Bookish Reference

Thinking about reference books, these days.

Are models inspired by reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, phonebooks, atlases…) still relevant in the context of almost-ubiquitous Internet access?

I don’t have an answer but questions such as these send me on streams of thought. I like thought streaming.

One stream of thought relates to a discussion I’ve had with fellow Yulblogger Martin Lessard about “trust in sources.” IIRC, Lessard was talking more specifically about individuals but I tend to react the same way about “source credibility” whether the source is a single human being, an institution, or a piece of writing. Typically, my reaction is a knee-jerk one: “No information is to be trusted, regardless of the source. Critical thinking and the scientific method both imply that we should apply the same rigorous analysis to any piece of information, regardless of the alleged source.” But this reasoned stance of mine is confronted with the reality of people (including myself and other vocal proponents of critical thinking) acting, at least occasionally, as if we did “trust” sources differentially.

I still think that this trusty attitude toward some sources needs to be challenged in contexts which give a lot of significance to information validity. Conversely, maybe there’s value in trust because information doesn’t always have to be that valid and because it’s often more expedient to trust some sources than to “apply the same rigorous analysis to information coming from any source.”

I also think that there are different forms of trust. From a strong version which relates to faith, all the way to a weak version, tantamount to suspension of disbelief. It’s not just a question of degree as there are different origins for source-trust, from positive prior experiences with a given source to the hierarchical dimensions of social status.

A basic point, here, might be that “trust in source” is contextual, nuanced, changing, constructed… relative.

Second stream of thought: popular reference books. I’m still afraid of groupthink, but there’s something deep about some well-known references.

Just learnt, through the most recent issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access newsletter, some news about French reference book editor Larousse (now part of Hachette, which is owned by Lagardère) making a move toward Open Access. Through their Larousse.fr site, Larousse is not only making some of its content available for open access but it’s adding some user-contributed content to its site. As an Open Access enthusiast, I do find the OA angle interesting. But the user-content angle leads me in another direction having to do with reference books.

What may not be well-known outside of Francophone contexts is that Larousse is pretty much a “household name” in many French-speaking homes. Larousse dictionaries have been commonly used in schools and they have been selling quite well through much of the editor’s history. Not to mention that some specialized reference books published by Larousse, are quite unique.

To make this more personal: I pretty much grew up on Larousse dictionaries. In my mind, Larousse dictionaries were typically less “stuffy” and more encyclopedic in approach than other well-known French dictionaries. Not only did Larousse’s flagship Petit Larousse illustré contain numerous images, but some aspect of its supplementary content, including Latin expressions and proverbs, were very useful and convenient. At the same time, Larousse’s fairly extensive line of reference books could retain some of the prestige afforded its stuffier and less encyclopedic counterparts in the French reference book market. Perhaps because I never enjoyed stuffiness, I pretty much associated my view of erudition with Larousse dictionaries. Through a significant portion of my childhood, I spent countless hours reading disparate pieces of Larousse dictionaries. Just for fun.

So, for me, freely accessing and potentially contributing to Larousse feels strange. Can’t help but think of our battered household copies of Petit Larousse illustré. It’s a bit as if a comics enthusiast were not only given access to a set of Marvel or DC comics but could also go on the drawing board. I’ve never been “into” comics but I could recognize my childhood self as a dictionary nerd.

There’s a clear connection in my mind between my Larousse-enhanced childhood memories and my attitude toward using Wikipedia. Sure, Petit Larousse was edited in a “closed” environment, by a committee. But there was a sense of discovery with Petit Larousse that I later found with CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. I used a few of these, over the years, and I eventually stuck with Wikipedia for much of this encyclopedic fun. Like probably many others, I’ve spent some pleasant hours browsing through Wikipedia, creating in my head a more complex picture of the world.

Which is not to say that I perceive Larousse as creating a new Wikipedia. Describing the Larousse.fr move toward open access and user-contributed content, the Independent mostly compares Larousse with Wikipedia. In fact, a Larousse representative seems to have made some specific statements about trying to compete with Wikipedia. Yet, the new Larousse.fr site is significantly different from Wikipedia.

As Suber says, Larousse’s attempt is closer to Google’s knols than to Wikipedia. In contrast with the Wikipedia model but as in Google’s knol model, content contributed by users on the Larousse site preserves an explicit sense of authorship. According to the demo video for Larousse.fr, some specific features have been implemented on the site to help users gather around specific topics. Something similar has happened informally with some Wikipedians, but the Larousse site makes these features rather obvious and, as some would say, “user-friendly.” After all, while many people do contribute to Wikipedia, some groups of editors function more like tight-knit communities or aficionados than like amorphous groups of casual users. One interesting detail about the Larousse model is that user-contributed and Larousse contents run in parallel to one another. There are bridges in terms of related articles, but the distinction seems clear. Despite my tendency to wait for prestige structures to “just collapse, already,” I happen to think this model is sensible in the context of well-known reference books. Larousse is “reliable, dependable, trusty.” Like comfort food. Or like any number of items sold in commercials with an old-time feel.

So, “Wikipedia the model” is quite different from the Larousse model but both Wikipedia and Petit Larousse can be used in similar ways.

Another stream of thought, here, revolves around the venerable institution known as Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica recently made it possible for bloggers (and other people publishing textual content online) to apply for an account giving them access to the complete online content of the encyclopedia. With this access comes the possibility to make specific articles available to our readers via simple linking, in a move reminiscent of the Financial Times model.

Since I received my “blogger accreditation to Britannica content,” I did browse some article on Britannica.com. I receive Britannica’s “On This Day” newsletter of historical events in my inbox daily and it did lead me to some intriguing entries. I did “happen” on some interesting content and I even used Britannica links on my main blog as well as in some forum posts for a course I teach online.

But, I must say, Britannica.com is just “not doing it for me.”

For one thing, the site is cluttered and cumbersome. Content is displayed in small chunks, extra content is almost dominant, links to related items are often confusing and, more sadly, many articles just don’t have enough content to make visits satisfying or worthwhile. Not to mention that it is quite difficult to link to a specific part of the content as the site doesn’t use page anchors in a standard way.

To be honest, I was enthusiastic when I first read about Britannica.com’s blogger access. Perhaps because of the (small) thrill of getting “privileged” access to protected content, I thought I might find the site useful. But time and again, I had to resort to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, like an old Larousse dictionary, is dependable. Besides, I trust my sense of judgement to not be too affect by inaccurate or invalid information.

One aspect of my deception with Britannica relates to the fact that, when I write things online, I use links as a way to give readers more information, to help them exercise critical thinking, to get them thinking about some concepts and issues, and/or to play with some potential ambiguity. In all of those cases, I want to link to a resource which is straightforward, easy to access, easy to share, clear, and “open toward the rest of the world.”

Britannica is not it. Despite all its “credibility” and perceived prestige, Britannica.com isn’t providing me with the kind of service I’m looking for. I don’t need a reference book in the traditional sense. I need something to give to other people.

After waxing nostalgic about Larousse and ranting about Britannica, I realize how funny some of this may seem, from the outside. In fact, given the structure of the Larousse.fr site, I already think that I won’t find it much more useful than Britannica for my needs and I’ll surely resort to Wikipedia, yet again.

But, at least, it’s all given me the opportunity to stream some thoughts about reference books. Yes, I’m enough of a knowledge geek to enjoy it.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

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