Information Culture

Information Culture

Thoughts and analysis related to science information, data, publication and culture.

Why I don’t buy print reference books


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.

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

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