What is a Good Phone Ref Collection?

I am weeding the collection used by the librarians who staff the telephone reference service for my library system.  When the service was inaugurated a generation ago, the collection consisted of about 500 titles and was the equal of the reference collection at community branches.  In those days, we had no Internet, and we actually used some books daily, others less often.  I remember fighting to keep the Thomas Register and Martindale Hubbel sets, and agonizing over the choice of Ulrich’s vs Gale’s Directory.  Now, we could go weeks without touching hard copy, and the budget is slashed.  The collection is old and needs to be weeded.  The Big Question is whether to replace what’s going away, or rely on online sources.

Part of me wants to keep a basic reference collection against the day that the computers are down.  The other part wants to buy electronic resources, either titles like those in the Gale Virtual Reference Desk, or databases like Marquis Who’s Who. The kinds of questions we get has changed, and we find we are doing a lot of directory assistance and account management for our callers, with “real” reference questions trailing by a noticeable margin.

When I look at the number of titles I am pulling, and see the dwindling remainder pitifully occupying a quarter of the space of the old collection, I’m wondering if we even need a collection! That’s heresy!  But I have said in the past that I believed we could answer the majority of all the questions we get with a dictionary, the World Book Encyclopedia, and the World Almanac.  Add the Kelley Blue Book, a science encyclopedia, an etiquette book and the Internet, and we’re good for anything our callers can throw at us.  Our Internet goes down so seldom, now, that I don’t believe we need to factor it into collection decisions.  <Sniff> Our callers have outgrown our little service ; they are doing more for themselves before they reach for the phone.

Our educational programs and one-on-one teaching are having an effect, and we’ve “taught” ourselves out of a job – in reference, anyway.   The directory and account management calls are spiking, and we are now looking into the feasibility of having clerical staff answer all the calls, and referring the caller to a reference librarian only if it’s a reference question. This will require that we take a critical look at our service model, and that is in the works for this quarter.


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