Reference collections (size)

In Uncategorized

Reference collections come in all sizes and formats. S.R. Ranganathan in The Five Laws of Library Science said, “A library is a growing organism.” A reference collection is one of the core services of a library and it, too, should be viewed as a “growing organism.”


Purpose of Reference Collections

“The work of reference librarians includes selection of an adequate and suitable (emphasis supplied) collection of reference sources and arrangement and maintenance of the collection so that it can be used easily and conveniently.” (Bopp and Smith. p. 310)


The ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services states, “The purpose of reference service is to help a library’s clientele use its collections effectively to meet their information needs.” (p.692)


IsadoreMudge provided guidance on the importance of reference services to libraries. In the Fifth Edition of the Guide to Reference Books, she said, “Whatever the size of the library, it will have questions of one sort or another brought to it by its readers and these must be answered in as far as the resources of the library permit. Much of the reputation of the library in its community will depend upon the success with which it handles its reference questions.” (Mudge, p.ix)


In order to determine what is “adequate” and “suitable” and what resources will meet the users’ information needs, the librarian has to know the community of users and what they want today. In order to use resources wisely, the librarian also has to determine what the users will want in the future. This task has always been challenging, however, the librarian has been trained to exercise professional judgment in order to learn the community’s information needs and to make decisions to select new reference sources while maintaining current ones. Constance Winchell summed up this challenge as follows: “The fundamental principles of reference work remain more or less constant through the years, but the rapid expansion of the publication of reference books in all fields makes essential a careful selection to fit the needs of each library.” (Winchell, p. vi) She adds, “. . . the possession of the right books and the knowledge of how to use them are two things essential to the success of a reference department, . . .” (Winchell, p.xiv)


Which Reference Sources Should be Acquired and Maintained?

AliceKroeger wrote in the First Edition of the Guide to Reference Books that “no library, however, small and whatever its character, can be complete without a dictionary, an encyclopedia, an atlas, and a biographical dictionary.” (Richardson, p.7)


In 1967, Constance Winchell provided some guidance to librarians about the specific contents of a reference collection. She wrote, “A working reference collection, large or small, will include reference books in specialized subject fields as well as comprehensive works such as general bibliographies, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and indexes. For special subjects there are certain recognized types of reference materials. The principal ones are: (1) Guides and manuals; (2) Bibliographies; (3) Indexes and abstracts; (4) Encyclopedias; (5) Handbooks; (6) Dictionaries of special terms; (7) Annuals and directories; (8) Histories; (9) Biographical works; (10) Atlases and collections of plates or illustrations; (11) Serial publications.” (Winchell, p. xvii)


Over the years, there have been attempts to define “fundamental reference sources.” James Sweetland in his textbook of the same name, identifies various surveys conducted about what library schools teach in reference courses. “The classic work in this approach remains that of Wallace J. Bonk, who surveyed all accredited library schools in 1960. His results, issued as Composite List of Titles Taught in Basic Reference by 25 of the Accredited Library Schools (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Univ. of Michigan Department of Library Science, 1960; various pagings), found ‘less agreement . . . than was expected’ but also that more than half of the schools did teach 115 titles in common, out of a total of 1,202 titles taught by at least one school in the basic course, and 47% of the titles were taught in only one course.” (Sweetland p. 13) Sweetland goes on to provide information from subsequent surveys that indicates there is little agreement on what are the actual sources that make up the optimal reference collection. “From the above, one must conclude with William A. Katz that 'there is not a single list upon which all reference librarians will agree.'" (Introduction to Reference Work, Volume 1, Basic Information Sources [New York: McGraw Hill, 1969] p.30). (Sweetland pp.13-14)


In Recommended Reference Books for Small and Medium-sized Libraries and Media Centers, a simple summary of the contents is “. . . initial chapter devoted to general reference works, followed by 34 subject-oriented chapters divided by topic or form. Subjects covered range from sports and recreation to religion and from genealogy to agriculture to information technology.” (Wynar, 1984)


The collective thoughts of the editors of the major reference guide books and authors on this subject demonstrate that while the goal of reference collections is to help the librarian meet the information needs of the user, the contents and size of that reference collection will vary. While Kroeger set out the minimum components necessary, there does not appear to be a definition of the optimum set of materials. Each library needs to determine the scope and size of its reference collection.


Format: How Many Print Versus How Many Electronic Reference Sources?

