To Toss or Not to Toss Paper Manuals and Reference Books?

Pitch the Manual! Our Editor in Chief Ponders on the Benefits of Printed Manuals, Their Ease (or Lack of ) Access, Versus Just Using the Mighty Know-It-All World Wide Web

By Paul Studebaker

This month's "Ask the Experts" department answers a question from an aspiring engineering student, who wants recommendations for "instrument books and other references that would be helpful for me." He asks, "Can you advise me on what  to choose?"

Béla Lipták and other grizzled veterans respond with a broad and powerful list of references from their personal libraries. Many of these gems can be found on the web, but some can only be found as bound books, and a number of those are out of print, and may never be reissued.

I'm old enough to remember when any tool, household item or appliance with three or more parts invariably came with a substantial paper manual. This document would include not only operating, maintenance, repair, warranty claim and company contact instructions, but parts diagrams, lists and even order forms with prices. Early computers, software and cell phones were packaged with binders or thick little books with the same kind of information.

Like my dad always did, I mark these with the item model and serial numbers, and file them away with the receipt and warranty. For many years, they have come in handy when a question or problem arose.

I also purchase and prize the best printed shop manuals I can find for motor vehicles. These used to always be the factory manuals, but over time, the manufacturers have delegated shop manual production and distribution to specialty companies, and now many vehicle manuals are not made available in print until after—sometimes years after—the model is out of production. Some are never produced in print, only as PDFs. These are harder to navigate than a good printed book, but take up a lot less space. They also don't get dirty, but they're awkward to annotate when they're in error (oh, now I see, I didn't really need to remove the entire console to get the radio out).

The paper or PDF manuals used to be my go-to source for information whenever I contemplated a maintenance, troubleshooting or repair task, but lately, I've found that it's more efficient to start with a Google search, using the brand, model and problem or task. You'll have to sort through some trash and probably refine your search terms, but soon you'll not only suss out the most likely cause of the problem, you'll also find advice and tips about the most expedient procedure, any pitfalls, and sources, prices and quality of tools, parts or ancillary services you might need. If it's a common issue, you'll often discover step-by-step photographs or a handful of well-made, entertaining instructional videos.

You also can easily find OEM parts diagrams you can use to reference assembly sequences, with list prices and factory numbers you can plug into Google to find the right parts at the best price. Pay attention to brands and reviews—there's a lot of crap out there.

Grading information for quality and relevance is the most challenging part of using the Internet to become the consummate do-it-yourselfer—that and not maiming or killing yourself using common tools. We live in a wonderful world where anyone can buy a floor jack (or chainsaw or nailgun), or take the cover off his or her own breaker box.

I still like to refer to the instructions and diagrams in the manual as I perform the task (penciling in a few notes as I go, for next time), but now, before I open the toolbox and crack the book, I already have a good sense of what's needed and how to get it done. I think if I had to, I could pitch the manuals—my kids have been doing that for years. But like many engineers with treasured volumes in their libraries, I won't. At least, not until they come out on Kindle.