The End of Print Reference Books: True or False?

Peter Chapman, Former Editor Refer


 At the end of 2005, ISG stalwarts Diana Dixon and Amanda Duffy (in conjunction with Richard Fuller and Francesca McGrath) published what proved to be the final edition of the popular Group guide Basic Reference Resources for the Public Library (ISBN 0-946347-42-5).

Eleven years on from the mid-2005 cut-off date for updates to the previous 1998 edition, I came across a copy and wondered what a 2016 edition would contain. Naturally, my hypothesis was that few of the resources listed would still be in print, leaving Wikipedia to reign supreme.

To test this hypothesis, I took a 10% sample (randomly generated by of the almost 500 entries in the work and tried to trace a more recent edition. The table below shows the results.

Fate of entry % of 2005 entries
Out of Print – no direct web equivalent 14
Web site Only – print equivalent discontinued 14
Updated or existing edition in print 58
Updated web site address (2005 entry was web site only) 10
Web site died (2005 entry was web site only) 4

I was pleasantly surprised by the remaining print representation (though I’m sure that working reference librarians would not be). Hats off to publishers such as Oxford Reference, Cengage, and Dandy Booksellers who remain true to print whilst developing parallel online equivalents.

Illustrative entries from the sample:

  1. Out of Printno direct web equivalent.

Dictionaries of Abbreviations were a dying print resource even when the 2005 Guide was being prepared. A case of the Web’s currency being more effective BUT will the web ‘remember’ past uses?

The publications of CBD Research were a staple of my working life as a newspaper librarian but the company seems not to have survived the transition to the web…

Parliamentary Monitoring Services (PMS Guide to Interest Groups) has been absorbed by the Dod’s Group but the Guide seems to have disappeared behind the online subscription wall.

  1. Web site Only – print equivalent discontinued

Record Depositories in Great Britain continues to be available through the National Archives web site.

United Kingdom Economic Accounts is typical of the datasets now available freely on the web site of the Office of National Statistics and available to commercial publishers if they want to print them. Palgrave Macmillan used to do this one.

Likewise the information formerly printed in The Big Guide: the official universities and colleges entrance guide is now detailed on the UCAS web site. In this case, commercial publishers have produced similar guides for many years, many of which remain in print (for example HEAP: University Degree Course Offers).

  1. Updated or existing edition in print

To my delight, many favourite annuals continue to be updated in print: Dod’s Parliamentary Companion; Civil Service Yearbook; Charities Digest; The RHS Plant Finder to name but a few.

A surprising number of standard works remain in print, often updated post-2005 but not in the recent past. Examples are: The Libraries Directory:… (50th ed. 2009); Directory of Museums, Galleries… (5th rev ed 2013); The Encyclopedia of Religion (2nd ed 2005); The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (3rd ed 2010). Will they be ever update in print again?

  1. Updated web site address (2005 entry was web site only)

Due to changes in name of the sponsoring organisation (eg now points to Education Scotland’s site

  1. Web site died

Biggest casualty is KellySearch – marking the end of the historic series of Directories which recorded the development of commerce up and down the UK

In the introduction to the work, the authors state that it ‘is intended to recommend the minimum adult reference stock requirements for a public library serving a population in excess of 75,000’. Fortunately for my research there is a metropolitan borough library service near to where I live which boasts a separate Reference Library in its Central Library building. Would I find its shelves reflecting the continued availability of print reference books?

I’m pleased to report that it did. The Quick Reference section (pictured) and the accompanying Business & Education information sections displayed up-to-date stalwarts such as:

  • Crockford’s
  • Guinness World Records
  • Willings
  • Municipal Yearbook
  • Who’s Who
  • Magistrates’ Court Guide
  • Directory of Grant Making Trusts
  • Kompass
  • UK Primary Education Guide

and many more

Across from the Quick Reference section were up-to-date BT phone directories and Yellow Pages (pictured), whilst the extensive reference shelves had good collections of standard texts along with dictionaries, car guides, atlases, directories, and of course Wisden and the Sky Sports Football Yearbook.

So my expectation of the death of the printed reference resource has proved unfounded. Perhaps a subject to be revisited in a further five years?


Refer 32(2) Summer 2016


One thought on “The End of Print Reference Books: True or False?

  1. Robert Thompson says:

    Bravo. Now we need to retain library buildings to contain a reference library. Until recently there was a good one in LB Harrow, where is it now?

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