Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I have seen the future, and it is digital

Sandra Parshall

Reference book n. A book, such as a dictionary or encyclopedia, to which one can refer for authoritative information. (Definition from

Remember the days when parents could buy their kids a complete new Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia at the supermarket, one featured volume per week? And the Encyclopedia Britannica was the gold standard for reference books, which few could afford to own but many consulted at public libraries?

Funk and Wagnalls exists only as an electronic reference service for educational institutions. Britannica will still cost you, but you can’t get it in book form anymore. It’s now a subscription service, its impeccably researched content updated frequently with the latest information and illustrated not only with photos but with videos and sound. It has to compete with Wikipedia, which is a source of plentiful misinformation but is absolutely free, the way we like things to be on the internet. Also free online are myriad dictionaries and atlases.

Who’s responsible for the print reference books ending up in the trash bin? We are, with our computer-generated impatience and laziness. Want to know what an expression means? Bring Google up on your screen and type “define” followed by the word or phrase in question, and you’ll be inundated with information within seconds. (, for example, offers no less than eight definitions for “jumping the shark”.) Googling is so much easier than getting out of your chair, walking to the bookcase, and pulling down a reference book – which may not even contain what you’re looking for if the term is relatively new. I consider myself a book lover, resistant to the idea that printed books will one day disappear, but I’ve done my part to hasten the demise of “real” dictionaries, atlases, and encyclopedias.

In the current issue of Publishers Weekly, Casper Grathwohl, publisher of Oxford University Press Reference, says the decline in sales of print reference books in the last year has been “dizzying” and he expects it to accelerate. “Publishers had been moving at a steady pace toward online only, but with library budgets being slashed so severely, what felt like a healthy jog has become a sprint.”

If the market for dictionaries and encyclopedias has shrunk, however, other types of reference books are selling and sometimes thriving. Volumes devoted to a single subject have the best shot at success. National Geographic continues to publish a broad line of science and history references, Princeton University Press is still in the reference business, and so many Dummies guides are being published that we may need a Dummies Guide to Buying the Right Dummies Guide. Popular culture spawns reference books. Want to know everything there is to know about the Halo video games? Look for the Halo Encyclopedia next fall. Writer’s Digest Books still provides plenty of practical help to authors. Reference books for niche markets won’t sell in staggering numbers the way dictionaries used to, but many will sell enough copies to justify their existence... at least until people discover ways to get the information free online.

In a fit of nostalgia, I tell myself that books, real printed books you can hold in your hands, will never disappear. In more realistic moments, I look at my own habits and have to adjust my thinking. On the shelves around me, I have at least 100 books about writing, crime investigation, forensics, etc., but more and more, when I need to clarify a point, I call up a web site instead of pulling down a book, checking the index, and searching the pages for what I want. It seems to me that devices like the Kindle, with many books stored on them and available with a click or two, may eventually do to printed novels what the internet has done to printed references. Whether this is good or bad by some sentimental standard is not the point. If it’s what readers want, it will happen.

Have computers and the internet changed the way you find information? Have you joined the Kindle club yet?


Paul Lamb said...

No Kindle for me yet. I figure I'll wait for the next generation of ebook readers.

The trouble with print is that it is out of date the moment it's printed. I had a general science encyclopedia that listed one of the causes of alcoholism as "nagging wives." And Encyclopedia Britannica was notorious for its cultural biases. Someone wrote a whole (print) book detailing all of the incorrect material and spin in that encyclopedia some years back.

Print has this unfounded reputation for being the gatekeeper of facts. Anyone who reads the newspaper (not much longer) knows how invalid this assertion is. References on the internet may be suspect in some cases, but I find it generally easy to get reliable information from known sources there.

Sandra Parshall said...

I agree with much of what you've said, Paul. However, the greatest virtue of online news -- its immediacy -- is also its greatest weakness. Too much misinformation is slapped onto internet pages the instant a journalist hears about it, and by the time it's corrected it may have done significant damage. (This is the very situation TV has always been criticized for.) With print, reporters have at least a few hours to check sources and make sure that what they're writing is true. That's the way it used to be, anyway. Now I believe print newspapers and news magazines are driven by the need to keep up with their online counterparts. I have to hear or read a story at least a couple of days in a row, with no important alterations, before I believe the reporter got it right.

Carol said...

I'll buy a Kindle the day the last print publisher disappears and not a day earlier. A friend bought one recently and it felt dead in my hand. In addition to the sensory appeal of a printed book, there's the matter of reading from paper vs. reading from a computer. Unless I'm mistaken (always a possibility in just about any area (insert grinning emoticon), reading from a computer is harder on the eyes.

And, Paul, has the Brit cleaned up its act? I've been thinking of buying a subscription, but your post is giving me second thoughts.

Cheryl said...

I've always been surrounded by hundreds of books -- stressing my limited storage. But lately, I've found it easier to let them go to friends, charities, and used bookstores. I think it's because it's so easy to get one back if I feel the need.

Could my future be clutter-free if I get a Kindle?

Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Sandra.

Change is inevitable, but I too am far from a Kindle, because it's too expensive for me. However, I'm not fooling myself into thinking I'm not already relying on the computer in a million ways--look what I'm doing right now.

Vicki Lane said...

I've done that very thing, Sandra -- click on Google rather than get the book off the shelf. But no Kindle -- I like the feel of the book.

If I traveled a lot, I'd have one. Or if/when my eyesight gets really bad . . .