A Love-Letter to Reference Books: Review of You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

Ralph Adam


Our heads buzz with questions. But where to go to find those elusive answers? Jack Lynch, a man who is fascinated by reference books, thinks he knows and shares his experience in his new book You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia. Lynch is in his element seeking answers to those buzzing questions. For him, the number of reference books is infinite: he imagines calculating the worldwide total to be rather like counting the stars in the sky! He’s a reference anorak!

For Lynch the meaning of ‘reference book’ is broad, encompassing virtually all types of publication from ancient pillars and scrolls via TV programme guides, multi-volume encyclopaedias and statistical databases to Google and Wikipedia. He even refers to the Human Genome Project as a book! Lynch gives 1771 for the first use of the term (etymology: OED), pointing out that, while most books have ‘readers’, reference works have ‘users’.

This book is intended as a history of reference books, a love-letter to them, and, perhaps, (considering the way things are going) a eulogy to printed ones. It is a reminder of the sheer variety (and formats) of information sources, as well as the need for a healthy scepticism about their reliability. Lynch considers logarithm tables to be as near as you can get to ‘real’ reference books.

The author, an English specialist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, has written widely on British literature and on fakery. He sees Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary as the key to the English language (he has published a compendium of Johnson’s insults and sneers); we are given examples of the Dictionary’s appearances in US courts of law from 1785 to the present. The blurb quotes Johnson’s over-used dictum: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it”, though, surprisingly, it gives neither the next sentence (on the importance of catalogues and books), nor Johnson’s reasons for making the statement: he was asked why he had lingered in a library!

I was intrigued by this volume: a weighty tome aimed, not just at infojunkies, but at anyone who is fascinated by the stories behind great reference works and how they have influenced one another. It is dedicated to a rare books librarian, Dan Traister (”Prince of Librarians”).

Each of the twenty-five chapters is devoted to a specific subject area, with two reference works that have made important contributions to knowledge management pitted against one another. Their approaches may or may not be similar and they may have been compiled millennia apart. Each work has its own detailed ‘catalogue card’. Examples of Lynch’s pairings include: Harris’s List of Covent Garden ladies coupled with Aristotle’s Master-piece, Bald’s Leechbook and Avicenna’s Kitab al-Qanun fi al-tibb, Merck’s Index and the CRC handbook of chemistry and physics, Bartlett’s A collection of familiar quotations and Brewer’s Dictionary of phrase & fable, the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche taal with the Oxford English dictionary. Chapter 21 (a history of library catalogues) compares Panizzi’s General catalogue of printed books with the National union catalog, pre-1956 imprints. Also included are brief excursions to related resources, while chapters are followed by ½-chapter interludes exploring fascinating stories and issues (examples: alphabetisation, indexing, plagiarism, ceased and abandoned publications, professional societies, editions, errors and blunders and missed deadlines).

Lynch looks at each title, asking why it was created, by whom, for which purpose and how the compiler(s) worked, as well as considering how their successors coped. The middle pages contain a beautiful section with photos of ancient books, manuscripts and authors.

The final chapter explores the never-ending, impossible, ‘encyclopaedic dream”: it attempts to encompass all the world’s knowledge in one resource from Descartes’ work to search engines and Wikipedia: (surprisingly, H.G. Wells’s World brain is not mentioned, although Vannevar Bush’s Memex is).

The book concludes with a brief etymological glossary of terms such as ‘abecedarium’ ‘union catalog’ (sic) and ‘folio’ as well as a substantial index which, nevertheless, failed me on proper-name searches. There is also an extensive bibliography.

Lynch looks through old reference books at their creators and the worlds they inhabited: “When we turn an ancient dictionary’s pages”, he says, “we read something never meant for our eyes, and we hear the dead talking amongst themselves”. He illustrates this with such enticing reference books as The dictionary of dainty breakfasts and the Dutch/Chinese encyclopaedia of stupidity. Reference books shape our environments: while an old encyclopaedia tells us nothing about neuroscience, it is culture’s way of describing its era’s physical, intellectual and spiritual worlds.

