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Why I don’t buy print reference books

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last week, I was asked by an acquisitions editor at a publishing company to review a 2 page proposal for a new reference work that would be available in print and electronically. It was a specialized science encyclopedia that would be 7 volumes. Based on other offerings from that company, a 7 volume encyclopedia would cost my library about $1500.

In my reply, I said that I would never purchase a 7 volume print encyclopedia, and I would almost never purchase an electronic edition.

For students (and many librarians and faculty) using print resources is annoying, time consuming and generally not worth the effort. A quick Google or Wikipedia search can generally help me define concepts, understand acronyms and abbreviations, and get a brief overview on a topic.

Many teachers, librarians and college faculty are very concerned about this because of the unreliability of Wikipedia. Students can’t use Wikipedia as a source in their papers.

But for the assignments I see, students can’t use a specialized encyclopedia either. Faculty require students in the sciences to rely on primary research articles as their sources. They use Wikipedia to help understand the concepts and terms in these journal articles in much the same way that the students of 30 years ago used specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias.

So why won’t I usually consider buying an electronic version of a specialized encyclopedia in order to push students toward resources that are more reliable than Wikipedia?

First, electronic versions of encyclopedias are even more expensive than their print counterparts, and typically require yearly subscription fees. Second, the interfaces for most of these electronic encyclopedias are often horrible and difficult to get through, requiring the users pass through multiple layers of access and authentication.

Finally, I am not convinced that these expensive specialized encyclopedias are really better than Wikipedia and general web searching at providing general topic overviews. Almost 10 years ago, a study by the scientific publisher Nature Publishing Group compared articles on scientific topics from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. They found a similar number of factual errors in both resources. I haven’t seen any comparisons of Wikipedia and specialized sources, but I would imagine that coverage and accuracy aren’t too far apart. And I rarely get requests for reference material from faculty at my institution.

There are exceptions, of course, and I rely on the faculty at my institution to point out must-have resources. And there are few general references sources that we keep around in print.  In the Collection Reflection blog, the author shared a brief twitter-sourced list of print reference works worth keeping. We still have many of the items on their list in print in my library:

  • Dictionaries and a thesaurus
  • An atlas
  • Your state constitution and town or city bylaws, rules, codes, and regulations
  • Style manuals (APA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.)
  • Robert’s Rules of Order
  • A Bible, a Koran, etc.
  • The DSM-V and the Merck Manual
  • Statistical Abstract of the United States
  • Consumer Reports
  • The Value Line investment research guide, if your library is already subscribed
  • The latest Guinness Book of World Records

For my library, expensive, seldom-used specialized reference works are not the best use of our limited budget. Most reference works get very little use compared with their high costs. And part of my responsibility as a librarian is to help build a collection that will be useful to the students and faculty at my institution. After all, the first law of libraries is that books are for use.

The first page of Ranganathan's 1931 book outlining the Five Laws of Library Science. Page image from the Hathi Trust CC version of the book.

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. saveenergy 2:57 pm 04/8/2014

    There is a major problem with electronic media….what do you do when the electric fails long term ???

    Link to this
  2. 2. hkraznodar 5:03 pm 04/8/2014

    There have been a number of studies comparing Wikipedia to print references and each one shows Wikipedia as reliable or slightly more reliable. Wikipedia has the advantage of also being updated more frequently than any print media is capable of. The down side of Wikipedia is when there are disputes between subject matter experts and the content changes rapidly over a short period of time. There are also many subjects that have no experts supporting the Wikipedia entry and thus get only a tiny stub entry.

    Link to this
  3. 3. MichelleDubajPrice 7:14 pm 04/8/2014

    I would add Statesman’s Yearbook to that list. It is my personal favorite and one I go to over and over again each semester.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 9:31 am 04/9/2014

    @saveenergy You are right that electronic stuff is more likely to fail in the long term – publishers close, budgets won’t allow for continuing access fees, etc.

    But if I were to buy print reference books that were never used, this doesn’t really solve the problem of access to that information.

    Although as I said above, the difficulty of accessing digital reference works normally means that I won’t buy those either.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 9:32 am 04/9/2014

    @hkraznodar Do you have some references to share? I’m familiar with the studies comparing Wikipedia to general reference works (like Britannica) but I haven’t seen studies that compare Wikipedia with specialized encyclopedias.

    Link to this

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