The Magazine

The End of Reference

Hail Britannica.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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It’s around, say, 1979, and you’re trying to remember where you saw that article on rising radiation levels in Eastern Europe. It might have been in Foreign Affairs, but, then again, it might have been in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists or even the New Statesman, although that seems less likely. 

Photo of the Encyclopedia Britannica

Anyway, you can’t quite recall which journal published it, and, like an idiot, you didn’t clip it at the time, adding it to the folder in the towering five-drawer filing cabinet against the wall, where you could find it again. So, naturally, you do what everybody does: You walk over to the long bookshelves that every library used to have—every magazine, for that matter, and every office whose business depended on information—and start browsing through the green volumes of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature

The Readers’ Guide. A fat, flopped-open copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in its rough buckram cover (Webster’s Second, if you were one of the curmudgeons who hated the descriptive philosophy of the third edition). The latest version of the World Almanac and Book of Facts. A King James Bible, and maybe Strong’s Concordance to go along with it. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. A Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Possibly Granger’s Dictionary of Poetry Quotations, as well, but almost certainly the many volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

These were the books with which researchers surrounded themselves, the country where fact checkers lived. Where ordinary writers would come to visit, and curious editors would browse. And they’re all gone, now: killed off by the Internet. The Encyclopaedia Britannica was the last of them, but on March 13 the long-expected announcement came. After 244 years of continuous publication, the encyclopedia was abandoning its print edition.

Oh, in a certain sense, they all survive in one subscription-based online form or another, alongside databases of Early English literature and Byzantine Greek writings: specialty products for a specialty audience. But the Nexis database ate up the Readers’ Guide, and Wikipedia brushed away the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and when was the last time you bought an almanac? The grand old publishing houses that dominated the print era were so protective of their products that they generally failed to move into web editions in time—and they faded, as a result: old names on old books to stir a memory, and little more. The New York Times reported that the Encyclopaedia Britannica has sold only 8,000 sets of its 2010 edition—with 1,400 used sets offered for sale on eBay on one day last week.

Such books emerged from, and defined, what we might call the Age of Reference—a period from around 1806, when Noah Webster first published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (I had to look up that date on Wikipedia), to the mid-1980s, when searchable electronic databases for medical and legal professionals began to be common. And if there exists an overarching feature of the age, it is this: The production of information was growing ever more specialized, even while the need for the resulting information had become general.

Scientists published their work in journals that only scientists read, classicists in volumes that only classicists read, and engineers in blue books that no one read. So the reference book was born—the compendium of facts, the chrestomathy of passages, and the anthology of extracts—by which the rest of us could learn and use the information that print technology was producing, filling bookshelves that could be measured by the mile.

When computers began to dominate information technology, the initial assumption seemed to be that we would have what was, in essence, merely a new form of reference book: online databases, citation collections, and factual indices that were quicker to use and easier to update. The computerized collections, however, started to cut steps from the old process. 

Say you needed that information on radiation in Romania. You looked up the reference to the article in the Readers’ Guide, and then you walked over to the shelves of bound back-copies of the journal that had printed it, where you read the footnote that gave a citation for the U.N. study that had first claimed the fact. And then, if you were really interested, you went to the reference librarian and asked her to get you a copy of the study through an interlibrary loan.

A service like Nexis, however, combined the search for the reference with the search for the origin. You looked up not where to find the article but the article itself. In fairly short order, even the search for the reference to underlying fact became indistinguishable from the search for the fact. Everything is out there, searchable and accessible, so why should we try to organize the information at all? Just use a search engine to grab what you need, when you need it.

It’s common, these days, to praise or disparage the dominant old reference books—Britannica and all the rest—as primarily gatekeepers, deciding, in their imperious way, what knowledge the masses should be allowed to have. But I’m less convinced that the lesson to take away from their demise is the opening up of information. Oh, it certainly managed that part, which deserves some celebration. But the organizing and structuring of facts was, in many ways, the fundamental goal of the Enlightenment, and it’s this task that we seem to have given up on—and more than given up on. In many ways, we simply don’t believe in it anymore. We have left the Age of Reference for the Age of Search Engines.

Pick up, sometime, a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, that classic old book from the prior age, first published in the 1850s. This was a curiously difficult volume to use, and you can find an easier thesaurus in any of a half-dozen places online—something you can leap into anywhere, from the headwords down to the minor synonyms. And yet, Roget’s had a secondary purpose, beyond merely listing alternative words. Borrowing that old “tree of knowledge” stuff (from Aristotle via the Enlightenment clarifications of Leibniz), Roget set out to organize words according to the six natural divisions of the world, each developed from the most general down to the most particular. He set out not merely to give us information, but to force that information to make sense. To organize it.

Roget’s Thesaurus, the Readers’ Guide, the World Almanac, Bartlett’s Quotations—they seem like relics of days so lost we can barely remember them. As does the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose parent company unsurprisingly grew tired of losing money for the privilege of enlightening a dwindling number of acolytes. But we should not pretend that their disappearance marks nothing more than a change from print presentation to computerized access. We have more information today than ever before. I’m just not sure what it means. And neither is anyone else.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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