Once the library determines the scope of its reference collection, it needs to make decisions about the format for those resources. Authors Bopp and Smith provide some guidelines for making format decisions. “. . . increasingly, the concept of a reference collection made up of reference books is an inadequate characterization of the resources most frequently used by reference librarians. Harrod’s Librarians’ Glossary and Reference Book defines the broader concept of reference source: ‘any material, published work, database, web site, etc. which is used to obtain authoritative information.’ ” (Bopp and Smith, p.309) “Because reference collections now include materials in a variety of formats, the reference librarian must decide whether to acquire particular titles in more than one format.” (Bopp and Smith, p. 310) The authors go on to say, “. . . it is important to have the latest available edition of a tool in the collection and to be aware of the Web resources that may have even more current information.” (Bopp and Smith, p.311)


Given the wealth of electronic reference sources, the library will need to evaluate the ever-changing environment and make decisions based on relevancy and budgetary considerations for licensed subscription services. Many librarians will create a list of preferred Web sites and online services to use in response to particular reference questions. It is difficult to keep track of all the various librarian recommended, reference Web sites, however, one might start with Librarians' Internet Index at:


How Many Are Enough?

The 11th Edition of the Guide to Reference Books "lists as entries 15,875 titles. They are geared towards reference libraries and contents include: General Reference Works; Humanities; Social and Behavioral Sciences; History and Area Studies; Science, Technology, and Medicine." (Balay, p. xxii) Richardson’s chart of the number of titles in the 1st through the 11th Editions shows growth in titles of between 30% and 50% per edition, from 800 in the 1st Edition up to the approximately 14,000 in the 10th Edition. (Richardson, p. 6) Interestingly, the increase in titles between the 10th and 11th Editions was less than 15%, the lowest growth rate since the publication began. Whether this suggests that approximately 16,000 print reference source titles is enough merits further study, particularly given the increase in electronic sources since the publication of the 11th Edition in 1996.


“In 15 volumes of the American Reference Books Annual published since 1970, a total 25,349 titles have been reviewed.” (Dority, p.6)


Dority recommends 506 reference titles in his book, A Guide to Reference Books for Small and Medium-Sized Libraries, 1984-1994; this number indicates a slight decrease in recommended reference titles from the 533 titles listed in the 1981 edition. (Dority, p. 6)


Wynar’s Best Reference Books “ . . . provides a careful selection of 818 substantial reference titles, chosen from seven volumes of the American Reference Books Annual.” (Wynar, p.xvii)


Associations, Journals and Guidelines

The Reference and User Services Association ("RUSA") of the American Library Association offers reference librarians with a wealth of information about all aspects of reference library activities and reference sources. Librarians interested in reviewing its guidelines for reference resources should visit the RUSA Web site; see:


There are three library journals dedicated to reference service; they contain an abundance of information and articles about the size, scope, and format of reference collections. For the Reference & User Services Quarterly, see: Reference Services Review can be found at: The Web site for Reference Librarian is located at: All Web site URLs are current as of November 22, 2006.



With the growth of the Internet and the availability of electronic reference sources, it is likely that many of the guides for reference collections will change dramatically in the next decades. With access to so much on the Internet, it is probably not a question of how many resources should make up the optimum-size reference collection, but rather how many of these sources it is reasonable to think can be organized and accessed efficiently by reference librarians. Also, given that many Web resources are available equally to members of the general public, it will be important for reference librarians to continue to “surf the Web” and consult with others to find the best and fastest electronic reference sources. If everything could be found with a simple Google search, then reference services as we know them would be obsolete. As this is not the case, the reference librarian’s challenge is to figure out the size, scope and format for reference sources to meet the needs of the library’s users and to manage those information resources over time, keeping in mind that reference collections are “growing organisms.”





Balay, R. (Ed.). (1996). Guide to Reference Books (11th ed.). Chicago and London: American Library Association.


Bopp, Richard E. and Smith, Linda C. (2001). Reference and Information Services An Introduction (3rd ed.). Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, A Division of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.


Cheney, Frances Neel and Williams, Wiley J. (1980). Fundamental Reference Sources. Chicago: American Library Association.


Dority, G. K. (1995). A Guide to Reference Books for Small and Medium-Sized Libraries, 1984-1994. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.


Evaluation of Reference and Adult Services Committee Management and Operation of Public Services Section Reference and Adult Services Division (RASD) American Library Association (Ed.). (1995). The Reference Assessment Manual. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The Pierian Press.


Mudge, I. G. (1929). Guide to Reference Books (5th ed.). 1929: American Library Association.


Ranganathan, S. R. (1961). Reference Service (2nd ed.). New York: Asia Publishing House.


Richardson, John V. Jr. (1995). Knowledge-Based Systems for General Reference Work

Applications, Problems, and Progress. San Diego: Academic Press.


Sweetland, J. H. (2001). Fundamental Reference Sources (3rd ed.). Chicago and London: American Library Association.


Wedgeworth, R. (Ed.). (1986). ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: American Library Association and Adamantine Press Limited.


Winchell, C. M. (1967). Guide to Reference Books (8th ed.). Chicago: American Library Association.


Wynar, B. S. (1984). Recommended Reference Books for Small and Medium-sized Libraries and Media Centers. Littleton, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.


Wynar, B. S. (Ed.). (1976). Best Reference Books

Titles of lasting value selected from American Reference Books Annual 1970 -1976. Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, inc.


Young, H. (Ed.). (1983). The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science. Chicago: American Library Association.



Maureen Whalen