“The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection”: The Subject Encyclopedia in the Age of Wikipedia

John W. East

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This paper reviews the development of the subject encyclopedia as an information resource and evaluates its present role, with particular focus on the academic library. The paper looks especially at online subject encyclopedias and the extent to which academic libraries are facilitating and promoting access to these resources.

A generation ago, fledgling reference librarians were reared on Bill Katz’s popular textbook on reference work. Katz devotes a chapter to encyclopedias, drawing a distinction between the general encyclopedia and the subject encyclopedia:

Many subject encyclopedias are examples of what can be done in the synthesis and the presentation of knowledge in a clear, understandable, and intelligent fashion. Admittedly stretching an analogy, the subject encyclopedia is the Rolls Royce of the library reference collection, whereas the general encyclopedia is the Ford or Chevrolet.1

With the enormous changes that have occurred in the world of information retrieval during the last thirty years, it is probably time to ask ourselves whether Katz’s dictum still applies. Are subject encyclopedias still an important resource? We know that they are still being published, and that librarians are still purchasing them for their reference collections, but are we only doing this out of habit? Do the benefits we derive from these works still justify the money that we are spending on them? Do our clients still use them?

The aim of this paper is to briefly review the subject encyclopedia’s development as an information resource and to evaluate its present role, with particular focus on the academic library. This paper will look also at the question of online access to subject encyclopedias and the extent to which academic libraries are facilitating and promoting access to these resources.

The Rise of the Encyclopedia

Ignoring some earlier precursors, we can say that the eighteenth century saw the birth of the comprehensive alphabetical encyclopedia. The century of the Enlightenment saw the publication of works such as the Encyclopédie (1751–80) of Diderot and d’Alembert and the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771).

The expansion of learning in the nineteenth century created a demand for works that were restricted to specific domains of knowledge but still modeled on the universal encyclopedias that were by then so popular. Among the titles published in the English-speaking world were William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1842), Robert Chambers’ Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844), and George Groves’ Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1879– 89), while on the Continent important works such as Pauly’s Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Alterthumswissenschaft (1842–6) appeared.

The publication of subject encyclopedias gathered pace during the twentieth century. By 1961, Ranganathan was able to write that “today we have encyclopaedias at all levels of intension. … For example we have encyclopaedias for most of the main classes. … In more recent years encyclopaedias are being produced even in subjects of still higher order of intension.”2 He goes on to cite titles such as the Handbuch der Astrophysik, Mitzakis’s Oil Encyclopaedia, and the Encyclopaedia of Islam. By the 1970s, as evinced by the quotation from Katz previously cited, the subject encyclopedia was firmly established as a central pillar of library reference work.

By 1986, when the American Reference Books Annual published the first edition of its Guide to Subject Encyclopedias and Dictionaries, we had reached the heyday of the subject encyclopedia.3 The Guide was restricted to works in English published in the previous eighteen years, but it gives a very good overview of the range of titles in use at the time. Table 1 shows the number of works listed in selected subject areas of the Guide.

This data might suggest that the subject encyclopedia was a resource that played a greater role in the humanities than in the social or natural sciences, but we should bear in mind that it tells us nothing about the level of use of individual titles.

There is often a disconnect between the information sources librarians use and recommend and the information sources researchers and students actually use. Ranganathan rightly warns that “many readers are not aware of the existence of encyclopaedias in subjects of such narrow extension. They have to be brought to their notice by the reference librarian.”4 Nonetheless, it seems clear that the major subject encyclopedias were being widely used throughout the twentieth century. For example, more than seven hundred articles in the economic journals archived in the JSTOR database cite the various editions of Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy. In the same database, more than nine hundred articles in the sociology journals cite the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, or its successor, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, and five hundred articles in the classical studies journals cite editions of the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

Going Online

In 1986, Ken Kister, an American reference librarian regarded as an authority on encyclopedias, was able to write that:

computers will not replace encyclopedias anytime soon. … At present, the electronic encyclopedia is in its infancy. Only two titles of any significance, the New Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Academic American Encyclopedia, are currently available in electronic form, and usership is quite limited. But by the end of the century, as more and more homes, libraries, schools, and offices become equipped with computer terminals, I look for automated encyclopedias to compete more or less on an equal footing with print encyclopedias.5

If the general encyclopedias to which Kister was referring were only moving slowly into electronic format, the specialist subject encyclopedias did not move much faster. Among the pioneers were the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, which was published on CD-ROM in 1987, and the International Encyclopedia of Education, which appeared on CD-ROM in 1988.

Of course neither librarians nor publishers at that time anticipated the web’s development, or the revolutionary changes in information retrieval that lay ahead. Sometime in the early 1990s, students in search of basic, introductory information on a given topic began to realize that they could often find it quickly from their desktop computers via the Internet, and this trend rapidly accelerated with the web’s mushrooming development. Educators became increasingly concerned about the dubious quality of the information that their students were using, and librarians began to see a new role for themselves in teaching the evaluation of information found on the web.6

While students were eagerly exploring the new possibilities of the web, publishers of subject encyclopedias were slow to adapt to the new medium. Gale made the Dictionary of Literary Biography available by subscription on its GaleNet site in 1997. Xrefer began to offer free online access to a range of reference works in 2000, hoping to fund this service from advertising revenue. Like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it found that this was not a sustainable business model, and the company had to reinvent itself as a subscription service now known as Credo Reference. Oxford University Press began to make a range of its subject encyclopedias available online as Oxford Reference Online in 2002. Other major publishers soon followed.

The Age of Wikipedia

Wikipedia launched in 2001 as a free, collaboratively produced online encyclopedia, and it expanded rapidly over the following years. Despite criticisms from academics and information professionals about the quality and authority of the content, its breadth of coverage and high ranking in Google search results meant that it quickly established itself as the prime information source for students at all levels.

A 2008 survey of eighty-six undergraduate students in the humanities and social sciences at seven institutions in the United States found that “Wikipedia was a unique and indispensable research source for students … there was a strong consensus among students that their research process began with Wikipedia.”7 The students surveyed used Wikipedia to obtain an up-to-date, concise overview of their research topic, to identify and clarify relevant terminology, and to access the bibliographic references to lead them to further information: in short, for all the reasons that students have traditionally used printed encyclopedias.

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