I love encyclopedias. They give me a sense of security – all that knowledge lined up on a shelf!
Encyclopedias are about an orderly arrangement of knowledge on a particular subject or a range of subjects. The date of the encyclopedia puts it in the context of its time. The online Brittannica has an interesting story about the history of the encyclopedia and its evolution here.
When I was a kid, my mom got me the Brittanica Junior Encyclopedia. Red bindings, gold lettering. The local grocery store had a special, where if you bought X amount of groceries, the volume of the week was $2.95. It was rough for my mother, who was widowed, and handling everything on her own, but we managed to collect the whole thing. I was thrilled, and read each volume as we got it. I used the set for years. I still have it in my office.
We also managed to collect the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia. We had a subscription for one volume a month. Again, I was thrilled whenever the new volume arrived, and everything stopped while I read it.
I didn’t just read them when I had a paper to write in school. I read them because I enjoyed the new-to-me information, and it got me interested in things that weren’t being taught in school.
Again, I still have the entire set in my office. And I still refer to them.
I always wanted a grown-up encyclopedia set. I didn’t say anything to my mom for years. I knew how hard my mom had worked to make sure I had the two mentioned above (and I contributed from the money I earned babysitting, when I didn’t spend it on Nancy Drew books). When I was old enough to buy it myself, I was living in a NYC apartment, where there wasn’t room for the other books I kept accumulating, so there certainly wasn’t room for a set of encyclopedia.
But I never stopped wanting it.
A couple of years ago, a set of World Book encyclopedia came up on the local craigslist. I jumped on it, made arrangements, and drove out to Harwich to pick them up – contained in several heavy boxes. They are in superb condition. They sit, prominently, in my office.
They make me feel secure.
Sometimes I pull a volume out, open it at random, and read.
I’m sure it’s tied to my love of libraries, and doing research in libraries and archives, something that started when I was a kid and got my first library card. The hours spent in school libraries and the local public library have evolved into visiting libraries when I travel, or traveling to visit a specific library or archive during research.
Reference sections used to carry a wonderful selection of encyclopedias. I hope some still do, although at least one local library I know got rid of their reference section because “it’s all online now.” Which isn’t true – you don’t get the snapshot of a particular era without the book itself.
Even Brittanica is online now, and there are a wealth of other online encyclopedia, including those encompassing the parts of history that were ignored or (literally) whitewashed. But there is something comforting and thrilling about holding a volume of an encyclopedia in my hands and sitting in my reading chair to read it.
It makes me feel connected to writers, scholars, and readers in the centuries before me, and to the writers, scholars, and readers to come, who will continue to use physical books in tandem with electronic resources. It connects me to the love of knowledge.
I’m aware that the information within them is dated, and skewed toward the established white point of view. We can and will do better moving forward (especially when we stop allowing a text book firm in Texas to supply biased materials to the education system). But I still use them as a jumping off point. I can look something up – recognizing red flag words and references – and then use what I read to start the search for other sources. I can disagree with information printed on the pages, and still value the desire to collect information.
I’m looking forward to someday living in a place where I can unpack all my books. You can be sure all three sets will be proudly displayed.