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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Have You Checked the Encyclopedia?

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, September 18, 2005

"Have you checked the encyclopedia?" I worked with a librarian years ago that asked this question of everyone approaching the library desk. I was never sure what she meant by this question, and it brought a variety of responses from the public. Actually, her question is a common way that librarians tackle reference questions. When asked a question, a librarian will often look in a general encyclopedia to get a quick overview of the topic.  Often the article will have clues on how to proceed in an information search.

Encyclopedias have changed over the years.  The familiar set of books with the attractive and ornate spines are quickly disappearing from libraries and homes. Usually, a new computer's software will include an online encyclopedia or CD-ROM with an encyclopedia. Our library system recently reviewed the encyclopedias we have in our collections.  Many older sets were removed from the collections due to their age and lack of use.

Research found that several general encyclopedias of years past have ceased publication. We did purchase some new 2005 editions of Compton's Encyclopedia, and two sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica for more advanced research.  It is revised every three years. With access to online encyclopedias, why purchase paper editions?

More people can be using a paper edition than an online edition.  Paper encyclopedias "work" when there is a computer problem.  And frankly, those of us over the age of 50 will grab an encyclopedia volume first.Online editions have greater search capability with keyword searching than a standard index volume of an encyclopedia.  They can be revised immediately, if the publisher decided to do that. We combine the best capabilities of both formats.

A new source on the Internet is called the "Wikipedia" at   A wiki is a living, open web site that allows anyone to edit, add, and delete content.  "Pedia" is that technology in an encyclopedia format. It sounds great, and the times I have used it, the Wikipedia has yielded great information that is interconnected with the remaining "encyclopedia." There are over one-half million entries, and it is growing everyday, but you need to be aware of problems with a wiki. There is no accountability for the information, no authority for what is added and deleted.  If you use the Wikipedia, we sure to double-check and triple-check the information.

On one hand, the information on railroading is superb.  The contributed information is clearly from informed authors with great research. On the other hand, social issues appear to be a battleground where people with various views of topics keep adding and deleting information to promote their agenda.

And so we come back to the encyclopedia with the pretty bindings.A large publishing house develops them with countless editors reviewing everything printed in the newest edition. The contributors to the articles are clearly listed. A bibliography at the end of the articles defines where the information was obtained.

Once again, technology provides us with wonderful new resources of information.  At the same time, it also forces us to review the information to make intelligent decisions about that information. Everyone needs to be a librarian in 2005.