What is the current state of reference resources in libraries? (free whitepaper)

elisabethglassesGuest blog post by Elisabeth Leonard, Executive Market Research Manager at SAGE and Former Reference Librarian. This post is a follow-up to SAGE’s SLA PartnerTalk (view the Webinar replay here).

Last summer I conducted research on a topic near and dear to my heart – reference. As a former reference librarian, studying how librarians now see reference, how they buy (or don’t buy) reference, whom they believe reference is for, what criteria they use to evaluate reference, and what they believe reference publishers should be thinking about provided a thrilling opportunity for me to return to my roots and to give back to the profession that has meant so much to me.

The result of this research, the new State of Reference white paper, is based on a survey, interviews, focus groups (watch the SLA PartnerTalk where I revealed the preliminary findings here). 482 people took the survey and 74% of participants chose to provide answers to the demographics questions: North America accounted for 90% of the respondents, 6% were from Asia Pacific, 2% were from Europe, 1% were from South America, and 0.5% were from Africa.

Here are some data to ponder:

  • Overall, the reference sources seen as most useful were articles databases (75%), statistical databases (51%), and abstracting and indexing resources (42%).
  • For most of the respondents, use of free resources is as prevalent as use of fee-based resources.
  •  Awareness of reference resources is perceived to be relatively low by the respondents, but for many librarians (36%), this awareness leaves them neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.
  • In the next five years, survey respondents report that reference budgets are expected to decrease in 54% of the academic libraries, 50% of the public libraries, and 44% of the special libraries.
  • Librarians reported either a preference for online reference (68% of academic librarians and 50% of special librarians) or no preference (60% of public librarians and 31% of special librarians). Only 5% of the respondents expressed a preference for print reference, and even fewer bought only print reference (0.5% of academic librarians, 0% of public librarians, and 3% of special librarians).

As is true for all research, examining the numbers alone does not tell the full story. Many librarians found it curious that I was asking which reference sources were most useful, as any source that answers the question is useful – it isn’t a matter of type of source! Similarly, it doesn’t bother some librarians that their patrons are unaware they are using a reference source because it isn’t about the type of resource they use; it is about the quality and utility of the resource. Lastly, while reference budgets are predicted to decrease, this is in part because the budgets are being flattened, with fewer individual funds applied to the collection development budget. It is also because the notion of reference has expanded, including any e-resource, rather than the traditional notion of what constituted reference in the print world.

Want to know more? The white paper is available here.  Additionally, we invite all ALA Annual Conference attendees to my special presentation on the white paper findings:

Sunday, June 29th – 11:00 AM  at the SAGE Booth #743. A light breakfast will be provided. RSVP here.

For questions or comments, please contact me at Elisabeth.Leonard@sagepub.com.


Elisabeth Leonard joined SAGE in 2011 as our Market Research Analyst, supporting online product development and management. Elisabeth comes to SAGE from Western Carolina University where she was the Associate Dean for Library Services. Prior to that, she served as the Head of Reference, Instruction and Outreach in the Social Sciences and Humanities Library at the University of California, San Diego. Elisabeth received her MSLS from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her MBA from Wake Forest University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Information Science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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