Online reference library

Did you know that you can use your Richmond upon Thames library membership to go online and read newspapers, trace your family tree, get business information and search a huge range of quality reference books like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Who’s Who, The Berg Fashion Library and the Oxford Art and Music dictionaries? (

But why would anyone want to use a library, even an online one, when you can find the answer to everything by googling?

Once upon a time

Before Google there was a time when if you needed information you looked it up in whatever books you had at home. If the information you needed wasn’t in those books then you sought out a knowledgeable relative or friend. Failing that, you visited your local library and asked the librarian. S/he asked a few probing questions in return before consulting the volumes of facts and/or making ‘phone calls to the holders of the information you needed.

But if you visit a reference library now (if you can find one), you’ll see far fewer paper-based works of reference. Publishers have gone digital. Many encyclopaedias, dictionaries, directories and almanacs are now only available as electronic versions – because they are are cheaper to produce and can be updated more frequently.

The last paper edition of the Britannica was the 32 volume set published in 2010. It contained about 120,000 articles. In contrast, the latest Wikipedia – with its crowd-sourced content – has  4,668,571 articles.

“But what about authoritativeness?” I hear you say. A good question!

The paper Encyclopaedia Britannica, along with the Oxford, Collins and other established publishing house dictionaries were trusted sources. The reference works carefully selected and made available by librarians were accorded a similar status and, like the staff themselves, were respected by customers as knowledgeable and trustworthy.

Search engines

Today, the search engines GoogleDuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Bing (amongst others – offer a quick and easy way for people to find the information they want. Almost any query comes back in seconds and the search results provide millions of links to articles, websites, videos and documents pulled from the air by the magic of the chosen keywords. Can’t grumble with that, surely?

Well, yes, actually, because it’s not always clear which is the wheat and which the chaff. Just how good are they at delivering relevant, accurate and up-to-date information?  In his Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, Jean-Noel Jeanneney (former President of the National Library of France) pointed to the cultural biases in Google’s search results and noted the limitations of the retrieved information. For such a slim volume it makes an big case for treating search engine results with care and some scepticism. Added to this are allegations about the misuse of search results, concerns about intellectual property, possible abuses of privacy and censorship, plus the charges of anti-competive practices levelled against Google.


You don’t even have to move from your armchair if you don’t want to. referenceIf you’re looking for hard facts and authoritative information from trusted brands then look at our carefully selected online resources and visit our Pinterest pages to see our lists of authoritative websites on topics as wide as Adult Education, Business Information, Family and Local History, Tourist Information, Literature and quality sites giving Health Information. Good, eh?

[ by Robert Jones, Information & e-Services Manager ]