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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2004

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[Board accepted]

Death of an Encyclopedia Salesman?
The Fate of Science Reference Resources in the Digital Age

David Flaxbart
Chemistry Librarian
University of Texas, Austin

Dekker Encyclopedia of nanoscience and nanotechnology / edited by James A. Schwarz, Christian I. Contescu, Karol Putyera. New York : Marcel Dekker, c2004. 5 v. : ill. ; 29 cm.   3,980 pp. $3,500 Print (0-8247-5055-1); $4,900 Online, including Life-of-Edition (0-8247-5046-2); $5,250 Print plus online (0-8247-4797-6)

As a science librarian, I have faithfully purchased most new encyclopedias and multivolume reference sets in chemistry over the years.  I have a file folder stuffed with flyers for forthcoming sets.  But I wonder:  Does anyone really need printed encyclopedias anymore?  Are they any more useful, or used, in a web format?  Is everything with "encyclopedia" in the title really an encyclopedia?  Are the costs starting to outweigh the benefits?

Let's be honest with ourselves.  The use of printed reference works in the sciences has almost dropped off the meter these days.  The web has essentially ended the era of going to the library to look something up.  Most faculty no longer bother, and most students just give you a blank stare when you suggest they walk twenty feet away and open up a book.  The concept is foreign to them.  In this sense, user demand is ultimately driving the transition to electronic formats (Webster 2003).  More disturbing to some librarians is the clear tendency of people, especially students, to use Internet search engines as their first, if not only, research tool, relegating expensive library-sponsored resources to afterthought status or ignoring them altogether (Hafner 2004). 

Second, printed reference works are expensive.  The Dekker title reviewed here will set your library back $3,500.  That works out to about 88 cents per page if you just buy the print -- hardly a bargain by doorstop standards.  Other Dekker "encyclopedias" in the hard sciences slated for publication in 2004 range from 31 cents per page to an eye-popping $1.09 per page (for the Encyclopedia of Chemical Processing due this fall). 

Then there's the question of online access.  While users' expectations and preferences are pushing libraries to move from print to electronic reference tools, libraries are -- and should be -- resisting the conversion of monographs to serials.  Dekker, to its credit, is offering one-time online pricing with a "life-of-the-edition" option for its new and recent encyclopedias.  It's something worth considering if the title in question is expected to be particularly useful.  (Caveat:  "Life-of-edition" is defined rather arbitrarily as four years, rather than open-ended.)  It will cost you another $1,750 if you want to "supersize" the print with online access, or $4,900 if you just want the electronic alone.

Finally, what role does an advanced encyclopedia play in the age of Google?  Broad subject encyclopedias in the sciences and engineering, such as the venerable Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, continue to prove their worth and authority in both print and online formats, because of their wide scope, ease of use, and consistent quality.  They are scholarly, yet intellectually accessible to students and the layperson.  Reference librarians know them and refer users to them regularly.  Niche encyclopedias, which seem to be proliferating at an alarming pace, are a different matter.  Their potential audience is much smaller, and their cost-benefit ratios may not stand up to serious scrutiny.  Access is also problematic.  Users must find and enter the online versions via the library's catalog or web pages; they're not indexed by search engines (although various initiatives to index the "deep web" underway at Yahoo and Google may change that someday (Young 2004).  Nor are they typically covered by major bibliographic indexes1. The patron is even less likely to stumble across the print edition on the shelf.  Thus the knowledge contained in them is largely hidden from view.

One could argue that these niche titles aren't encyclopedias at all, at least not in the Britannica sense.  An encyclopedia's job is to explain and provide an overview of a topic for a novice, or provide ready factual information to answer a specific question.  Niche "encyclopedias" and "handbooks" tend not to do this very well.  They are instead disparate collections of chapters, and thus not very different from any edited science monograph in the stacks, except by weight and volume -- and cost.

Print Version

Which brings us (at last) to the title at hand, the Dekker Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.  (This title should not be confused with the similar Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology published in 2003 by American Scientific Publishers.)

Nanoscience is one of the trendiest areas of science and technology today.  The most common generality states that "nano" means the study of matter and phenomena at the nanoscale, which means, the layperson is always told, the "very very small."  (One nanometer -- a billionth of a meter -- is about the length of ten hydrogen atoms laid side by side.)  It is difficult to pin down any specific area of research that this subject covers.   Nanotechnology has applications -- some of them real, many of them merely hoped-for -- across most areas of modern science:  chemistry, physics, biology, biochemistry, biophysics, molecular biology, materials and polymer science, electrical and computer engineering, and on and on.  Nano- is a prefix so ubiquitous that it's almost a cliché in today's science news releases:  nanotubes, nanowires, nanomaterials, nanobots, nano-everything.  Scientists and engineers across academe and industry are feasting on a buffet of grant funding and patentable technologies.  It is an exciting "frontier" field.

This five-volume set is edited by J.A. Schwartz (Syracuse University), C.I. Contescu (Materials Methods LLC), and K. Putyera (Shiva Group) and written by a crowd of international contributors that stretches to fifteen fine-print pages.  It contains 325 specialized articles on myriad aspects of this cutting edge field.  Unfortunately, that's all this work really is -- a collection of articles. 

