Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Reference Collection

Once upon a time, before computers, I was a reference librarian at a university library. The reference collection was a treasure trove of information for the curious. I loved that collection, and knew it intimately. Every request would send me rushing off to a dictionary, encyclopedia, directory, index, or arcane catalogue. I loved the Great Wall that was Chemical Abstracts, the massive volumes of the Library of Congress pre-1956 Imprints. I adored the Sotheby's catalogues with their beautiful glossy pictures of antique objects. The Book of Saints was well worth perusing, and there were lots of other delights.

Our home reference collection is pretty extensive, and well used - for crosswords as well as curiosity. The dictionary collection includes a 2 volume facsimile of the first great dictionary by Johnson, as well as the Shorter Oxford, the Concise Oxford (with its own magnifying glass), the Macquarie, and a US Webster's Collegiate. The teenager next door needed a definition of biomass for school one time, and we went through each one looking. He was impressed by the extent of the collection. Surprisingly, we found it in only one of the dictionaries (and their appendices) - the Webster's.

Then there are the other much loved works: Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology; the three-volume Cyclopedia of Names (very dated, but what a concept! My favourite reference work); the NY Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; two encyclopedias of music (we gave each other one accidentally for Christmas one year); Bullfinch's Mythology; The Times World Atlas; The Enclopedia of Science Fiction; two Baseball Encyclopedias (reams of statistics that The Man knows by heart); The very weighty and well illustrated History of Art and the Oxford Companion to Art; and too many more to list. I love and use them all.

Once a week or so I go to work at the Library at University of NSW. For exercise and a trip down memory lane the other day I went for a browse in their reference collection. It all looked so OLD! So much dead paper, so many directories, indexes and yearbooks with stuff that must all be available on the web. This is by no means a reflection of the age of that particular collection, but I really did wonder who uses this material these days. My own collection is getting more rarely used now that I have broadband. The web is the source of so much information that I really do wonder about the relevance of the print resource.

It feels traitorous to say so out loud, but have reference collections had their day?

I was so excited by the information revolution back then, in the 1970's, and to see the effect it has had suddenly became very real to me.


  1. Oh, this speaks to me! I rarely open a book to check anything these days, but like you I have shelves of reference books in my house. Several dictionaries, some specialist ones, etc etc. But I just google or check wikipedia to start a search for everything now. And it always seems to work. And it saves me getting up. :)

  2. Currently working partly in a reference library - let me tell you! It's not dead. I don't believe that the All England Law Reports have been digitised. All the young hot shot lawyers at my work still need to come in to try to find a case!!

    Although I do think encyclopeadias (is this the correct spelling? I can't be bothered to look it up in my trusty Macquarie dictionary) are on its last legs.