The death of reference books

September 23, 2014

It’s autumn, and so in our house, the annual clearout begins. This includes pruning the library, and I’m getting rid of a lot of old reference books. This had me thinking about how the internet has changed the way I look things up.

I still use dictionaries, (well, I would, being an ex-English teacher and crossword fan: it’s far easier with a book in your lap) so the faithful Chambers is on the shelves – our third copy, I think – though I often find myself using the OED online, as I have free access via our local library log-in. But paper encyclopaedias and gazetteers are now useless, I find, because the information available on the web is much more up-to-date, and easily accessible. Paper atlases and maps, however, I still find immensely useful when reading all the travel writing I consume: the detail, the clarity and the ability to relate one area to another is far easier than on something like Google Maps; the only time when online maps come into their own, I find, is when very small detail is needed.

General encyclopaedias pale into insignificance next to wikipedia. And who consults the Encyclopedia Britannica any more? Apparently, it’s hard to give away old printed sets, and it’s no longer the default source for detailed knowledge on the web either. Thanks to an excellent librarian at the school where I used to work, we were all trained in how to set up useful searches, and how to evaluate web sources for reliability and truthfulness, so why wouldn’t I start my quest for further knowledge on the web?

When it comes to more specific or specialised information, then I still think paper reference books have a place. I have a couple of sets of encyclopaedias of world literature which are still getting ever more well-worn, and I have not switched to using exclusively online information when travelling and touring; I would still much rather have a detailed guidebook and supplement this with latest online information as and when I need it. I need a paper map to find my way around unfamiliar towns and cities.

It is astonishing, though, how in a decade or so, our access to and use of information, has been revolutionised. I resent the waste of paper when a new – admittedly thinner – phone directory or yellow pages drops through the letterbox, as I can’t remember when I last used either. Instant, quality information on anything is at my fingertips, and, what I probably find most amazing of all, information I never knew I could have is there, courtesy of being able to surf and browse. People sometimes complain that the web is being taken over by huge corporations who only want to mine data, spy on us and sell us crap: this is undoubtedly true, and yet there is also such a tremendous resource of useful material, offered free, out there, and I’m immensely grateful to organisations like Project Gutenberg and Librivox, for example, who have revolutionised some aspects of my life…

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