The individual articles themselves treat highly specific topics and are heavy with black and white figures, graphs, and tables, and they have bibliographies.  (Dekker boasts that the set contains over 21,000 literature references, as if that's the main point.)  The articles average about 10-12 pages each.  Some are overviews; others seem to report new research as if they were journal articles.  They are written for experts, not the novice.

Unlike a typical alphabetic encyclopedia, however, the sequence here is essentially random, as the articles are merely alphabetized by the first word in their titles, rather than by a key subject term.  There is no overarching thematic or pedagogical structure to the work.   It is not a resource where quick answers will be found to patron questions, and as a result most libraries will probably choose to place it in the stacks rather than in their reference collections.

The 34-page subject index in volume 5 is suspiciously brief for a set this size.  I conducted a spot test on its reliability:  The article starting on page 3685 is entitled "Structural and optical anisotropy in nanoporous anodic aluminum oxide" and resides in the S section, for "Structural."  Yet "aluminum oxides" in the index does not refer to this article, nor does "anisotropy".  So, presumably if I were interested in anisotropic applications of aluminum oxide, the index would be of no help to me, and neither would looking in the "A" section under these terms.  I would have to happen upon this article by accident, it seems.  I repeated this keyword test on several other articles with mixed results.  The index is indeed haphazard and unreliable as an access point.  A brief contents list is found inside the front and back covers of each volume, but it is just a list of titles and their page numbers.  A "topical contents" list that follows the full TOC in each volume does attempt to group articles by broad theme, but it is easily overlooked.  There is no author index.

Electronic Version

The {online version} offers an A to Z contents list as well as a list of recently updated articles.  The search function allows you to search by keyword in the full-text of articles or in the titles, by author name, and by DOI.  You may limit by date of publication (not very meaningful since as yet they're all the same), and pre-sort and re-sort results by relevance, title, date published, or level of your access.  Results lists can be set to show 10, 25, or 50 hits.

Full text of articles is available in both HTML and PDF formats.  The HTML text is broken into separate subsections rather than one long page, and the search engine does not indicate which section contains your search terms.  Furthermore, hit terms are not highlighted within the HTML text.  The only reliable way to locate your terms is to do a Find command within the PDF document.  Thumbnail images in the HTML text can be opened in a separate window for larger viewing.  Reference numbers in the text are hyperlinked and open the chapter's bibliography in a separate pop-up window.  But the references themselves are not hyperlinked to external publisher full-text sites.

A user can e-mail the URL of an article to someone else.  However, to see the full article the recipients must also have subscription access -- otherwise, they must register to see a brief "preview" or purchase the article individually.  That is not particularly helpful.  It is more likely that users will attach PDF files and e-mail them instead.

The main selling point of online encyclopedias, apart from the enhanced searching and more convenient access, is that they can be continuously revised and updated with new articles.  In the case of the Nanoscience title, Dekker claims additional articles will be added quarterly.  (Some objective research needs to be done on these products to determine if such updates are actually occurring as promised.)  Dekker also predicts that around 2008 -- when the "life-of-edition" online access expires -- the encyclopedia will be revised and re-issued as a "new" edition requiring a new purchase at a similar price.  By that time, usage statistics should clearly indicate whether an update is worth the price.


If librarians can figure out new ways to market this type of resource, either on the web or on the shelf, the multivolume reference work might still have a place in the science library.  One tactic is to persuade index producers like Chemical Abstracts and Engineering Index to index this material at the article level, to increase the likelihood of users' finding the information in literature searches.  Another is to incorporate encyclopedias thoroughly into web pages, tutorials, instruction sessions, and class assignments.  The most promising solution, like it or not, is probably to encourage publishers to allow their licensed content to be indexed by popular web search engines.  If we can't move students to our resources, let's move the resources to where the students are:  on Google and Yahoo.

So, is this encyclopedia worth your library's investment?  Given the popularity of nanoscience today it's tempting to say yes.  But the nature of this type of product should give us pause.  It is an isolated collection of research and review articles written by and for experts, which probably will not be found unless a user locates and consults this particular work in print or online.  The online format will be more convenient and cost effective, and overcomes the indexing shortcomings of the printed set.  But at $15 per article (online only pricing), librarians should carefully consider whether it's truly worth the price.  When these sets cost thousands of dollars each, there's a lot at stake in the purchase decision.  STM publishers obviously see a hot market for this kind of tool.  It remains to be seen if libraries agree by continuing to purchase them, and if patrons actually use them.

Hafner, Katie.  2004. Old search engine, the library, tries to fit into a Google world. New York Times (June 21, 2004, A1).  This article reports on the EPIC survey from Columbia University:

Webster, Peter.  2003. Implications of expanded library electronic reference collections. Online 27(5): 24-30.

Young, Jeffrey R. 2004. Libraries try to widen Google's eyes. Chronicle of Higher Education 50(37): A1, A31-32.

1Chemical Abstracts "usually covers encyclopedias as book announcements, except in cases where the articles are individually authored and have the appropriate format to stand alone as separate reviews."   The Dekker title will be reviewed on receipt.  Personal communication with Chemical Abstracts Service.

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