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Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Travelling back from Birmingham, on a train that the conductor repeatedly informed us was delayed “because of a late start from Bristol”, I got into conversation with the passenger in the next seat. She was a humanities academic at another university and on learning I had been at a meeting to discuss integrating library content into one of the world’s favourite search engines, began quizzing me on library developments and in particular the use of electronic resources. My fellow passenger’s interrogation (for this is what it seemed to become) dwelt on why, as she saw it, librarians were needlessly replacing print sources with those in electronic format. I ran over the various advantages electronic had over print (better retrieval, speed of searching, multiple use, off-site access, etc.), but I found myself being pressed on the issue of whether one of the factors was self-aggrandizement on the part of librarians.
Before I had time to mount a robust defence we arrived at my inquisitor’s destination and I was left to ponder this issue alone. On the remainder of the journey, as we trundled along still delayed by that mysterious late start from Bristol, I considered the reasons why I, as a library manager, generally replaced print sources with electronic wherever these were available and affordable. Gaining prestige and status, the self-aggrandizement argument, just did not seem a reason. Indeed, given the problems of networks and servers prone to fail at critical times, passwords that seem to change spontaneously and other computer quirks, the reality is often befuddled embarrassment rather than admiration and enhanced status. As the gentle rolling of the train (now further delayed because it had “lost its path”) induced further idle contemplation, so I focussed on two other reasons that led me to increasingly take the electronic route. One, if I am honest, is what might be termed “peer-pressure”. If the library of a competitor institution introduces an electronic service we feel, if it matches our curriculum profile, that we too must give it consideration. The other reason is more practical but from the library manager’s point of view critically important – electronic services have the potential to offer far more management information.
This latter consideration seems to me to be a hugely important factor, but one that is not always openly acknowledged, either by decision-makers or in the library and information science literature. Compared with print sources, nearly all the electronic databases and full text services to which we subscribe incorporate sophisticated statistical and reporting functions. Providing we can locate the “administrator” password and find the time, a few clicks of the mouse will provide detailed information on logons, sessions, searches, printouts, etc. Such data enables close monitoring of usage and, given most services are on annual contract, consideration of cancellation for those that are not showing a high hit rate. With print reference sources we have no comparable means of monitoring use. Neither, in normal circumstances at least, can we send pristine and unused volumes back after a year.
As the train left the last destination before my home station I was jolted out of my musings back to what had been the intended task for the journey, selecting the material for this issue of Reference Reviews. We are fortunate once again in having a good range of reviews of important new and revised reference works. Working through the issue a number are worthy of special mention. Eighteenth Century Collections Online from Gale (RR 2004/176) is the key source for English-language publications of the period and represents the further development of a previous bibliographic listing (in this case originally the British Library’s ESTC), into a full text resource. Communication Abstracts (RR 2004/185) is a long established indexing source. Here we review the electronic version of this important tool for social scientists and those studying the mass media. A few reviews on we take a long overdue look at of Palgrave’s Dictionary of Labour Biography (RR 2004/188) which has now reached its 11th volume. In the same section we also review Sage Full-text Collections (RR 2004/192). Sage have recently caused controversy in the library world by withdrawing many of their full text journals from aggregator services, so our review of this collection seems particularly timely.
Progressing to the language and literature section we have a review for Blackwell’s Linguistics Abstracts Online (RR 2004/202), often overlooked in favour of the better known Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts. A few pages on we have a justifiably enthusiastic review of the revised edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English (RR 2004/206), surely a purchase for most libraries. We should also take note of Fitzroy Dearborn’s three volume Encyclopedia of Sculpture (RR 2004/213), not least because it is one of the last titles to be published under this renowned reference imprint which has been absorbed into Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis empire. FirstWorldWar.com (RR 2004/220) deserves our attention, not only for far ranging coverage of its topic, but also because it is largely the product of one man, Michael Duffy. Finally, special attention must be drawn to Gill & Macmillan’s impressive Encyclopaedia of Ireland (RR 2004/228. It is not often nowadays that we see encyclopedic works devoted to single countries (the print and electronic The Canadian Encyclopedia is an exception that springs to mind), so the publisher deserves special congratulation for undertaking and investing in this project.
Finally, we must end this editorial with a small but important correction. In issue 17(8) of this journal we inadvertently inflated the price of Saur’s English Language Bibliography 1945 to the Present (RR 2003/426) to £2,075 when we should have said 2075. Our apologies to Saur and to readers for getting the symbols muddled.
Anthony ChalcraftEditorReference Reviews and College Librarian, York St John College, York, UK