An electronic reference library is a collection of information from various sources that is gathered and stored in digital form, allowing access to the resources and information from a computer or other electronic device. There are several reasons why an electronic reference library might be used instead of storing physical books and papers. These include limited space for physical books, requirements for remote or large-scale access to the resources, and frequent updates to information that would be inefficient or impractical with printed materials. The electronic reference library could be hosted on a computer server, allowing network or Internet access, or it could be compressed on a series of compact disks (CDs) for use on a personal computer.
One use for an electronic reference library is to archive books in a physical library. Books can be digitally scanned and stored either as actual images of the pages, as might be desirable with illuminated manuscripts, or scanned and converted to regular text with optical character recognition software. The books can be stored on a server that is accessible from inside the library or outside it via the Internet. This has the advantage of permanently storing books without any risk of loss, because the digital files will not degrade and cannot be lost or stolen. It also can save space in a library and potentially provide information to other libraries through a larger network.
Another use for an electronic reference library is to provide access to documents or papers that are regularly updated and accessed from several different locations by many people. Having a central digital location for the documents means everyone using the server remotely will be looking at the exact same information. This removes problems such as having to physically or otherwise update binders or other printed materials every time a change is made, preventing important updates from going unnoticed or being delayed.
The term "electronic reference library" also is used commercially to refer to a CD that contains one or more digital versions of books. These CDs are usually less expensive than buying the individual books in printed form. There are several advantages for both the consumer and the company producing the reference CD. Primarily, it can save space and allows a person to carry a large amount of information in a very small, lightweight form.
Several colleges and universities employ an electronic reference library to keep documents such as academic papers and student publications available to the student and faculty base. The information is digital, so there is no need for a complex physical archive system or space to store old publications. An electronic reference library also can allow detailed searches of thousands of documents in only a few seconds.