Past trivia provides interesting insights. For example, the well-known definition of ‘horse’ from the first edition of the Polish encyclopaedia Nowe Ateny: “Everyone can see what a horse is” or its definition of ‘goat’: “an animal that stinks”; the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica divided ’homo sapiens’ into five types: American, European, Asiatic, African and Monstrous, and described California as ‘a large country of the West Indies. Unknown whether it is an island or a peninsula’. We are introduced to dictionary definitions for the likes of ‘ghost words’, ‘mountweazel’ and ‘unperson’ with snippets telling us, for instance, that many reference books, such as Brockhaus, follow the ‘tradition’ of including a fake entry in every edition. We learn of other reference enthusiasts: Walt Whitman was an avid dictionary reader (he considered them “the compost heap of all English literature”), while Tolstoy avidly consumed encyclopaedias, and Malcolm X acquired a dictionary in prison, copying the book out, word for word.

Lynch emphasises how innovations have ‘shaken up’ information management: he claims classification schemes, cataloguing standards, alphabetical order, page numbers, contents tables and indexes have all allowed old information to be organised in new ways, creating new forms of cultural history.

Despite his enthusiasm for printed reference books, Lynch fails to provide a sustained defence of them, assuming that the end of their world is nigh. Digital resources are discussed at length: the book begat the web which, in turn, threatens the reference book’s obsolescence. But not quite yet. Each format has its own functions. Books have literary value, are concise and reliable and make both browsing and serendipitous discovery easy. An online encyclopaedia can show links to related articles, but what about all the unrelated ones? The printed codex, Lynch suggests, allows its user to gain an impressionistic overview of the whole, and to skim through at high speed until something intriguing catches the eye: no online resource can replicate that. Our continuing hunger to be fed what we weren’t asking for lies behind the success of books such as Schott’s original miscellany: in a world where we can search for anything, it is getting harder to happen across what we never knew we wanted to know.

Unfortunately, the illusion of cutting costs encourages publishers to believe that anything printed will be improved by digitisation; they are increasingly sending key titles to that great reference library in the sky often before carrying out effective research. Examples are not hard to find.

One excellent information source was the Quid, France’s best-selling reference book (but costing rather more than its title suggests!). The Quid contained a vast amount of condensed information: a combination of the Statesman’s yearbook, Whitaker’s almanack and Pears cyclopaedia. The first edition, in 1963, sold 20,000 copies. In 2000 sales exceeded 450,000. Yet, in 2007, the publisher decided that the market for printed reference books was finished; the future lay with the web, where he imagined his publication would be even more profitable on a subscription basis. The final printed edition sold over 100,000 copies (not bad, at any time, for a reference book). By 2010 the online version had disappeared.

Some whole areas of knowledge have lost major resources. For example, information on Britain’s rail industry has become poor. The main ‘who’s who’ and guide to franchises, the ATOC directory, went digital in March 2016 and has already disappeared, while the National fares manual also became an online-only service before fading away. Other resources, such as the LENNON fares data base, are on restricted access. In some countries, timetables (printed and digital) have disappeared completely.

We appear to have access to almost unlimited information, yet our horizons have narrowed. Lynch says “Google has become the first and, for many, only stop for seeking information on everything ….. We are increasingly dependent on a single source, not a library, not a set of books, but a computer connected to other computers around the world.” We know, too, that reliance on these sources blinds scientists to relevant work that is more than a couple of years old. Nevertheless, Lynch says he wrote “hardly a page” without turning to Google, Wikipedia, or both, warning that “we run the risk of living in an information monoculture.”

He claims Wikipedia, by its nature, “favours the fashionable”: the notorious and infamous. Others, who may be more important, get less space (O. J. Simpson occupies 21,000 words, more than Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa combined). It is a paradox that “everybody distrusts Wikipedia, yet everyone uses it.” Some online resources are as thoroughly vetted as print versions, but many aren’t.

I found this book intriguing and much fun. A minor irritation is the format, taken directly from the US edition, with a very American fount and paper cut: it is printed on 50lb Bulky News Cream, using a (for me) annoying deckle-edge trim. Nevertheless, it’s a great Christmas read for any reference librarian. Enjoy it (and learn a bit, too!).

Jack Lynch. You could look it up: the reference shelf from ancient Babylon to Wikipedia.

Bloomsbury, 2016. 414pp. £25 (£22.50 online orders).

ISBN:   978-0-8027-7752-2;   E-pub:   978-0-8027-7794-2

Sample content is available at: http://tinyurl.com/j2ula7z

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016


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