Word Traveler: Buying Reference Books

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

Some book editors will tell you that reference books are not as reliable as they once were. Fewer and fewer are fact-checked and given the increasing demands of product turnaround, the whole business of fact-checking is not what it used to be. When was the last time you read a book, even a reference book, that did not have typos? We even see them in the vaunted Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. There is no way to know to what extent a book has been fact-checked unless the author or editor refers to a checker or checkers in the acknowledgments. Often, the fact-checking is selective rather than exhaustive. So, how can you tell whether a reference book is a reliable source?

Consider the reputation of both the author and publisher. What does the description say about the author or editor? Is the author/editor affiliated with a university? Has the person written about the subject before or written this type of book before? Does the author/editor's previous affiliations - university or jobs - have good reputations? Flip through the book to see if there is a bibliography for certain types of reference books, like a specialized dictionary or book on a language topic. It would be encouraging to find one with cited books that also look authoritative.

Is the book new or a revision or a new edition? Reference books with staying power are often the most reliable on the market. When you are looking for something in a genre where there are many choices - like crossword puzzle dictionaries or collegiate dictionaries - it is a good idea to visit one or two really large bookstores to see and compare the features inside the books, see the size and coverage of such books, and check the typography and cost.

An index is nearly always essential if the book is not arranged alphabetically. Did the publisher care enough to include one? Also check for footnotes in certain types of reference books, which may lead to more information on a subject which the author/editor could only treat briefly. Reading the acknowledgments, introduction, and preface will garner information on other people the author/editor consulted and may contain a discussion of the sources and methods used in writing or compiling the book.

Check on Amazon.com and other Internet sites to see if the book has been reviewed. Book reviews are often written by experts on the book's subject, so these types of reviews will be very helpful - as will reviews by librarians or academicians.

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