ref•er•ence pub•lish•ing n :industry segment faced with dramatic change
Wikipedia and Other Online
Another ongoing challenge is consumers’ expectations for instantaneous access and the multitude of sources for information available online. “News outlets, search engines and encyclopedias all serve relevant roles in information gathering, but we have to help educate individuals on the differences,” he says.
Kobasa says, “We need to help [consumers] realize the distinction between raw information and information that is specifically designed to be understandable to an audience,” says Kobasa. “For us, making information understandable includes choosing vocabulary and sentence length geared to the comprehension skills of our student readers and integrating media (in print and online) that’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but content-bearing also.”
Reference publishers also have had to contend with the emergence of informational sites, such as Wikipedia, a free online “encyclopedia” that “anyone can edit,” as it says on its home page. The entries are written by any number of people who submit content. The site encourages contributors to cite sources, but this practice isn’t strictly adhered to. The site is approaching 1.1 million articles, and publishes in multiple languages worldwide. While these types of sites offer an interesting community-based Internet experience, says Kobasa, World Book competes in a different space that is focused on providing reliable, expert-authored and reviewed articles for particular audiences looking for usable answers to pressing questions.
He adds that World Book’s value is in providing information that is applicable to solving a problem—whether completing a homework assignment or familiarizing oneself with a new topic.
Panelas believes Wikipedia is getting so much attention because it is novel and free, and that it and other things like it will become permanent parts of the information environment, just as the Internet itself has.
“But eventually the buzz about Wikipedia will subside, people will come to understand the shortcomings and limitations of a reference work that anyone can write and change, and it will take its place among all the other sources of information,” says Panelas. “There’s room for many of them, and most have something to contribute to people’s need for knowledge and information.”