The (Hopefully Not) Lost Art of the Reference Book

Books Education Technology
Image: Public Domain
Image: Public Domain

For those of us of a certain age and/or demographic, our elementary school, junior high, and even high school years contained research papers where the research was in the form of physical books (or maybe microfiche, but that is a different story). We would go to our school or local library–research topic in hand–and dive into the encyclopedias first, and then into primary and secondary sources next. We used dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs, desk references, the Guinness Book of World Records, thesauruses, manuals, travel guides, and informative books that covered just one topic. Some of these resources became quickly outdated, necessitating costly periodic replacement, but most of them were and still are valuable sources of information. Even some of the ones that become outdated (almanacs, atlases, and even encyclopedia sets) still represent what we knew at a moment in time, of how things were, or how we thought things were.

These days we have the internet. It’s the easiest and fastest place to find information. But it’s not always the best or most interesting place to find it. I posit an argument saying that every home should also have a good selection of physical reference books.

Image: Public Domain
Perhaps homes don’t need this many references books, but it would certainly be nice. Image: Public Domain

Why? Many reasons.

  • The internet gives you plenty of information. But it offers it in the form of information overload. Once you get your search results, you then have to sort through them and determine what’s reliable, which can be very time consuming. Also, the internet doesn’t organize the information for you. It doesn’t present it in a systematic way, but rather as a list, which may or may not be organized in the manner you require.
  • The internet is distracting. You search for the answer to your one question, and happen to notice something that you need for work later, so you go send some emails, and then an alert sends you over to your Facebook notifications, where you catch up on the news, zoom over to your webcomic feeds, and forget what it was you were doing in the first place. Reference books are specialized and are better at keeping you on task.
  • Reference books give you the joy of perusal, discovery, and immersion. Published books, at least the ones that go through a thorough editing process, generally have high quality content that looks neat and tidy. Well-researched reference books, while not completely infallible, can generally be trusted. The internet, not so much. You have to determine the quality of the source yourself.
  • Reference books allow for more focused rabbit holes. Rabbit holes are a common phenomenon on the internet as well, but reference books keep you more focused on the subject you looked up in the first place, with more specialized content and a limited amount of information (when compared with the internet).
  • Sometimes you’re interested in a specific topic and just want to learn more about it, taking in everything you can. You can pick up your favorite reference book, and just immerse yourself, distraction free. No notifications. No ads. No superfluous information. Just directed, concentrated study. I recommend this activity to children, especially, since it helps them learn more about the world, themselves, and their passions.
  • Books work without electricity, wi-fi, batteries, or an access fee. Libraries are filled with them, if you don’t have enough of your own. Technology has opened doors for us, but it will never close the door on books.

Here are some of my favorite reference books that we turn to, time and again, and that have a prominent place on our regular and homeschool bookshelves.

Webster’s Dictionary
At some point when I was in high school, my mom gave me a hefty version of Webster’s Dictionary. It was an encyclopedic version, containing all the normal dictionary parts, plus a mixture of references in the back covering the presidents, world flags, synonyms and antonyms, an English handbook, a spelling dictionary, mathematics charts and references, space exploration, a science encyclopedia, a medical dictionary and adviser, a dictionary of quotations, and more. It is the kind of book that you could hurt someone with, if you could even wield it. But I have spent hours perusing the pages of all the parts of this book. Encyclopedia varieties of dictionary seem to have gone out of style, what with the internet and all. But the base dictionaries are still vital to our knowledge base. They are especially useful for children, who look up more words than adults, and often end up down linguistic rabbit holes. There are many great dictionaries around, and I encourage you to have at least one (or several, of different sizes).

Dictionary of Word Origins
Long before the internet, we turned to this book, time and again. I wonder where that word comes from, we’d say. Let’s look it up! This dictionary has thousands of words. Each entry includes a description of where it came from, in great detail, along with other words that have the same or similar origins. It shows the age of the word, and is very readable. This kind of dictionary gives much more detail on word origins than a standard dictionary.

