Thinking About Digital Reference Tools

Watching some children in my life (from a distance) grow to through into adolescence has led me to think about reference tools in emerging students’ lives. Specifically, I’m thinking about dictionaries, encyclopedias, and maps and I am led to the conclusion that the digital versions we have are better for two of these, but worse for the third. I was a fan of all three while I was growing up.


When I was in about 5th grade, I received a paperback dictionary that included some almanac-like information in the back. I recall cleaning my room a few years later when my family moved and discarding it as the cover was torn off and it was very battered due to overuse. I recall browsing the book to just for the enjoyment of exploring words.

I do, also, recall reacting with some indignation when my classmates and I asked “how do you spell that?” and my teachers responded “look it up in the dictionary.” It seemed inconsistent to me… they claimed to value spelling (and it was valuable in the pre-spell check days), but their solution was far less likely to lead to me learning the correct spelling than looking up the word in a book that required I know how to spell it. I also recall trying to interpret the spellings that were supposed to tell us how to pronounce the words. That left me at a loss.

Todays’ digital dictionaries, that allow us to speak words to see spellings, listen to pronunciations, and even practice pronunciations are a vast improvement for those who want to be more efficient in learning the words that entertain them and make them more accurate communicators.


Encyclopedias are a reference that I have always found to be very useful. (I a not as enamored with them as my middle school art teacher, however. He was a World War 2 veteran who was “reading an encyclopedia cover to cover,” and he claimed the was his second one.) I did enjoy the opportunity to get a brief introduction to whatever topic held my current interest.

Today, we have Wikipedia and it does give encyclopedic coverage of any topic… far more topics than can be in any printed copy and updated far more quickly than any printed version can possibly be. Yes, Wikipeda is far more useful to those of us who need a brief overview of a topic than the printed copies of my youth, but we can no longer have the hobby of reading one cover to cover.


About the same time I was reading my dictionary to tatters, I had two maps in my bedroom, one on either wall that formed the corner my desk faced. I was fond of circling the names of interested places I found. Gary, Indiana was circled many times. I became much more familiar with the places in the United States as I could read the names which were in larger print, but I became very familiar with the locations of places as presented in this map I now realize was full of bias. When I grew older and began driving to unfamiliar places, I would study paper maps ahead to time and get a sense of where I was going and note routes that I would have to take.

I value today’s GPS-based maps. They help me both be more efficient and to take the back roads and still get me to my location. (One of my favorite trips was a long and circuitous route through corn and soy barn fields from Milwaukee to Clinton, Iowa one afternoon. We got to the baseball game we intended to see on time, but saw much more interesting places than we would have seen on the highways.)

While I use todays’ maps, they do not help me understand the locations and spacial relationships between places like maps and globes did for us.