Reference book n. A book, such as a dictionary or encyclopedia, to which one can refer for authoritative information. (Definition from Answers.com)
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?
Today 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. (Urbandictionary.com, 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?