Michigan State University

Collection Development Policy Statement: Main Library Reference et. al.

Created 10 March 2000; last edited 27 September 2015.


A) Introduction

A1. Mission of the collection

Main Library Reference serves MSU Libraries users by offering a place (physical or virtual, for which purpose PCs are on hand) where readers can find, browse and use information resources that are both general and specialized, in a mix of electronic and printed formats. This is a shared collection for the community that should be available on demand: for that reason materials are either offered as non-circulating items that don't leave the building or online.  Public service in reference connects users with the collection by making readers aware of the offerings, helping them choose among available options, and coaching them on successful use of the content.

A2. Concepts behind the collection

The contents and design of the collection should promote independent use of both print and digital resources by library users, coaching of users by reference desk staff, and research by bibliographers/subject specialists who use reference publications as tools.  The collection as it exists should function to serve the ready reference needs of Reference librarians and, to some extent, the basic research needs of bibliographers.  It is not meant to be a comprehensive collection of Reference tools, but rather a collection of the most important and heavily used print and electronic resources that we use in teaching and research. 

The print collection is limited in size, reflecting the shift of our resources from print to electronic status.  Appropriate materials are current, accurate and relevant to users' needs. Because such materials are more likely to be used, we favor those with a clear purpose and good organization, and in English unless there is good reason to feature other languages.

Materials that are no longer current, relevant or likely to be used by patrons or reference librarians should be transferred to other locations, usually the Main stacks. Print volumes that are replaced by electronic equivalents should be evaluated for potential removal from the collection.  Space shortages in the Main stacks must be taken into account, and may limit transfers.

Physical design of the area should make it easy for library users to work independently, or to consult with public services staff. Key elements include signs and maps, waist-high shelf units that double as reading surfaces, and a centralize reference desk location with clear lines of sight to all parts of the collection, so that staff and readers (including those using PCs) can see each other.

A3. History of the MSU Libraries Reference Collections

A reference library has existed for the MSU Libraries since inception.

In 1968, when the East wing of the current Main Library was opened, the various subject divisions in the building (which included reference material) were consolidated in the Research Library (for the social sciences and humanities), the Science Library, and the Undergraduate Library. There was also a reference collection, and incorporation of reference materials from several subject divisions considerably enlarged this 'Reference Library' at this time. While it was intended that undergraduate users should be served by the Undergraduate Library and its reference materials, the 'Reference Library' ended up serving users at all levels because it was located in a central spot on the main floor near both entrances. The Undergraduate Library book collection was integrated into the Research and Science Libraries' collections in 1983. Separate Undergraduate Library reference service was terminated at this time.

The Public Services Study of 1983-1984 revealed the need for further reorganization, and it was decided to enhance services specifically aimed at the undergraduate and new user. Information/Reference was created in the location of the former Reference Library to serve basic reference needs in all subjects. The self-study indicated that in-depth reference services were needed as well, and SSHR was set up on the Ground floor to serve these needs. SSHR contained social sciences and humanities reference materials formerly shelved in the 'Reference Library' that had not been chosen for use by Information/Reference. Science Reference remained part of the Science Library as a separate entity.

The Libraries' reorganization of 1993-1994 further abbreviated the services of the Information/Reference unit in the interests of efficiency and economy. Information/Reference became the Information and Referral Center (IRC) and virtually all reference resources supporting the social sciences and humanities went to SSHR. Public service for government documents shared a desk with SSHR. The Information/Reference collections were adjusted to meet the needs of the campus community for some "public library" functions such as travel, careers and college guides, and telephone directories. Science Reference continued to function as a separate reference unit. The Fine Arts Library was created in the newly renovated fourth floor of the west wing, combined the Art and Music collections, and took over all reference functions related to those subjects. In the early 1990's, Africana also assumed separate reference responsibilities with its own book collection.

In the reorganization of 1999, a reference presence on the Main Library's first floor again was seen as an effective way to serve users, especially those learning to use rapidly changing library technology for research. As electronic resources became more widely available via Web interfaces and local servers, they replaced many print tools, but users still required assistance by library staff acquainted with the content and coverage of available databases, and with the various interfaces. At the same time, end-user access to a proliferation of computer-based sources on the Web broke down some former distinctions between introductory and advanced research practices. The new plan reflected a belief that more users of all kinds could get appropriate levels of expertise if the reference units were combined and became more visible.

IRC was discontinued. Science Reference and SSHR combined  to form a new Main Library Reference unit. In July 1999 service moved to a new desk on 1-East, still shared with Government Documents. The Main Library Reference print format set (reference books from IRC, Science and Gov Docs/SSHR, plus Microforms guides) was divided. A collection of more frequently used reference books surrounded a new combined Reference Desk on 1-East adjacent to PCs offering computer-based tools. This area included "alcoves" for biographical dictionaries, statistical tools, law reporters, directories, and guides to foundations, grants, scholarships, colleges, careers, and travel.

