Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Whither the reference books

A conversation about reference books overheard in Dave's mindscape.

Devon: Hey Dave, there are some new editions of science dictionaries available, namely Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry, and Biology. Are you going to get them?

Dave: With only 200-300 new entries in each one, I don't think that provides enough value to purchase a newer edition. I bought the current ones in 2006, and they're the 2003/2004 editions, so the contents are reasonably recent. This brings to mind the whole issue of printed reference works in the digital age -- are they still relevant?

Devon: I think that's the Achilles heel with any printed reference works -- not being up to date. You mentioned this issue in talking about buying printed science dictionaries before, that books still have the advantage of being portable, editor reviewed, and at times convenient.

Dave: Those advantages still hold true, although the quality of web information has improved too, and the updated aspects is a strong plus for internet information. This issue is exemplified by another recent quandary. I saw a used and good condition set of Encyclopedia Britannica in a thrift store. It was the 15th edition from 1976. $60 for the 20 volumes of Macropedia plus Propedia, and $40 for the set of 10 volumes of Micropedia.

Devon: At less than $5 per volume, that seems like a great buy, considering a new set costs $1300. That's about 1/13 the price!

Dave: That's right, yet the key drawback that stopped me from buying that impressive shelf anchor piece is that it is more than thirty years old. Furthermore, I could get the Britannica 2008 software for less than half that price. While the historic, biographical and fundamental information is still accurate, science and recent world developments in the last quarter century will be missing.

Devon: I can see why the printed encyclopedia market is in decline. If there was no digital alternative, the thrift store buy would be excellent. But the low-cost software and free internet sources available, spending $1000 or even $100 for a outdated dead-tree version doesn't seem to make sense anymore.

Dave: There were other encyclopedias at the thrift store too, such as World Book, Colliers, and New Book of Knowledge. And also CD encyclopedias such as Grolier's, Compton's, and Encarta from the before 1999. So in a sense all non-internet encyclopedias also face the same problem.