A World Atlas
We have several atlases in our house, because, well, maps. Maps are one of the things that bring me joy. Atlases give you a view into other parts of the world, and your own, through geography, topography, industry, meteorology, history, and more. They are useful to have around for homework assignments, or just having out on the table for perusal while you brush your teeth.

The Timetables of History
It’s a fascinating thing to see what happened at the same time in history, throughout the world. Not just focusing on one part of the world or one timeline, this book shows what happened all around the world, organized by topic (such as the arts, science, politics, and daily life), all at the same time. For instance, did you know that in 1855, Charlotte Brontë died, Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, the Taiping Rebellion ended, Franz Köller developed tungsten steel, Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls, and there was a World Fair in Paris?

Foreign Language Dictionaries
Whether you’re studying other languages formally or not, it’s fun to have around foreign language dictionaries. While not the best resource for learning the grammar of a language, they can’t be beat for vocabulary. Grab one and figure out how to say “beer” in German, “bread” in French, and “mountain” in Italian. Or learn some American Sign Language to help you communicate with your spouse or children across a crowded room.

Desk References
These books come in many varieties, including medical, science, history, and more. We have the Science and American History Desk References from the New York Public Library, and they are perfect for answering straightforward questions such as “How does antifreeze work?” or “What is manifest destiny?” or even finding out how long animals live. These reference books include answers to your FAQs, without needing to click on anything. They are becoming more rare, but are still useful for specialized study.

National Audubon Society Field Guides
Field guides will get you out of your house and off searching for birds, wild mushrooms, or star clusters. These specialized reference books are directed at a narrow topic, and include photos, data, and many facts. Perfect for your next hike or other adventure, this analog reference book type is hard to duplicate in digital form, out in the middle of nowhere.

The internet is definitely the best place to find certain things, including anything timely, or when you need to use the Internet Movie Database. But I encourage everyone to supplement their Internet Service Provider with a healthy dose of an extensive Reference Library.

What are your favorite reference books?

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3 thoughts on “The (Hopefully Not) Lost Art of the Reference Book

  1. I’m glad my friends & I aren’t the only ones out there who feel this way. I don’t know what I would’ve done if not only I had an undergraduate professor who gave me a suggested bibliography for a research paper I had to write for one of my classes but, without the ability to browse the shelves for information for my papers, I feel none of my research papers would’ve ever been written (a friend of mine said her dissertation would’ve never have been written without the ability to browse the book shelves for information). I feel that this is connected with this topic because, at least in my writing, thorough background (or historical) research is necessary before moving on to the next step, actually writing the paper. While information literacy is important, I think that the whole idea of clearing away undergraduate libraries (in some cases) for information classrooms is really detrimental to the process of research. I also had an information literacy instructor when I was studying for my Master of Library Science who hated teaching the research paper and felt that an annotated bibliography would be more useful for students. I also feel that looking at the physical materials is necessary because an OPAC record may provide keywords that have to do with the topic but, when I would look at the materials, they wasn’t any relevant information for my topic.

    I’m also finding that those organizations to whom I presented my ideas are not the least bit interested in my ideas, especially the library organizations. If the topic isn’t about information technology, then they are not interested. I’m hoping to find funding sources from those organizations whom still value information, especially in the form of a concise, focused reference text.

    I absolutely love foreign language dictionaries and 501 Verbs (I could never get used to online reference resources), as well as an English dictionary, in print form. I also love print encyclopedias (while costly, I still love being able to go up to a print encyclopedia to look up information).

  2. When we created Hasslein Books, publisher of science fiction reference guides, we got some slack from a select few who never read our books, accusing them of being glorified printed versions of wiki pages. The amount of work and detail that goes into these encyclopedias and chronologies, however, far surpasses anything that any website has ever attempted, and have been lauded throughout fandom. We create books that we ourselves want to see on our own shelves; the feeling of just flipping through a hardcopy of a reference guide will never be outdated, no matter what technology comes up with.

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