My favorite classes so far in library school have been my two reference classes. Part of that is that I adore the professor and the other part is that I really enjoy reference. I like answering questions and steering people in the right direction. I especially enjoy academic reference because the questions are more complex (usually) and often involve helping student with their research and paper writing. Because I find teaching very appealing, instruction, both in a set, classroom-type environment and spontaneous while-answering-a-question, is an important reference duty for me as well. However, in the age of Google and fabulous online databases, it's becoming more important to talk about the other aspect of reference, the books and their physical space in the library.
A separate reference space originated in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, about the same time librarianship became more involved than simply keeping up with the books. More classic reference texts (subject encyclopedias, books of biography, etc) were being published and students began to refer to these to answer questions or start their research. However, do students still use these books? Do we need to have a separate space to house non-circulating reference texts?
I attended a session called "Rethinking the Reference Collection" at the ALA Conference where a panel of reference librarians offered up opinions on the state of the collection and the department. One of the more important things discussed was what do to with the reference books that no one uses. Most libraries, including ours here at UA, are slowly merging the little used books in with the circulating books. This doesn't seem to be a problem; they are in the catalog and students can still find them if needed. What really seems to be the issue are the books that are still in the reference room. Who is using them? A quick glance through the main library on campus and noticing what goes on in my own library, the answer is no one. In fact the only times I ever use the physical books in the reference department are for reference classes. I never used them as an undergrad; I knew they were there, but I preferred to use online sources or just Google the answer. Now that I'm more familiar with the books available, I have been using them more for my own research, but I still don't use them very often.
So what do we do with our reference books? Do we leave them where they are in hopes of someone using them? Do we merge them all into the regular collection? Should we simply weed them out to make more room for computers and study space? How are you rethinking the reference collection?
For a great article on this topic check out "Where are the Reference Books" by Lisa Blankenship and Jennifer Leffler in Colorado Libraries, volume 32, no. 2 (Spring 2006). While the article is three years old, its interesting to note just how long this discussion has been going on and how much has already changed.