Book Review: You Could Look It Up

Lynch, J., You Could Look It Up, The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, Bloomsbury Press. New York, NY, 2016. 464 p. + x. ISBN 978-0-8027-7752-2, $64.

The title of this wonderful book takes me back to high school English class in the ‘50s where the motto for the inevitable library research project was “You can look it up.”  Interestingly, even though I have ended up using reference materials for over 60 years and making a living at it for 45 years, I don’t remember much about those library exercises, except that they often involved questions not of interest to me or looking up stuff that I already knew (I did have the nickname of “the walking encyclopedia”).

Nevertheless, the last 60 years have made this book even more interesting.  In the Prologue, Jack Lynch (Professor of English, Rutgers Newark) observes that reference works require writing or written words since it is impossible to record oral histories without them.  Reference books are by definition “big” and designed for “looking up” rather than reading all the way through (although some users have done so).  Books have readers, reference books have users.

This book is far from comprehensive but it does describe 50 reference “books”, by pairs, in 25 chapters, each pair on related topics.  Each chapter is designed to answer a number of questions including “what need is answered”, “who wrote it”, “what were their motives”, “what is in and what is not”, and reception and impact by and on society and culture.  A data box for each work describes the work’s (often the first edition) properties and measurements, dimensions, number of pages/volumes, even weights.  The works range from The Code of Hammurabi (1754 BCE, 7 feet by 2 feet, 4 tons) to the Guinness Book of Records (1955, 10 x 7.5 in., 4000 entries, 198 pages).

Possibly of even more interest than the primary 25 chapters are the secondary “half chapters” which further describe various aspects of reference material in general historical and cultural context.  Topics include alphabetization, personal organization of reference works, why works went out of print, and 4 pages of esoteric or trivial information sources (subjective and only a fraction of those available) in Chapter 22-1/2, “Unlikely Reference Books”.

Of special interest to me is Chapter 3-1/2, “The Rise and Fall of Alphabetization”.  I have long been fascinated by alphabets and alphabetization and have wondered how the various alphabetic orders were established.  Unfortunately, I still do not have an answer since Lynch knows of no explanation.  The first written media were not really alphabets but were symbols that stood for entire words or syllables.  Sumerian cuneiform was the first (3300 BDC) with 1000 characters, next came Egyptian hieroglyphics (3200 BCE), and then Chinese, currently with 50,000 characters.  Alphabets were derived by Semitic speakers in central Egypt about 2000 BCE and by the time they migrated to Phoenicia about 1050 BCE (who distributed the concept through trade), the symbolism was lost and each letter represented a sound.  (However, one source (1) maintains that the Hebrew alphabet maintains symbolism and numeracy.)  Alphabets brought efficiency to reading but alphabetic order did not arise until much later.  Reference words were organized thematically for millennia but alphabetic order appeared in European reference works about 1300 CE.  However, it was so unfamiliar that instructions had to be given for use (until recently, something mastered by most elementary school students).  The need for alphabetic order is decreasing as print resources morph into electronic.  I recently witnessed this when my 12 year old grandson was helping me work a crossword puzzle and had difficulty looking up words in our collection of “essential” crossword dictionaries and references.  He and his fellow students have not had to use alphabetic order in the age of Google.

Another chapter of interest is 15-1/2, “Out of Print”.  Reference works, even those which have appeared in several editions, cease for a number of reasons including political (e.g., Soviet supplanting Czarist Russian), calculators (supplanting log and sine tables), and the rise of the internet.  The 2010 Encyclopedia Britannica print edition will be the last and no plans are announced for the Oxford English Dictionary.  (For what it’s worth, I still have my books of 5 place log and trig tables as well as my 12’ and 24’ inch slide rules.).

Back to the topics of the reference works.  Library catalogues are described in Chapter 21.  The history and development of library catalogs is described leading up to the features works of Panizzi’s “Catalogue of Printed Books in the Library of the British Museum” and “The National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints…”.  The latter two are probably well known to library school graduates but fascinating to this reviewer.  The immensity of these resources, still far from complete, as well as the development of LC 3x5 catalog cards and OCLC (and expansion beyond books to other materials) and progressions to online are described.  The quote by John Overholt (Harvard) is noteworthy: “Good cataloging is the foundation stone of librarianship.  If you have an item and can’t find it, you really don’t have it”.  The earliest library catalogs date from 660-300 BCE.  About 300 CE, Callimachus prepared a list, on 120 scrolls, of ancient works by category.  Due to general illiteracy, numbers of libraries and books in the Western World lagged far behind those resources in the Arabic and Chinese cultures but the Gutenberg Revolution changed all that.

The controversial rise of “Index learning” is recounted in Chapter 21-1/2.  As far back as Pope and Swift, various authors condemned the increase in use of reference resources as undermining the full impact of the original and leading not only to reduced knowledge but wisdom as well.  Of course, Google is currently condemned for not only information overload but leading to no deep knowledge or inability to attain wisdom.  Plus ca change …:

Possibly of most interest to CINF members and readers of the CIB are Chapters 20 and 23.  The former is medical resources and discusses the history and evolution of “Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical” (aka Gray’s Anatomy) and “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (aka DSM, 1958).  DSM-5, 2013, is much larger than the original, 300+ conditions and 947 pages.  Chapter 23 describes The Merck Index (1889, $1) and the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (1913. $2).  The latest edition of The Merck Index is the 15th (2013) and has spawned two related reference resources.  Lynch’s description of the Merck Index is somewhat out of date since he acknowledges that much of the usage is online but does not mention the new website now administered by the Royal Society of Chemistry.  He also does not cite my reviews of various editions of The Merck Index, including the 15th, but cites a 2007 reference.  The Handbook of Chemistry and Physics has of course grown immensely and is in its 90th edition as well as online.  Described as a “franchise”, there are dozens of related CRC Handbooks.  Lynch closes the chapter by observing that these two resources are poorly acknowledged as essential parts of scientific advancements.

There are chapter notes at the rear of the book.  However, the citations are terse and each citation must be looked up in the Bibliography necessitating 2-3 bookmarks when reading.  Also included are a Glossary and Index.  Highly recommended to educators, historians, librarians of all stripes, and all of us who use reference materials for business or pleasure.

(1) Ouaknin, M.-A., Mysteries of the Alphabet, Abbeville Press, New York, 1999.

Robert E. (Bob) Buntrock
Buntrock Associates
Orono, ME