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Lincoln Cathedral, crossing tower

What is a reference work for?  Below I give some examples of reference works that I think have lost sight of their original function over the years.

Wikipedia gives a good definition of a reference work:

A reference work is a work, such as a book or periodical (or their electronic equivalents), to which one can refer for information. The information is intended to be found quickly when needed. Such works are usually referred to for particular pieces of information, rather than read beginning to end.

Many larger reference works are difficult to use for quick reference, because of their very size. There is a tension between quick facts and deeper analysis; it isn’t always easy to achieve both goals in a single publication. A famous example of this tension is Encyclopedia Britannica, which from the 1974 edition split itself into two parts, a Micropaedia, with 65,000 short articles, plus a Macropaedia, with around 700 long articles with references. Somehow, users could combine the two as necessary. I would label the two parts the other way round – the Macro gives the outline, while the Micro the details, but that is another issue.

An example is the Oxford English Dictionary, which, in its attempt to cover the subject from a historical point of view, becomes all but impossible to use for rapid reference. Nevertheless, its fame is so great that many writers refer to the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, as if the larger the reference work, the more authority it has.

By the Wikipedia definition, Pevsner’s Buildings of England series is a reference work. You don’t read it from start to finish. It is arranged alphabetically, with a vengeance, so that “Little Carlton” in Lincolnshire is placed under “L”, and nowhere near “Great Carlton”, which is less than half a mile from it. It is also, as a series of over 50 titles (including Scotland, Wales and Ireland) big enough to be seen as authoritative in its own right.

Trying to use Pevsner’s Buildings of England is a challenge. The goal here, presumably, is to provide something that can be used on the spot, which suggests a handy guide. After all, each volume contains many “perambulations”, which suggests the reader walks around with the book in hand looking at buildings.

Yet the current format and editions of Pevsner are produced in hardcover editions only (not online) and are anything but portable. The current edition of the volume for Lincolnshire, published 2002, weights 964g, that is, nearly a kilogram. This is a far cry from the initial idea of a series of paperback volumes. The coverage of Lincoln cathedral alone is 51 pages. These 51 pages are full of fascinating detail, but the organisation is not designed for rapid reference. Each of the English cathedrals has a different organisation. That for Lincoln begins with a detailed historical treatment, which has an introduction on the first page (p444), but then the reader arrives at summaries during the outline; presumably these are summaries of the outline? On page 464 is a “Summary of the campaign of 1192-c1250”. Should this not appear before the detailed historical treatment that precedes it?

Inside or outside?

The original idea of a guide to take with you as you visit the cathedral has been lost. For example, on page 467 a paragraph begins “Now for the exterior of the Angel Choir”. But it is nowhere mentioned that the Angel Choir description up to that point, three pages early, was of the interior.

In fact a common problem with Pevsner is working out if you are looking at the inside or the outside. For example, page 450 has the confident heading, “St Hugh’s Interior”. But the text begins: ”we have to start with one minute survival of the E end proper. Visible externally … “.  The next paragraph considers “the detail of St Hugh’s work”, and then, finally, the following paragraph begins “Inside … “. So this half page was not about St Hugh’s interior at all, hut about his exterior. Why not say so?

The following section is “The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries”. So is this now a historical description of the cathedral building, rather than a gazetteer? It looks like it. We now cover things “in chronological order” (p469).

Could this be made clearer? We are now in the realm of information design, and infographics, such as a diagram or plan. To some extent, clarity is provided by the plan of the cathedral, which (for Lincoln at least) is reasonably clear in this edition of Pevsner. The plan of the cathedral has just three time periods. First came the Norman west front, then the period “c1190-c1350”, which covers pretty much all the rest of the building, with a third shading for “Perpendicular” (but I couldn’t find any perpendicular shading on the plan). The first page of the Pevsner article on Lincoln Cathedral comes tantalisingly close to a simple outline:

The cathedral is essentially of three periods, two of them divided into two phases each: Norman the W front – early Norman and high Norman; EE the rest …; C14-15 the towers and some alterations and additions.

That is clear, in just four lines. Yet the text then muddies our understanding by drifting back to detail. Without a paragraph break, it continues with 13 lines of various works of restoration, none of which are essential to the overview. Following that, and again without a paragraph break, are the dimensions of the cathedral.  

In short, the coverage of major buildings in Pevsner is muddled, and more adapted to reading at a desk, with other volumes open alongside, than using it in situ. An attempt has been made in more recent editions of Pevsner, for example, providing a contents page for major towns like Lincoln. But that contents page doesn’t show any details about the cathedral entry.

Entry for Lincoln Cathedral from John Harvey, English Cathedrals, 1950

Other volumes about cathedrals often show a simpler way of showing the outline, and one that could make Pevsner more usable. That could include, for example, a chronology. John Harvey’s English Cathedrals, first published in 1950, has for each cathedral an excellent single-page chronology alongside the plan of the building.

I am not against the detailed discussion that makes Pevsner such a rich resource. But the growth of the Pevsner resource has, I believe, made the content progressively less navigable and less usable as a hand-held guide.

Relevance for information retrieval

I would argue the coverage of major buildings in Pevsner is indicative of a deeper problem in information retrieval that many reference works reveal. The presentation of knowledge can make a vast difference to its intelligibility and accessibility; it is nothing less than the democratization of knowledge. The need for detail, the micro coverage, should not prevent the reader from seeing the outline. Digital delivery, and well-constructed infographics can ensure the reader sees both components together as necessary. In short, Pevsner would benefit from some UX work.