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Find more Talking Shop with Dave Tyckoson
With so much information available on the Internet, the use of reference materials in most libraries has dropped considerably. This is a natural consequence of the availability of free online information. When users can get the facts they seek online, it’s inevitable that many will not bother to come to the library to use a reference book. If we add to that the economic problems of libraries during the last several years, the challenges facing reference publishing become all the more daunting.
These factors have resulted in a dramatic change in how reference work is done. For over a century, reference books have held a special place in library collections. Since at least the 1880s, when Melvil Dewey created the great reference room at Columbia, reference books have occupied pride of place in many libraries. Not only did reference sources usually have their own designated shelving in a prominent location in the building, but they were also treated with an air of respect and reverence far above most other library books. They did not usually circulate because they were in such high demand that they needed to be available in the library at all times. Those days are now part of history in most libraries. Now, the majority of reference work is done online. Reference books have gone from being the primary source for answering questions to, at best, a secondary source.
To understand this new world of reference, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at how reference sources are created. When reference publishers decide to publish a new title, they research the field to determine what already exists. They do market analysis to determine if such a title will sell sufficiently to cover production costs. They hire an editor, who is a scholar in the field, to manage the content. In the case of encyclopedias, they find dozens—sometimes hundreds—of authors to write entries. They obtain rights to illustrations. They create new tables and graphs. When the work is almost finished, they hire an indexer to enhance access to the content. A couple years or more after the idea for the book was generated, it is published. That is how reference books are born.
Note that it does not matter if the book is published in print, as an e-book, or both. The editorial process is the same. Editors need to control the flow of contributions to the book. This is also why reference books tend to be expensive. All of this work occurs on the front end of the process before a single volume is sold. In order to recoup that investment, reference publishers need to price reference works at a level that will eventually pay for the authorship and editorial work. Publishers need to find the balance between cost of production and forecasts of sales. If they guess right, they make a little money. If they guess wrong, they make a very expensive mistake. This is and always has been the nature of reference publishing.
Established reference publishers such as Oxford, Gale, Britannica, Wiley-Blackwell, and many others have served us in this manner for decades. Oxford, for example, has published hundreds of dictionaries, companions, histories, chronologies, and other such reference works. And we librarians have purchased those works for our collections. I doubt that you could find a library that does not have many of those familiar blue bindings sitting on its shelves. When we buy a work from an established reference publisher, we know that it is going to be scholarly and accurate and that it will have strong coverage of whatever the subject matter it is intended to discuss. Reference publishers establish their reputations by consistently publishing reference materials of the highest quality.
On the other hand, there is Wikipedia, which has no production costs—and hardly any other costs. Wikipedia does not pay for authors and editors. Wikipedia has no printing or page formatting costs. Wikipedia has no shipping or handling costs. And Wikipedia has no purchase price for the consumer. From purely an economic perspective, it is no wonder that Wikipedia has become the most used reference source of all time.
But, wait, there’s more! Wikipedia is not only the most used English-language encyclopedia, it is also the most used encyclopedia in every language. And Wikipedia provides not only text but also multimedia content. Wikipedia gives users images, sound, and video to a degree that few if any traditional reference publishers can match. Wikipedia also provides links to other sources. While traditional reference books always have good bibliographies, Wikipedia’s links are live connections that instantly lead the reader to additional material on their topic. Perhaps most significantly, Wikipedia is current. Entries are updated as events occur so that they always offer the latest information. Few if any traditional reference works, including the online versions of print titles, have the capability to keep up with its topic the way that Wikipedia does.
Ah, but, yes, Wikipedia has errors. Because Wikipedia does not follow the exhaustive editorial process that a publisher such as Oxford uses, it has many mistakes. And because people can edit Wikipedia at any time, more mistakes can be added every day. Many librarians do not use Wikipedia for this very reason. But traditional reference books have errors as well, usually because their content ages over time. For example, no reference work on film contains the 2015 Academy Award winners. When Barack Obama was elected president, every reference work on the presidency instantly became out of date. When Michael Jackson died, every music reference source in our collections suddenly was wrong. I still have reference books in my collection that say Michael Jackson is alive, that only include biographies of presidents into the Reagan administration, and that were published before the latest Oscar winners were even conceived. They are very good reference books, and we keep them for their scholarly and historical value, but they are still wrong.
Perhaps Wikipedia’s biggest impact is that it has changed user expectations about reference content. When any user in any location can instantly find up-to-date information on any topic, why would they come to a library or log into a library database to get that same information? Even when they know that Wikipedia is not scholarly and contains errors, the ease of use still drives them to it as a source. Maybe it’s not the best information, but it is almost always good enough. Because of Wikipedia, “good enough” has become, well, good enough, at least in the eyes of many.
I know that quality reference publishers will never let “good enough” drive publishing decisions. They will always produce top-quality scholarly reference materials. Unfortunately, in the future, those materials may only be used by top-quality scholars—and, perhaps, the students of those scholars, who will be told not to use Wikipedia. But for the majority of general readers, Wikipedia has become their first—and often last—stop for reference information.
That’s why I think it’s a challenging time for reference publishers. Currently, no reference publisher can compete with Wikipedia on quantity of material, multimedia content, language, value of the links, or the currency of entries. Every publisher can beat Wikipedia on scholarship, but the general-reading public does not seem to care. Fast and easy is beating slow and scholarly.
Yes, the times, they definitely have been a changin’ in reference publishing. But just because a rather uncouth behemoth called Wikipedia has shouldered its way into a prominent place in the reference landscape doesn’t mean that all is lost for quality reference publishing, both in print and online. On the contrary, publishers have been responding to behemoths on the horizon and in their backyards since Gutenberg, and we librarians and lovers of reference books have no reason to think they won’t respond this time. Give the behemoth his due, but find a place to prosper outside his shadow. Innovation is the answer to all challenges, and we’re betting on reference publishers to rise to this latest challenge.
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