A second area called "Consulting Reference" was established for books that are less frequently used, such as very specialized works, older works that remain "classics" and print indexes that are being superseded by electronic formats. This collection was moved to separate shelf units (first in WG-7 and later at the south end of 1-East), and intended for "in-depth" or comprehensive research by advanced users, alone or in collaboration with subject specialists. Due to space issues in the building as a whole, over time some COR volumes have been transferred to Main, some older encyclopedias and national bibliographies to the CyberCafe, and some journal indexes to storage when online equivalents are available.  

In 2007, the Reference desk was moved from its location on 1 East to 1 Center, near the Beaumont entrance of the library.  This move was made in order to make Reference and research assistance more visible to our users.  The Reference staff was largely separated from the print collection, most of which remained on 1 East.  A small collection of ready reference and statistical materials was kept behind the desk area.

In 2010, the print Reference collection underwent a fundamental weeding project as it was acknowledged that much of it was not being used and perhaps would serve a better purpose by becoming part of the circulation collection.  Many other titles had become online products, and print indexes and bibliographies were generally ignored by our users.  Most of the legacy print collection was disbursed to the Main Stacks. A smaller, current collection of core reference materials, recommended by bibliographers and reference librarians and informed by the activity at the Reference Desk, was moved to 1 Center behind the desk.  The Biography, Statistical and Documents Reference collections were either sent to the stacks or to a new Documents Reference collection created on 3 west.  A small Consulting Reference collection remains on 1 East consisting of titles that are currently too large to be moved into the Main Stacks.  These will gradually be moved or discarded as space and electronic equivalents become available.

A4. General guidelines for materials in the Main Library Reference collection

This collection consists of both printed reference books and digital tools that support ready reference, introductory research, more extensive investigation of topics, and the daily work of librarians performing tasks in reference, bibliography and instruction.

Representative types of resources [examples of titles in brackets] include:

  • ready reference titles [Statistical abstract of the US]
  • general reference titles [Encyclopaedia Britannica]
  • sources of current information [EuropaWorld online]
  • specialized works used broadly in classes [American Decades, Bergey's]
  • works on MSU or with specific use for the MSU community [the Faculty Salary books]
  • tools needed by the reference staff to answer questions at the desk  [Chicago Manual of Style]
  • tools for the evaluation, selection and purchase of reference titles [Guide to Reference Books]

Works in English are preferred: exceptions include works in other languages in common use in the curriculum such as language dictionaries. 

The collection may include more advanced materials within limits (available space, browsable extent):

  • core reference works in specific fields  [The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History
  • works supporting study and research in depth for which there is no online equivalent [America Votes],
  • sets that benefit from non-circulating status in a secure location [the NUC]
  • works that support liaison needs of subject specialists [medical books].

Works generally not found in Main Library Reference include:

  • annotated bibliographies 
  • print periodical indexes
  • large foreign language dictionary sets
  • older editions in which the content clearly is inaccurate [directories].

A5. Circulation of Main Library Reference materials

Circulation policies for reference materials support the mission and concept of the collection. "Building-use only" is the rule because checking out books for home use undermines the concept of a consistently available shared collection to which all members of the community can turn for access on short notice. Exceptions are allowable at the discretion of library staff (the appropriate bibliographer, if possible) when users have unusual needs and the books will be gone for a brief period of time (at most a few days).

The Closed Reference shelves behind the Reference Desk act as a "reserve" area for materials that are likely to be needed by desk staff [almanacs], are at risk for theft [expensive handbooks], would be difficult to replace [faculty salary books], or are needed often by large numbers of students [citation manuals]. These items circulate on a building-use only basis for two-hour periods, and are secure when the Desk is closed.

A6. Staffing in Main Library Reference

Staffing of the Reference Desk supports use of the collection. Service hours reflect hours of anticipated use by the community, including weekend and evening shifts. The Desk is staffed by experienced professional librarians who take part in ongoing training. All reference staff are expected to have foundation levels of knowledge about tools in all disciplines: advanced expertise in a specific area is handled on a referral basis and appointments with bibliographers (referral is the appropriate response to some inquiries). The desk is usually double-staffed during Fall and Spring semesters, which allows lengthier consultation with users, or trips to the stacks to answer certain questions. We offer assistance with computer or network problems within limits: deep mastery of unusual situations is not expected, and acceptable service can consist of: referral to written guides and computer-oriented service points on campus (including DLS and AtS). Reference public service has a "teaching" component, and the design of the desk area makes it easy for staff to move to a PC or shelf area with a library user. High levels of traffic can limit how long we spend with a researcher. Good judgement is assumed.

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