The sad demise of reference books

Once upon a time, when I was still living with my parents, a frequent Saturday morning activity was the completion of the weekend general knowledge crossword. Me and my dad would scrabble through an entire bookshelf full of reference books to figure out the answers and gleefully write them in.

Reference Books

We would consult encyclopedic dictionaries, books of quotations, Enquire Within, the Pears Encyclopedia, the Guinness Book of Records, the Times atlas, and all manner of random books containing miscellaneous information. There was something thrilling about mining the information from the tomes lined up on the wall.

These days, however, all you need is Google and a smart phone.

These days, the moment you want to know anything, you can find out in less than 30 seconds.

When it comes to completing crosswords, though, it totally feels like cheating to use Google — whereas taking the time and effort to look up the answers in books did not. Maybe it was due to the process of choosing which book, or the pleasure of allowing ourselves to be sidetracked by all the other little gems of information found along the way as we flicked through the pages.

On the discard pile

I had occasion to think on all this recently when I was de-cluttering and, ahem, cleaning my study. At the end of this process I had accumulated a few boxes full of items to be discarded. At least one of those boxes is still lurking in a corner, filled with several reference books.

I have hoarded these reference books for years. The stash includes two nice boxed sets of literary references:

  • The Oxford Library of Words and Phrases (Quotations, Proverbs, Word Origins)
  • The Oxford Library of English Usage (Grammar, Spelling, Usage)

It broke my heart to relegate them to the discard pile, but the fact remains I really don’t need them.

Know a fragment of a quotation? Google will tell you who said it, or where it’s from, much quicker than the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations can . . . Need some advice on some controversial grammar point? Yep, you got it: Just ask Google.

That’s not to say I’m getting rid of all my literary reference books — the photo shows which ones I’m keeping (including a slim volume of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style — mainly for posterity). But although I will occasionally dig out the thesaurus, in truth I am far more likely to go to and its affiliates.

Still, I can’t help but think it’s sad the way reference books have been superseded by the Interwebs.

What about Encyclopedia Britannica?

Back when I was at school, owning the multi-volume Encyclopedia Britannica was something to aspire to for many families. It looked majestic on the bookshelf and cost thousands of dollars for a full set. Most of us had to be content with browsing through it in the library.

Now it looks like they don’t even make it in book form anymore — you can get it all on DVD-ROM for about $40. Or subscribe to the web site for $70 a year. Or get the smart phone/tablet app.

But back then there was something amazing about turning the pages and browsing through all that wonderful information.

What’s more it was reliable information — although with a (these days untenable) tendency to go out of date…

Fast, diverse, current

I suppose for the purpose of speed, currency and diversity of sources, the Web is a superior information gathering resource — so long as we are discerning and analytical.

Yet the Web certainly does not teach us patience.

Today I look at my reference books on the shelf, smile affectionately, and resolve to consult them more often — especially the classics like Strunk & White. But then the very next chance I get I’m Googling again.

Nonetheless, I’m half inclined to return my Oxford Library box sets to the shelf, after all. They haven’t actually made it out the door yet. What harm could there be to keep them?

What’s your reference book collection like? Do you find yourself Googling more than consulting a book for information? Do you think this is a good thing?


11 thoughts on “The sad demise of reference books

  1. Just this morning I was looking for the correct spelling of a word which I couldn’t get with my Word spell checker (my spelling was that far off!) so I had to pull out the dictionary to find the word. I was glad I still had it on my shelf.


    1. Heh ~ it’s always struck me as funny that we use dictionaries to look up how to spell words (because you sort of need to know in order to look them up), but I know exactly what you mean! That would have been much harder with google.


  2. Ooh. Ouch. My reference books are like my children. I can’t part with them. Maybe I am not enough of a techie yet (though I got my first computer in 1985), but I still love to look things up in hard copy. Sometimes you find the most interesting stuff next to the stuff you are looking for in hard copy. Even my Kindle is sitting dark and quiet because I still love to go to the library or to a bookstore to get books, Ooooohhh, and a Oxford Library of English Usage….never would I part with that. I have to tear myself away from grammar books to read FANTASY books!


    1. I daresay you’re right and I ought to have my wrists slapped for even contemplating their eviction!

      I do love reference books though. I kept a whole series of encyclopedias on animals for years, but must have discarded them a while back, because they’re gone. My parents have a wonderful collection of books and if they were threatening to get rid of them I’d probably go around there with a wheelbarrow!


  3. I’m an editor, so at work I have a hard copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and several dictionaries. But I’m just as likely to look up a word online, unless I need to check the Canadian (usually = British) spelling. At home, I bought a thesaurus, never once opened it, and eventually gave it away. I did hang onto my Norwegian-English and English-Norwegian dictionaries from university, just in case.

    I’ve even mostly stopped reading and buying non-fiction books because I read so much non-fiction in the form of articles and blog posts online…but that might be another subject altogether.

    What really drove home to me the demise of reference books was rereading L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet. While one of the characters (that would be Charles Wallace) is off travelling through time, the others are scrambling to look up relevant information — obscure dates and places — in various old books. Their search made perfect sense the first time I read it, but now it keeps throwing me out of the story. Sigh.


    1. Times have definitely shifted, haven’t they. Sometimes I think it’s laziness that makes me google something rather than get out of the chair and walk the two paces needed to retrieve the dictionary or thesaurus…

      Your comment about the L’Engle book holds for a lot of things. But then again, I know I always find it weird when I see characters on supernatural TV shows (like Buffy for example) using the internet to research demons and the like! For some things there should only be books!


  4. You should keep those books on your shelf. Sometimes it’s cool to keep things just because you like them, not because you need them. It’s when we apply this philosophy on a massive scale that we start to run into trouble 😉


  5. You have to keep them because they’re just classic and cool. Just looking at the pic of them makes me happy and they’re not even mine!

    They may be relics and google may be faster, but google DOES feel like cheating because it’s so fast and effortless ~ where’s the challenge?

    I have reference books in a bin somewhere and I think I will have to go dig them out now 🙂


    1. Yeah, I’m keeping the ones in the photo. I guess I didn’t make that clear enough ~ heh. After much haranguing, I’ve also decided to keep the Oxford box sets I was going to discard, which are not pictured…

      I’m glad I’ve inspired you to go rescue your reference books from storage!


I'd love to hear from you...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s