Reference books and sets you must read in print

reference books in printIn my last post, about editing, I cited my father’s entry in Contemporary Authors, a still-growing set with more than 200 printed volumes.

I couldn’t find the photocopy I made several years ago when I first stumbled across it. I found an online version in WorldCat, but it’s available only at 8 libraries, none within 500 miles of my home. I had to go to a local library to consult the print version.

How many other important reference works are available only in print?

I looked around the reference section in that library to write down several titles at random and looked them up in WorldCat. I am taking no further notice of the works available online. Here is just a small, random sample of resources that you must consult in print:

Indexes and biographical works

Printed reference books

Africa Contemporary Record

Readers Guide to the Periodical Literature began publication in 1905. It indexes the contents of magazines and some specialized journals. Similar works of older vintage index earlier magazines and journals. Under any subject you will find a periodical title; its author; the magazine title, volume, and number; and pagination.

Readers Guide and its predecessors are the only way to find anything in a library’s collection of bound volumes any earlier than the coverage of the numerous online indexes that lead you to more current articles. I had to use it most recently to find coverage of Earth Day 1970.

Probably hundreds of more specialized indexes exist. I will not attempt to generalize about their availability online. Some were born digital. Others may have retrospectively digitized their entire contents. Most indexes that started in print probably have their most recent content available online, but not necessarily the earliest issues. Music Index began publication in 1949, but coverage of Music Index Online begins only in 1970.

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography appeared from 1892 through 1984. It is one of a number of biographical works that provide information on important people not well known enough to have book-length biographies. WorldCat shows it as available in “ejournal/emagazine,” but searching specifically for that format turned up nothing.

Numerous titles begin with Who’s Who . . . or Who Was Who . . . The best known such series, Who’s Who in America, is available online as a proprietary database, but many others exist, most of them much narrower in scope. Halliwell’s Who’s Who in the Movies, to name but one example, exists only in print.

Specialized encyclopedias

As I wandered through the reference room, I did not write down the names of any of the myriad encyclopedias of very specialized subjects, but for this article I searched “encyclopedia world war” on WorldCat and found numerous titles.

Some are available also as ebooks. Libraries make their ebooks available on loan. A few of these encyclopedias are available online. For example, the Oxford Companion to World War II is part of Oxford Reference Online.

Most of these specialized encyclopedias, however, exist only as printed books (one or more volumes). The same search returned World War II: a Visual Encyclopedia (general editor John Keegan, 2000). Its various editions have not even been issued as ebooks.

Nearly every broad subject area has similarly specialized encyclopedias that exist only in print. If you want to use any of them, you have a choice: read the library’s printed version or buy your own. And if the library keeps its copy in the reference collection, it does not circulate.

Foreign-language dictionaries

Printed reference worksWith Google translate, it’s easy enough to look up any word in almost any language to find the equivalent word in almost any other language.

If you need more guidance than that, you can consult Cassels Italian-English, English-Italian Dictionary or that publisher’s dictionaries for many other languages. But not online.

More detailed multi-volume dictionaries also exist, such as Langenschedt’s New Muret-Sanders Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English and German Languages. But again, not online.

The third edition (2005) of the Oxford-Duden German Dictionary finally exists in a format besides print: you can find it as a CD-ROM. But again, not online.

I chose these kinds of resources entirely at random. Reference works of many other types exist only in print—not to mention magazines, scholarly journals, old and recent books, and so on. In very few subjects is it possible to conduct thorough research without touching print. As for fiction, Project Gutenberg has transcribed tons of public domain works, but not everything you may want to read.


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