Almanac of Architecture & Design 2009, edited by James P. Cramer and Jennifer Evans Yankopolus
Paperback, 590 pages
With Google search, Web 2.0 tagging and other means of making information easier and faster to find online, the existence of reference books is harder and harder to argue. Those big 26-volume encyclopedias surely won't be missed, but how this thinking applies to more concise reference guides, like almanacs, warrants some attention. To dismiss them outright is to gloss over the advantages that books offer, namely that information is clearly located. Online information may be easy to find quickly but its location is vague, the rise of social bookmarking and other tools aiding in our orientation in cyberspace testament to this. But to say something is located is only part of the story, because it's what we can do once we locate something that is important. What we hold in our hands can be marked, highlighted, dogeared, affected by us to become personal and more meaningful.
DesignIntelligence's (DI) 10th Edition of their Almanac of Architecture & Design is as good a book as any for exploring the pros and cons of old fashioned reference books. Unlike other architecture reference books, like Graphic Standards, this almanac looks at the parts of the profession that arise from practice, not at the day-to-day workings of architects themselves. An obvious contemporary in this regard is Felder's Comprehensive, a decent desk reference that unfortunately wasted half of its size on manufacturers, one arena of print that can be unapologetically given over to a strictly online presence (i.e. Sweets). Each presents awards, organizations, education, publications, and rankings. DI also includes sections on sustainability, historic preservation, building types, and obituaries. Where Felder last updated its "annual" desk reference in 2006, DI actually updates its editions on a yearly basis, following certain bits of information (award winners, endangered lists, obituaries) that change annually or biannually.
Critiquing DI's Almanac based on what information it provides, the book is clear and thorough, with extensive indexes (by name and location) that are sometimes the most helpful way of finding something. While not explicit, the book is clearly US-centric, as awards, organizations and other listings from elsewhere are missing, though well-known groups like RIBA are represented, if incompletely. The content can be generalized into two source types: DesignIntelligence and others. The latter makes up the bulk, ranging from primary sources, such as organizations, to secondary sources, like web pages and their rankings. DI's source lists include helpful timelines (women in architecture, for example), building types (almost exclusively in the US) and other subjective lists. Carefully chosen quotes pepper some of the pages, a fine addition to the text but one that should also include the reference location, not just the author. Lastly, a b/w plate section highlights prominent projects, yet the photographs aren't keyed to the rest of the book, so it's not clear if a project is included for winning an award, for example, or just for being an appealing visual.
Not surprisingly online resources are missing from the mix, even though the editors reference web pages, such as Planetizen and its top urban planning books. Web sites like Archinect and archINFORM challenge print resources in their breadth and speed of change, as well offering even more content via a multi-authored approach. Besides concern of editing, layout and functionality, what might point to one medium taking precedence over the other is what the individual does with the information. Increasingly people use information to find more information, an almost endless loop of searching and discovering. In this sense, web pages have the advntage of being linked to the information people want. In other words, if one finds something in DI's Almanac, more than likely they will put the book down and visit that resource online to learn more information. The book and the web site are portals to learning more, so the latter has the advantage of being linked immediately. Here location means something else entirely from location mentioned at the beginning of this review; it is a link in an endless chain of information, rather than an end in and of itself.