Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
In the weeks during which this issue of Reference Reviews was put together the UK library world, or at least the public library sector, was convulsed by a new crisis of confidence. This was occasioned by the publication of a short report on the management and future of public libraries (Coates, 2004), widely known as the Libri report. Extensively reported in the media, this extrapolated existing trends, especially the decline in book loans, to conclude that unless there was drastic change public libraries would cease to serve any purpose in 20 years. While it was the looming extinction of the public library that most excited the press, it was the report’s recommendations for a survival strategy that most exercised the library world. Although some recommendations were warmly welcomed, notably the call for a trebling of expenditure on books, others such as the scything of management and specialist posts and the rationalisation of administrative and operational processes, were less well received. In addition, there was and continues to be much questioning of the entire basis of the report. Based largely on the analysis of only one library authority (Hampshire) critics claim that the report has too narrow a focus and fails to take into account the wider role of public libraries beyond book lending.
There is certainly much truth in these criticisms. When the report became available I spent a rare spare hour looking for what it had to say about reference and information work. Disappointingly, apart from a passing call for an increase in spending on reference books and databases, there is no direct consideration of the information function of libraries. The focus is almost entirely on the decline in book loans and how this might be remedied. For reference libraries, the report is a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, there is the very welcome call for greater spending, but on the other hand there is apparent blindness to the information and learning role of libraries and the necessity for high calibre staff to provide this aspect of the service. Reference libraries cannot be equated with bookshops and management strategies and practices that prevail in the retail sector will not translate to the enquiry desk. Publishers and retailers know this and it is the reason why the vast majority of the printed titles in this issue of Reference Reviews will never feature on the shelves of Borders or Waterstones. Bookshops exist to pedal books, increasingly to a mass market, to those who can pay; reference libraries exist to provide information, often specialist, to all who seek it.
I hope readers outside the UK will forgive this little digression on the hot topic of the British library world, but a report that is attracting so much controversy did not seem something we could let pass without comment. Whatever the outcome, whether the Libri report gathers dust or progresses from page to policy, it is clear that far-reaching change in public libraries is unavoidable and that this will inevitably impact on the reference and information function.
In this issue of Reference Reviews, there are a fair number of new print titles UK public libraries should try to make priority purchases even if the prospect of trebled book expenditure seems a distant and remote prospect. Foremost amongst these must be The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (RR 2004/351). Based on the collections of the English Place-Names Society it updates Ekwall’s famous works and stands alongside the 1998-second edition Oxford University Press title A Dictionary of English Place-Names. Encyclopedia of Buddhism (RR 2004/300) and Ancient Europe: An Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World (RR 2004/345) are two Gale group titles that at first sight might not seem a priority purchase in the UK. Both, however, are in the excellent traditions of the Gale family of companies and deserve to find a place on the shelves of any library that can afford them. Talking of Gale products, in this issue we take a detailed look at the print version of the longstanding Gale Directory of Databases (RR 2004/293). This is the database searchers “bible” and deserves at least occasional purchase by larger public libraries that seek to offer the public support in using online sources, especially those containing business information.
Mention of databases leads us to conclude by highlighting some of the electronic resources reviewed in this issue. Educational Research Abstracts Online (RR 2004/310) is a source I personally often find useful to turn up education related journal articles, especially those in specific areas such as special education. So often overshadowed by ERIC, or in the UK by British Education Index, this is a source that deserves a further look if the budgets will stretch. Marquis Who’s Who is one of the most familiar names in biographical information and we take a look at the Internet version of this series of publications (RR 2004/349). Bundling print directories of various dates in one database can have its pitfalls as this review reveals. One of the greatest reference works in philosophy is the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Version 2 of the online version of this is now available and is reviewed at length (RR 2004/304). This is an expensive purchase, so as an antidote to talk of money we will conclude by highlighting a free Internet source PsychNet-UK (RR 2004/303). Although primarily intended as the number one UK psychology portal, this has wider application and deserves to be bookmarked by libraries with a serious psychology interest worldwide.
Anthony ChalcraftEditor, Reference Reviews, and College Librarian, York St John College, York, UK
Coates, T. (2004), Who Is in Charge? Responsibility for the Public Library Service, Libri/Laser Foundation, London, available at: www.rwevans.co.uk/libri/