Friday, May 16, 2008

Don't count those encyclopedias out yet.

When I was a kid, probably around 12 or so, one of my favorite books to read at night were the volumes from a yellow cover edition of an encyclopedia. I believe the title was Illustrated World Encyclopedia or other. The articles were pretty easy reading, and I usually learned something new or interesting. One of the entries I remember was the one about "Police" because it had a photo of a police department in the U.S. where the officers did not wear uniforms, but they all wore business clothes (jacket and tie). I found that particular detail fascinating at that age. The encyclopedia's last volume had a section of summaries of great works in literature, which I also found interesting as well. A lot of the allure of that book was that I could just pull out a volume, find an entry that interested me, and read through it, then keep going to the next or browse some more. Those were the days, so to speak, when I was looking for something light to read before bed, that I could just pick up and drop.

Fast forward to today, and I find that I often look for readings that I can pick up and drop. Of course, the reason today is that I have responsibilities, and time is a bit more limited. I still like the idea of reference books. However, it seems that some are ready to declare them dead. Noam Cohen, writing for The New York Times, says to "Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias." He writes that "the classic multivolume encyclopedia is well on its way to becoming the first casualty in the end of print." I have to admit that I have not picked up a volume from something like Britannica to browse in quite a while. I don't think it is the death knell of encyclopedias just yet. They may just have less volumes, or they may streamline some more. The author observes that the biggest clients for these encyclopedias are schools and libraries, and I think that will still be the case. At least for libraries, I think they will still opt to have at least one multivolume encyclopedia. Now, why would they do that in the age of Wikipedia?

  • Well, for one, computers are known to go down every once in a while. Having a general reference work at hand may be desirable then.
  • Often, you can get a quick overview on a topic from one of these volumes. Need some ideas for keywords? Try using the encyclopedia, find the entry for your topic, and see how it is described. Now, you may say, "but I can do it just fine on Wikipedia." And I would say, "maybe, maybe not." It may depend on what is more efficient at the time.
  • The authority question I think is debatable. While there have been reports that Wikipedia may do better against works like Britannica, the final lesson is that you have to evaluate what you read. This is something we should be teaching our patrons no matter what reference tool we use.
  • Serendipity. There is something about looking through the pages of a book that Wikipedia just cannot duplicate. And at this point, not even Kindle can do that (yet).
Are these the most compelling reasons? I am willing to bet that for a good number of my brethren who are ready to bury the print probably not. I will throw one more in: the just in case. This is philosophical on my part, but I think a good ready reference collection should have a good multivolume general encyclopedia in it. Just like we argue that we should have the Statistical Abstract or citation handbooks, or dictionaries, we should have that general reference work as well.

You see, the assumption often is that everything will be online. You can just get it off the Internet. But, will it still be there on the Internet, whatever "it" is? And what happens when formats change, or methods of access? Will it still be there online? And let's not even bring in issues of digital divide and access or lack of access to the Internet? The books will still be there, and as long as people know how to read, they will be accessible. Just a thought.

Cohen describes these encyclopedias as household icons, referring to the ones people would buy for the home. They certainly were icons in my house, where my parents made sure we had a good set or two of reference works handy. Now, some of you out there may get a chuckle at this, assuming you are old enough to remember this, but we did have a couple of reference works we bought volume by volume at the store (it may have been one of the large grocery stores or a department store. This was pre-Walmart people). Now, laugh it up if you wish, but one of the best sets on art history in our house we bought that way. It was published by Salvat, a Spanish company (wow. I googled them and found the link. Seems they publish a few more things these days. I tried finding the Worldcat record for Historia del Arte, and I got a few results; I think this is the right one). Anyhow, those art history volumes were one of my first introductions to classical art from the ancient Greeks to modern art. They had illustrations in color that were pretty good (so good mom worried we ogled at the nudes a bit much. Hey, three teen boys in the house, you figure it out). But it was a big deal when we managed to get the whole set. We also had a encyclopedic Spanish dictionary (same publisher. Salvat pretty much had a monopoly on that market back then). We kept those books for years. My parents only got rid of them when they moved to Texas from Puerto Rico, and mom described that as one of the most painful things she ever did. She is an avid reader and book lover.

Never underestimate what a good encyclopedia can do is all I am saying. Today, I use more online sources. It is the way things are done, but I make it a point to have the ability to use a good print reference work as well. It's a matter of balance. I like to look at it as being able to navigate both worlds, the print and the electronic, knowing when to use each one. And in the end, it may not all be in the encyclopedia, but it is not all online either. So the humble multivolume encyclopedia, once such a regal object in our homes, will remain, just on a smaller scale perhaps. But I don't see it dying anytime soon.

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