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The End of Reference

Hail Britannica.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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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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