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The demise of physical copies of reference books

I knew this day would come and am actually surprised it didn’t arrive sooner.  On Thursday it was announced that there would be no more copies of the physical edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica.

Many years ago, before I became a literary agent, I was the publisher of The World Almanac.  During the years I was there its circulation increased from a million copies a year to two million copies a year.  Indeed, my colleagues thought the sky was the limit, but hearing the initial stirrings about this strange phenomenon “the Internet” I had a feeling things were going to change.

Change is exciting; in this case though, it is also kind of sad. As a kid, I remember always being told to refer to the encyclopedia or the dictionary or the thesaurus when I needed to know something.  Now, at least for the latter two, I always go online.  And the time has finally arrived that if I want to use an encyclopedia, I will use the Internet as well.

Soon there will cease to be printed copies of the phone book that will (or has that happened already?) and then, what’s next?

Last week over dinner with a client and old friend, she asked me if I thought there would come a time when physical copies of books wouldn’t exist.  I replied that I certainly didn’t think so; but for reference books of any kind, I do believe that end is upon us.

What do you think?

12 Responses to The demise of physical copies of reference books

  1. The last phone book we got, I promptly used it to prop up my computer monitor.

  2. M.S. Rossi says:

    What we lose with the demise of physical copies of the encyclopedia is the serendipity of finding what we were not looking for – the act of flipping through the pages in search of one fact only to stumble upon another. Where do writers find their initial ideas or the twists and turns within their stories? Some of the best ones come by accident. I am pleased to have two copies of the encyclopedia in my library – the Encyclopedia Britannica and a 60’s era World Book. They are still my touchstones for reference.

  3. Catherine Whitney says:

    Jane, funny thing–I thought of you at the World Almanac when I heard the news about EB. I remember the excitement of each year’s rollout, but even then the “annual” was becoming obsolete. Going online is the logical next step for reference books. It has been a long time since I have referred to any of my dog-eared reference books, and maybe YEARS since I have opened a phone book. I used to have shelves of computer manuals; now, it wouldn’t occur to me to read a hard copy. (For one thing, books don’t have the forums, where lots of the practical problem solving happens.) I understand M.S. Rossi’s point about the serendipity of browsing, but I’m actually too much of a browser online, so that’s the least of my problems. By the way, EB’s evolving online presence is fun to watch.

  4. emily says:

    It’s tough to see the hard copies go — but then I’m 70 years old and saw the delivery of ice in a horse drawn waggon go before first grade. My grandmother was much happier with an electric ‘ice box.’

    Will my great-grands be happier in an all e-book world?

    The harshest truth, in my opinion, is the loss of old accessible records. For example, I spent some years traveling around the country collecting seriouse history from living folks and occassionally consulting documents in courthouses. We were always amused and at a loss when we encountered those courthouses that burned in the Civil War and therefore lost birth, marriage, and land transfer documents. And, at times, I was able to trace a business through consulting old telephone books and the yellow pages.

    How will historians in the future find stuff in a universe with constantly changing technology?

  5. Teri Carter says:

    As someone who still can’t make myself read on a Kindle, I probably shouldn’t answer this. We also collect modern First Editions, so my library — the real live paper one! — just continues to grow.

    I’m fighting it.

  6. I may be one of the few people here who is not bothered by this and was quite expecting EB (and other similar resources) to cease the print in the near future, because I’ve been working in an academic library for the last 5+ years and have been privy to the push toward digital for a long time. Quite frankly, I think this is a good and exciting thing for reference materials. It has facilitated information retrieval because search systems can be built to show you many options for the keywords you search in, allowing you to find the correct term or perhaps a better one. With a print edition, it can be quite tricky to find the right information if you’re not sure which terms to use to find it. If your first guess is wrong, you’ve got to flip through multiple volumes looking for the right term. And online content can be updated more easily with new information, discoveries, and so on. There are many, many examples I can think of where the online version has been useful in ways print wasn’t.

    Of course, as people have mentioned above, moving forward with new technologies does mean we will have to reconsider preservation techniques, a topic that is already under much discussion. And there are certainly cases where libraries will have to assist those who cannot use technology, either because it is too difficult to learn or because they do not have access to it. And I certainly wouldn’t want to browse something like EB on my Kindle. But I think people shouldn’t panic about the “demise of print”. It is merely a shift to a new technology, granted one that still has kinks to iron out, but the content is still the same.

  7. Joelle says:

    On one hand, I lament the loss of the World Book Encyclopedia. Many 5th Grade State reports were lifted directly from those books! But if you’ve ever emptied out a house after someone dies and you find years and years of these books that no one wants, it seems pretty wasteful to keep printing them. There’s the trees, the manufacturing, the transportation, and eventually, the landfill because they aren’t really recyclable (as far as I know). And even if they are recyclable, then you’ve got that energy waste to transport and recycle them.

    I think our loss of a paper trail during these times – these kinds of books, letters, journals, paper records, newspapers (eventually), are going to be a serious loss to future historians. But maybe I’m wrong.

  8. Gill Avila says:

    I definitely prefer the old books, almanacs, and journals. If I’m writing something set at a particular time and place I and my characters will use the reference works available at that time period. Keeps me authentic.

  9. Brian Taylor says:

    The only way people notice that they need something is when they can’t find it. It’s human nature. You haven’t worn your running shoes in three months and now the weather is nice, and where is that damn shoe?

    Electricity can’t run forever. All of our computers and smart phones will stop working someday, and then we’ll want those encyclopedias and dictionaries. But by then it’ll be too late.

    What’s next, the Bible? Are we going to stop printing Bibles because there isn’t enough profit in it? I’m not the most religious guy, but think about that one. Can you imagine going to church and the priest asks everyone to open their bibles and everyone gets their e-readers or phones out. Then one guy stands up and says, “Sorry Father, but my I-Pad just died. Anybody got a spare?”

  10. ryan field says:

    We will continue to see print books in our lifetime, but they will disappear eventually.

  11. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 03-22-2012 « The Author Chronicles

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