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Online Reference Libraries
December 2006

I have news of a fantastic bargain available online from some local libraries; it's been there for a while, but I've only just found out about it. It is free, unlimited, online access to the best reference books.

Public libraries have suffered a fair bit of criticism in recent years, as they have filled up with computers, CD's, Videos and the like, making many of us suspect that the written word is being sidelined.

I feel sorry for county librarians, however. Their libraries exist to provide access to information that would otherwise be beyond the means of the users; nowadays that should certainly include the Internet and other "new media".

In fact, many libraries make very practical use of the Internet, and it can be a huge benefit for us. I strongly recommend that you find your library web site and have a good wander round. Look at your local council website for a link, or just put "Borsetshire Library" into Google. Some library sites are much better than others, so I hope yours is a good one.

First, get to know the catalogue; the entire regional catalogue is available for you to look at from home. You can search for a book, tape, CD or video by author, subject or title. That in itself is not too amazing, but the best bit is that you can then reserve the book and have it delivered to the closest library to you. They will send you an email when it is there, and off you go. Excellent. You can renew your books online, too.

Secondly (and this is the fantastic bargain I mentioned), most libraries now offer the most wonderful opportunities for using the finest reference books online. It's an astonishing resource, but none of them, in my experience, promote it for what it is: the best new service to their customers for years and years.

In the early days of the Internet, many publishers of reference books made their wares available to us all on a web site, but they quickly realised that this meant a drop in sales of the books. Nowadays, if they make their products available online at all it is in return for a fee, and often a hefty one. Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, costs about £50 a year, and Who's Who only gives you online access if you buy the book (£140 even from Amazon, thanks very much). This is where the public libraries come in. Most have subscribed to these services, lots of other similar ones, and make them completely available to you through the Internet, at home or anywhere else and for free.

This is a remarkable deal, and it should be headline news. But most libraries seem shy about it, and make the service hard to find on their website, sometimes very hard. It's a disgrace.

For example, Norfolk call the section "Online Subscriptions", Essex call it "Answers direct", Manchester has "24 hour library" and Leeds only mention it in passing on their catalogue page. My own library (Suffolk) has it hidden away under a small link called "Cyberlibrary" of all things.

Once I get into this Cyberlibrary, however, it's glorious. I can read and search the latest versions of dozens of top rank reference works, from the Dictionary of National Biography to the Encyclopaedia Britannica; from the digital archive of The Times (back to 1785) to over 100 "Oxford" reference books. They also offer Xreferplus, a site that includes works from 50 publishers, including Who's Who, Debrett, various encyclopaedias and many specialist books. How many people in Who's Who put down train spotting as a hobby? Only one actually, but there he is. All I have to do is enter my library membership number, and miles of virtual shelves are open to me.

If you were to pay to subscribe to half these books it would run, believe me, to thousands of pounds. Using them for nothing at home is a marvellous bargain, and is an excellent example of libraries bringing learning and scholarship to us all, just as they were always meant to.

I just wish they'd tell people about it.