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

By East, John W. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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"The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection": The Subject Encyclopedia in the Age of Wikipedia


East, John W., Reference & User Services Quarterly


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.

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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 SUBJECT 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 Encyclopedie (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-Encyclopadie 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.

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