A Future for Reference?

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The man in a tweed coat, suspenders, and owl-eyed glasses sits across from me at the conference table describing his ground-breaking reference work. He’s coming out with a new version in a different subject verticle. And he’s wondering: What do I do now in the world of Google?

Through our reliance on Google and Wikipedia, we are at risk for losing huge swaths of history and culture. I have to ask the question: With these free, high-quality research tools at my fingertips, would I ever be motivated to seek out a reference work like the one written by my professorial interlocutor? Maybe not. Like most people, I’m pretty lazy. Also like most people, unless I start my research in a libary, I won’t even know such a thing exists.

A recent NYT article described the same phenomenon. People are doing lots of research digitally– the article said. Which means that scanned document, such as Mark Twains notes, have more exposure than ever before. But, those things that are not scanned, are lapsing into obscurity, as people forgo libraries in favor of the convenience of their home computers.

In our opinion, subscription content producers need to form a league with each other. There are the successful ones– like the Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports– who can lead the way. I and many others who value works of reference and culture soon to be displaced by online, would be willing to pay a package price– say $250/year– for access to subscription content and reference work. It’s like the HBO/Cinemax/MTV cable subscription. Only for the tweed set.