Writer's reference book shelves

Internet Changes the Nature of Reference Books

The PC and Internet has created alternatives to reference books and the changes are not slowing. Books are no longer the main source of information for most people.

People approaching thirty, or older, grew up with only traditional reference books and are aware of the pleasure of using a quality printed book. With the printed book there is much more a sense of exploration and serendipity has led many readers to new ideas or information beyond that initially sought.

Reference books were once confined to the library. Falling costs and increasing affluence made them widely available at home where children undertook their own exploration. But the printed reference book is now disappearing from many homes.

Personal Computer

The pressure on the reference book started with the personal computer but was constrained by the size of floppy disks so content had to be abridged. With hard disks and especially the compact disk it was possible to get all of a major reference work such as Encyclopaedia Britannica on one disk. Initially it had to be loaded when needed but soon became always available.


The arrival of the internet has transformed access to information and most notably to reference sources such as:

  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopaedias
  • Atlases and maps
  • Directories
  • Collections of facts

Many of the most trusted references are electronic version of established print publications available by subscription or supported by advertising. The big advantage over print is that they are constantly updated so a subscription becomes justifiable as the print version needs to be replaced frequently.

The expectation for many Internet users is that content is free. There are now equivalents of major print or subscription titles where the content is provided by users. Wikipedia is the best known and seeks to be a leading source on all topics.

Authority and Reliability of Online Information Reference Sources

The authority of the content was previously guaranteed by the long established, and valued, reputation of the authors or publishers; for example Encyclopaedia Britannica or Oxford English Dictionary.

Much of Wikipedia feels robust but some parts are clearly works in progress. Newer sources provide less certainty which creates difficulty for even experienced researchers. Beyond these large scale publications there are many other sources of unknown authority.

Yet many people now use Google to find facts across these new sources and they are often given equal weight as far as authority is concerned. What should they trust?

Colour, Stories and Themes Increase Appeal of Printed Reference Books

Paper based reference books are increasingly adding a “story” or theme and ceasing to be simple collections of facts. They are themed with a narrative or interpretation and so less of simple reference book and more akin to a general non-fiction or text book. This makes them a better “read” but less useful as a simple reference source.

With the launch of new software “How To” books are published as an extension to the (digital) manual. As these books simply explain how to perform a particular task they could be installed as part of the software’s help function. Will these and cookery books, car service manuals and other traditional guides go online where the need is to print only pages for the current task? Street maps are often printed for a journey as needed.

Technology to the Rescue or Hastening the End of Traditional Reference Books?

It is not all bad news. More titles than ever are published annually with the falling cost of small print runs – it is now viable to print single copies. The writer's The Information Edge is now only available in a print on demand edition. This does provide scope for ever more esoteric reference books

Hopefully the traditional reference book will not disappear – one can't really use a computer in the bath or standing on a commuter train. But will that be enough to protect the printed book especially with the advent of electronic readers such as from Sony, Que or Amazon's Kindle? Indeed will the advent of Apple's iPad with a colour screen be the death knell for printed reference books? Only time will tell.


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