‘Oh no, not again.’ – A blog post about session 8 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

Our last session before Easter (yes, I know I’m a bit late writing it up but my excuse is that I wrote the assignment essay for this module instead, hah) was on the subject of Reference works; past, present and future. We heard from Diane Louise Bell and Katharine Schopflin, both of whom know a thing or three about the subject as it relates to libraries.

With academic libraries in particular, the conventional distinction between reference works and others is being blurred by changes in the way that readers now access information, thanks to technology. Reference works were the ones in multiple volumes, with expensive bindings designed to last longer than you, that you were permitted to consult but never to borrow. They were too frequently referred to – and expensive – for that.

But today we get a lot of reference information online, either from Wikipedia, or from online versions of established reference works that our library subscribes to. We don’t need to borrow something that we (and any number of others) can (simultaneously) read remotely. Digital publication also has the advantage that updates are much faster and less expensive than with printed volumes.

Douglas Adams famously predicted the handheld interactive information resource (think Wikipedia on a tablet) with his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978). This was positioned as a refreshing antidote to the stuffy Encyclopædia Galactica (originally Asimov’s concept) –

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopædia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words “DON’T PANIC” inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover. [© Douglas Adams]

Hearing from Katharine how the classical encyclopaedias were compiled got me thinking about alphabetisation, which is something that I’m hoping to research as part of my dissertation. It might sound a bit basic but it is interesting to me that entries written into a book in an arbitrary order would be later cut out and filed in a different order to aid retrieval. This is essentially the transition from book the book catalogue to the card catalogue, which we use today, albeit in digital form.

It is fascinating to think how, for a project that would take decades to complete, a scheme of entries and cross-references could be compiled in advance, before the articles themselves were written. And, of course, they didn’t need to be written (or rewritten) in alphabetical order.

Before this it would have been much more likely for reference works to be organised according to a schema derived from some perceived great order of things, with God at the top, naturally. In that sense, alphabetisation is one of the foundations of modernity. A bit like the Hitchhikers Guide.

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