Saturday, January 14, 2017

For reference

In college I thought I had a lot of books, and it's true that I had more books in my dorm room than most people: I'd brought most of my personal library with me when I moved across the country. But what was really remarkable about my library was how many reference books I owned, a collection that continued to grow for years until suddenly it didn't.

I started college with The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia, at least two dictionaries of quotations and three dictionaries of etymology. I had atlases and almanacs and style manuals, not to mention the NYPL Desk Reference, which I consulted so often that my roommate would cry, "here comes the nipple!" whenever I took it from the shelf. Over the next four years I added to this collection. I discovered The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics at a used bookstore and figured I might need it. I bought Random House's Historical Dictionary of American Slang because I knew I'd need it.

At some point I became obsessed with the idea of getting the complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary--nevermind that I lived in studio apartments until I was past thirty. When I was working my law firm job I considered saving up $1,000 to buy it new. Once I started grad school I looked longingly at the used sets that would occasionally pop up in local bookstores. Eventually I compromised and bought a 20-year-old "compact" version--the kind with the magnifying glass--which I lugged home through the rain, more than a mile across town, so eager was I to have it in my possession.

And I used these books all the time. My first year of grad school one of my professors gave us a assignment that consisted of a long list of terms, titles, and names from the period, none of which we'd discussed, and set us loose to identify them and their relevance. This was in 1999. Google didn't exist, Wikipedia didn't exist, and I didn't have internet in my apartment anyway. I was able to sketch out at least preliminary identifications for some 70% of the entries from my reference books. (Most of the others I got from the library's Dictionary of National Biography, which I loved so much that I immediately wanted to buy my own set; alas, the cost was prohibitive.)

But at some point I stopped using many of these books. I had online access to the OED, which was faster and more current. I had Google and Wikipedia for when I wanted to know the population of St. Louis, or what year Charlemagne died, or why a quotation sounded so familiar. And I had real books--my growing scholarly library--for the more precise and detailed things I needed to know about the authors and texts in which I was slowly becoming an expert. During my past two moves I donated or discarded many of the reference books I once had, and the ones I've kept I don't use very often.

The exceptions are those books on subjects that my work touches on but that lie outside my field of immediate expertise. I no longer need The Oxford Companion to English Literature, but I sure do need their companions to the Bible and Classical literature. I need my encyclopedias of music and church history. Those are subjects in which I'm still a beginner (and often don't have better ideas about where to start when I need to brush up quick), but about which I need more than just fun factoids or whatever crap the internet might turn up.

But I guess it's not true that I have fewer reference books within my field than I used to; they're just different. Where once I prized encyclopedias and dictionaries and manuals, I now own concordances and variora, biographies and Complete Works. All the books in my campus office, all the books in my home office, indeed any book I wouldn't read at the beach or on the elliptical is, in some sense, a reference book.

But I still kinda want that 20-volume OED.


JaneB said...

_I_ still want that 20 vol Oxford Dictionary and I'm in STEM. There's just something about a huge dictionary... even my Concise Oxford is a beloved thing.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I bought the 2-volume, magnifying glass concise OED too while in graduate school. I've only used it a handful of times, though, since I've had online OED access for at least ten years. Since my hubby is a computer guy, he keeps encouraging me to get e-versions of books so we can reduce "clutter." I keep telling him that knew what he was getting into when he married me (and my books). ;)

Bardiac said...

I got the compact OED in grad school, a deal from the book of the month club; pretty much all the grad students who could afford it did it, and then as soon as we were allowed, we left the book of the month club.

For years, I used it regularly, all the time. And then, on-line just became so very much easier.

Like you, I used to use print resources for some basic stuff all the time, but now, I can check Joe Schmoe's dates on Wikipedia so much more easily.

There are some I still check and use, but usually for stuff that's more tangential for my work.

Flavia said...

I used to use my compact OED all the time, and I imagine I might make good use of the 20-vol set; but when you factor in the magnifying glass, and the outdatedness. . . there's just nothing that compares to the online version.

And yes, Bardiac: I think print reference books (of the sort that I'm describing in most of this post) fill a real need for what I'd call the wannabe expert. They're more reliable than Wikipedia, but Wikipedia is fine if a) you're a total non-expert and just want the basics or some fun facts, or b) you are an expert and know what to take with a grain of salt. I have no problem using Wikipedia to check a publication date or biographical detail before class or to look up something I already know (but need confirmed), but if I'm writing two sentences in an article that involve some author I never work on, I wouldn't trust it because I don't know enough to know whether that was his most popular work, or went through six editions in his lifetime, or if his affair with his patron's wife is the actual reason for his exile, or whatever.

And encyclopedia-style reference books are also good when you don't know (or don't have access to) the best databases in the field.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this resonates with me. My grandparents had the compact 2-volume OED (and accompanying magnifying glass) on a stand in their dining room until my grandfather died at the age of 94 in 2012. I claimed it, and while I haven't moved it and the hundreds of pounds of other books I inherited from them from SoCal to Bloomington yet, it *will* make the move. I think it's embedded in my idea of "this is what a professor looks like."


Anonymous said...

I still use my Webster's Thesaurus, I like it better than the one on WORD. I remember having to scrape money together to buy the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, which was about $50 ... a lot of money in grad school! I still have it, haven't used it in 20 years. But I'll keep it forever.

Undine Spragg said...

I have the 2-volume OED with magnifying glass & used to use it a lot. When I started, I could even read it without the glass. Now it sits impressively beside the 4-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and I hope it doesn't mind that I don't use it.

Veralinda said...

Not only do I also own that 2-vol. OED with the magnifying glass, but when I read this post I realized: what?? I don't own a copy of the NYPL Desk Reference book?? And immediately went out and ordered a hardcover copy of the most recent edition.

Renaissance Girl said...

2-vol OED: check, and I use it every freaking day--vastly prefer it to online. Also: big fat Roget's, which destroys any online thesaurus. Also: the complete 5-(6-?)volume Dictionary of American Regional English. And the big prize: a 1934 Webster's American, which was the last handbound American dictionary--as big as they wanted it to be, so they went huge, chatty, even raconteurish. I take all these books to the first day of every semester on a big cart.

I embrace my nerditude.