March 14th, 2012 / 1:00 am

Goodbye to All That

When I was a kid, my mother assigned homework to my brothers and I in addition to any homework we may have been assigned in school. My mother’s homework was generally more of a priority. Some of her assignments came from Little Professor workbooks but most of her assignments came from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which she made us read, a lot. I have, in my lifetime, read the entire compendium. I know things.

My mother would give us a page range and we’d read and write little reports on what we learned. Other times we had to do assignments that reflected critical thinking—comparing and contrasting different topics, creating new entries or using existing entries as the starting point for a story or article of some kind. At times, I did not understand why we were being forced to read that stupid thing, but I know now—my mother wanted, in her way, for us to understand that knowledge is important, that knowledge is a tool for better thinking.

Having an encyclopedia set in our home was a Big Deal. It was something my parents saved for, a major purchase. They bought it from a traveling salesman and when the set was first delivered, it was exciting to open the huge box and pull out the leather bound volumes, so many of them, the pages lined in gold. We weren’t allowed to touch the set with dirty fingers but we were never kept away from the encyclopedia. The volumes were kept on bookshelves easily accessible by little people. In my free time, I nerdily enjoyed flipping through the pages. It was really fun to read the encyclopedia when I didn’t have a specific task ahead of me. I have very fond memories of those encyclopedias which I still have though they are in storage now–not enough room, you know.

What always impressed me about Encyclopedia Brittannica is how it compiled a really wide breadth of knowledge for 244 years. It did so without the help of crowdsourcing, the way Wikipedia does. It did so without the benefit of the Internet and instant access to a wide range of information. A lot of work went into maintaining the encyclopedia, for so long, and relatively well. There were, certainly, flaws with the encyclopedia—it promoted the notion that knowledge requires gatekeepers and that knowledge is immutable. Not all of the information was necessarily correct. The encyclopedia had a lot of merits, though. When I wanted to learn about Egypt, I only needed to pull down the correct volume and I could learn something about a different part of the world. I could learn something about any number of topics and that was awesome. These days, I only need to direct my web browser to Wikipedia or Google but learning seemed like more of an adventure when I had to find something in a book.

It was with some sadness and a lot of nostalgia I read that the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer publish print volumes, focusing instead on their online offerings. This surrender to progress was inevitable. Wikipedia is also a flawed compendium of knowledge but it is unstoppable in its growth and the breadth of knowledge it contains. There’s also a lot more Encyclopedia Britannica can do with their digital offerings in terms of offering dynamic content. It makes more sense for all that knowledge to be easily accessible online than to have a 32-volume set taking up space, probably gathering dust. Change is mostly good.

Nonetheless, this is the end of an era. The older I get, the more I realize many eras are ending–we are saying goodbye to a lot of things we used to be able to have and hold. I’m not sure how I feel about having to say goodbye to all that.