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Are Reference Books Today's Dinosaurs?

Over the years, writers and editors at the Voice of America, like journalists and academicians everywhere, have accumulated whole shelves of reference books. Not just encyclopedias, but also individual books about geography, history, law, science, and the origin and use of words.

Right across from us, for instance, are rows of books on phrases and fables, the United States Constitution, and American folklore. By and large, these are authoritative and fascinating to dig into.

But most of them haven't been cracked in months or years. They have become almost historical artifacts, part of the office d├ęcor.

It's not because we have grown lazy, or because their contents are any less valuable. As you might guess, it's because their information is available in a flash in hundreds or even thousands of places online. If you want to find out about honeycombs, for instance, you're not limited to a trusty encyclopedia article, written perhaps 15 years ago. On the Worldwide Web, you can electronically access as much about honeycombs as you feel like reading.

Of course this has given reference-book publishers heart palpitations, though it hasn't put the smart ones out of business. McGraw-Hill, for instance, now sells about one-third fewer editions of its full, hardbound Encyclopedia of Science and Technology than it did 10 years ago. In part that's because a full set now costs almost $3,000.

But McGraw-Hill more than makes up for it by selling subscriptions to the electronic version to libraries, universities, and other users around the world. The online encyclopedia is regularly updated and offers visual treats not found in the paper edition.

It has cost publishers a lot of money in software and design to make the transition to electronic publishing, but they have little choice if they want to stay in business. At least they're saving big bucks at the book warehouse, and sparing lots of trees as well.