Abstract: A historical discussion of reference works and human civilization. How they have influenced, and been generated by, their times; how their coverage, content, and contributors have changed.
The notion of a reference work is innately distributed. It is not a story, a manual, or an orderly history. It aims to collect in a single work a broad variety of facts and details, in general first discovered or invented by a variety of people in many times and places; and to organize them according to some orderly scheme that makes the result at once skimmable and comprehensible. Reference works - maps, medical and alchemical recipe books, agricultural and historical encyclopedias - were among the most valuable of early written works, often jealously guarded by their owners. Certain reference works, such as codices of religious and secular law, were consistently maintained as they changed, month by month.
Since the development of public libraries such as those at Alexandria, and the societal elevation of scribes, there have been increasingly collaborative reference works - the work of many people in concert, not the labor of a single individual. Such works were generally produced for free public use; with the notion that they would be housed in libraries, and not developed solely for individual courts or private collections. This later allowed the creation of many of the world's most impressive works - such as the Yongle Dadian, to this day the world's largest encyclopedia, compiled in five years by a team of 2000 scholars; and the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the first comprehensive English dictionary, developed over 45 years based on excerpts sent in by thousands of readers (later renamed the Oxford English Dictionary).
The last century has seen a dramatic drop in the transaction costs of reusing old content and acquiring input from contributors. As a result, certain key reference works such as dictionaries and maps have become commodotized, and available in hundreds of variations from different publishers; while others, such as online encyclopedias and almanacs, are now available with real-time updates. At the same time, there has been a related drop in the veneration shown to modern scribes (typesetters, librarians) and reference works.
This presentation will address the origins and reception of key reference works throughout the past two millennia. It will use excerpts and direct quotations to illustrate the social and academic impacts of those works; discuss how and why civilizations have developed, supported, and destroyed such works; and briefly suggest novel reference works which are possible only in an era of massively parallel collaboration.