for basic reference questions. It seems like they only come to the library looking for a reference book when the information they need is so obscure, or they are so unfamiliar with a topic, that they do not know how to search online for it.
For the (few) patrons who come looking for them, we still do collect encyclopedias -- but mostly as e-books. We also have e-book versions of other reference titles, and beyond that, online reference collections that are searchable by a single search box and accessible with a few clicks from home.
So where does this leave the 'traditional' (print) reference collection? Ultimately, I'm afraid it is at best ornamental.