By ROBERT McHENRY.
NO ONE KNOWS what was the first reference book, or reference tablet, or maybe reference wall painting. We can be fairly sure that at some point in prehistory, someone made notes — pictographic ones, perhaps — to keep track of something and allowed others to use them.
We may guess that as this technique caught on, it wasn’t long before someone stepped up to point out an error. And while the first few such instances may have resulted in manslaughter, eventually a modus vivendi was worked out between those who made these tools and those who critiqued them, later to be known variously as editors, fact-checkers, and proofreaders. Thus gradually arose an industry explicitly, if not uniquely, dedicated to getting it right, the first time if at all possible.
With a little rounding up we may safely say that everyone has questions to which they wish to have answers. It is my experience that only a subset of everyone regularly add the proviso that the answer supplied be, insofar as possible, correct.
If it is true that man by nature desires to know, as Aristotle airily had it, then it is also true that man is the creature that makes stuff up. Add this tendency to fabulism to our simple weakness for error and you have more than justified a habit of skepticism with regard to anything resembling a truth claim.
IT WAS ONCE explained to me by a wise and experienced editor that creating reference books is a species of journalism. This seems fine, until one recalls how a cynic once defined journalism: the buying of white paper at two cents a pound and selling it for ten. (This quip is most often attributed to Charles A. Dana, long-time editor of the New York Sun. I have my doubts, not least because the earliest instances of it are unattributed. But the Dana link has replicated itself from reference work to reference work for a century, lately appearing in a work titled Dictionary of Quotations in Communications, as though quotable utterances could occur in any other way.)
It is an oddity we answer-seekers live with that while the local library begins its work by sorting books into two categories, fiction and nonfiction, the class of reference works may incorporate either: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, on the one hand, and Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings on the other. It’s a question of what one is looking for and how well one is able to judge what is found.
In this column I propose to deliver myself of sundry thoughts about and experiences with reference works, in general and in the particular, without program and in the sure and certain knowledge that I shall be in error some part of the time. So skepticism is, as always, in order, but I will hope for the genial skepticism that I have mentioned elsewhere.
Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004) and the “q.v.” columnist for The Fortnightly Review. His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American.