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Paper vs Electronic Reference

Every day I hear reports of libraries ridding themselves of their paper reference collections in favor of electronic resources. I have to wonder if this is not a large mistake on their part. Two things come immediately to mind. The first is patron access to information, the second is the expense of electronic resources. If a library replaces all or most of their physical reference resources with electronic ones, what happens if the library budget is cut? What if the company providing the information fails or merges with another company? What if the rates to access this information skyrocket and the library can no longer afford the cost? If this happens, then what happens to the patron access to that information if the library can no longer afford to provide it?

Perhaps it is an overly cautious or conservative view, but I am advocating for a more balanced view of collection development. Because patrons approach library resources from different access points, removing all access to topics in paper reference and providing them only electronically can widen the already chasm-like digital divide that faces people on a daily basis.

From an economic perspective, library budgets - especially public library budgets - are not expanding. Most are shrinking and those libraries considered lucky are level-funded. Why then would a library dispense with a paper reference collection in favor of a completely electronic collection of resources that they do not own? I am not saying that the companies that provide these resources are not adding value to their products, they are. But I do believe that libraries should keep a balance between the electronic and paper products.

As more and more reference resources are available only via electronic means due to prohibitive printing and publishing costs, we may see eventually a day when provision of reference resources is only available electronically. Until that day comes, however, I will continue to advocate that libraries retain a balance between paper and electronic to ensure that patrons can access the information that they need.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Christine Sharbrough. All rights reserved.
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