To get back to a theme of a previous post, why should any of us bother with “hard copy” reference materials when it’s so easy to look stuff up on the internet?

Yes, I know. Most of us dropped the whole idea of “looking things up” as soon as we got out of school, and most of us said “Good riddance!” as well. Unfortunately, our teachers taught us all kinds of things they never intended to, and the notion that looking things up is sheer drudgery and totally without relevance to the real world is a sad legacy of our years of education.

The main problems with internet reference resources have to do with content and space. Wikipedia, for example, is an extremely popular site for “looking up,” but the content of a Wikipedia article can be altered by anyone with time and an axe to grind. So is what you’re reading a fact or just someone’s opinion? Who knows?

Likewise, web page content tends to be digested down to fit on one or two screens. It’s tough to get all the relevant information cut down to that size (I’m reminded of Billy Joel’s line “It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long–if you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05″). I’m amused by the fact that I edited this post down quite a bit to make it shorter and easier to read. We internet writers know the consequences of blithering on too long. :)

And yet–people who won’t look things up are far more likely to be snookered by some “entertainer’s” fast talk and plausible sounding hooey. To take a stand against ignorance, we need to be willing to start looking things up again.

It’s easy to buy a package like Encarta, or the electronic version of the Britannica, which have both expanded over the years to become multifaceted reference works. And that’s a good place to start building your own reference library. Software takes up a lot less space than books, and many people just don’t have shelf space to spare. But that’s not the universal answer. Software enyclopedias suffer from the same shortcomings as web pages and help files–the articles are short and don’t go into a lot of detail.

To get more out of the material, one should add a few “hard copy” books as well.

One of the best all-in-one reference books I’ve seen is the New York Public Library Desk Reference. It even costs less than a copy of Encarta. And it’s a fascinating book in its own right. Once you get started looking stuff up in there, you’ll likely find yourself reading it easily just to learn more about stuff you might never have heard of otherwise. What better way to learn something new and take a stand against ignorance?

Take pride in having your own reference library at hand. It may be the smartest purchase you ever made.

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