This may strike you as an odd post title and maybe a bit presumptuous, but let me explain. From 1995-1999 or so, I worked on a product called Microsoft Bookshelf, a CDROM title that contained 5-8 reference books, depending on the version and country we were publishing in. I worked on the team during a period of great expansion, when we launched several international versions of Bookshelf. As such, I had to help evaluate many reference books in a short time to determine what special features and difficulties the books might pose as we moved them online. I found the lessons I learned apply not only to reference books, but to many other non-fiction books and the occasional fiction title.
- Check the date. This may tell you a lot about how current the book is and may indicate the context in which the book was written.
- Look at the Table of Contents. This will give you a quick overview of the whole book.
- Flip through the opening pages. There are often explanatory chapters, essays, and other interesting material in the very beginning. In my old Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, there is an explanation of how the entries are made up and a history of the English language essay. (These essays are often great reads, btw.)
- Look at the end pages. There is often additional reference content. In my dictionary, there are biographies and geographical place names (affectionately referred to as "bios and geos" and often used to pad out the entry count of a dictionary) and a small manual of style. Other works will have an index (good to see how it is arranged) and appendices (useful to see how extensive they are and how much the author is counting on you to read them to make sense of the chapters.)
- Finally, flip through the main body of the book now and get a sense for a typical bit of content -- an entry, a paragraph, etc. Check the tone (do you like the style?). Look for length and completeness of the text. Check out the number and quality of the illustrations. For reference works, you can check a few test articles to see how up-to-date the book is. For instance, in a dictionary, look for words that are relatively new like bird flu or instant message or that have new meanings like text as a verb. In an atlas or encyclopedia, look to see if the map of India has Mumbai or Bombay.
In just a few minutes, you can get a pretty complete picture of the book. I find that this approach helps me with non-fiction books that aren't reference as well; I have a better handle on what to expect and what resources the author has given me.
Anyway, try it out on your next read!