Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Encyclopedia: Wikipedia's Ancestor

by Pa Rock
Seeker of Knowledge

There was a time in our dark and remote past, before the advent of computers and the Internet, when seeking knowledge on a particular subject usually involved searching through a book - and more often than not, that book was an encyclopedia.

Do you remember encyclopedias?

Encyclopedias were multi-volumed sets of information on a very wide variety of topics.  The various entries in encyclopedias were written by experts in the field.  Those big sets of books were usually the first place that students would check when they needed to learn more about a particular topic.

Encyclopedias were often sold by door-to-door salesmen and paid for "on-time" in small monthly installments.  In some homes where learning was a priority, a set of encyclopedias might be the focal point of the den or family room, but people of more modest means had to visit the local library or school to gain access to these great stores of knowledge.

My family never owned a set of encyclopedias, but I remember when my mother brought home a new Webster's Dictionary when I was in third grade.  I was beside myself with joy.  It was a volume of knowledge that I ravenously consumed.

My little high school had three or four different sets of encyclopedias, and I would often content myself during study hall by pulling a volume from the shelf and sifting through the articles at random until the bell rang to go to the next class.  I'm sure that I learned as much from that activity as I did from some of my teachers.  The caliber of the library and the copyright date on the encyclopedias were two important aspects in judging the quality of a school.

A big drawback to encyclopedias was that the world was changing quickly and encyclopedias soon became outdated.  Most people felt they were fortunate to be able to own one set of encyclopedias in a lifetime, and certainly could not afford to purchase an updated set each year.  To meet the challenge of rapidly changing information, encyclopedia companies would publish "year books" annually to recap the knowledge that had been acquired during the previous year.  A family kept their base set of encyclopedias, and then added the year book annually - for a fee, of course.  Soon the set of year books would grow to be even larger than the set of encyclopedias.

Now, of course, we have Wikipedia, and various web search engines and dictionaries - and piles of information on practically anything is available on a computer screen in less than a millisecond.  Not surprisingly, most of the world's encyclopedias have found their way into landfills.  The change has been abrupt.  With the rise in computers, the growth of available information has risen so fast that even if printed encyclopedias were still in vogue, the amount of knowledge available to go on their pages would be unmanageable and unbindable.

Yesterday I came across a copy of The World Book Encyclopedia 1965 Year Book, and an afternoon of perusing its pages made me realize just how much I miss encyclopedias.  The 1965 edition contains a summary of news an events for 1964.  In its pages are listings of celebrities who died - goodbye Gracie Allen and Douglas MacArthur, history and highlights of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, politics - LBJ versus Barry Goldwater, a synopsis of the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination of President Kennedy, and even a special report by Pearl Buck on wise land use and sustainable farming.

The book was a proverbial walk down memory lane.  Six-hundred-and-thirty pages describing the year in which I was a sophomore in high school, indexed, easy to navigate, and fascinating to read.  It brought back memories not only of the world that was, but of the person I was then - that kid hunkered down in the library reading an article on aardvarks!

I remember encyclopedias, I miss them, and I wish I had a good set now.  I would love to spend this coming winter with a mug of hot coco, sitting by a warm fire, and working my way through the knowledge of the world volume by volume - even they are a bit out-of-date, like me!

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