Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why I Miss Encyclopedias

The late syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris used to be published in our local newspaper. I loved his columns and looked forward to reading them, which is really saying something since I was in high school when they were published. One of the regular features of his column that I thoroughly enjoyed was called "Things I learned while en route to looking up other things".

As the name implies, these columns would feature obscure facts about any number of topics. And I'm sure that one of the ways he learned these facts was by looking through the pages of a volume of a set of Encyclopedias and stopping at a page that looked interesting to him while he was flipping through it looking for something else.

That's the sort of thing that happened all the time with me. Whenever I was assigned a research paper in high school (back in the late Jurassic Era), my first source would always be the complete set of Collier's Encyclopedia volumes on the bookshelf in our basement.

This may come as a surprise to you young whippersnappers, but there used to be a time, way back when, when the internet did not exist. The only way to access information on something was to find a reference book that possessed that information. And that information was not updated every minute. In the case of encyclopedias, it was only updated every year, if then. Information that was in a volume one year could easily be obsolete the next year.

That's my roundabout way of saying that the information I often found in our circa 1960's Colliers volumes was not the most reliable. But the one thing it did do reliably was to point me in the direction of where to go to find what I needed. And I had to invest serious time and energy into following that direction. And the random things I found in pursuit of what I was looking for would often stick in my mind and lead me to other places I never knew I wanted to go but found fascinating once I got there.

That doesn't happen today. Today, if I need to find some piece of information, the first place I go is to Bing or Google, or any of the literally dozens of other search engines available. I almost never find anything that isn't what I was originally looking for.

That's not so bad for me. I have an insatiable desire to learn about things that I don't know. That desire was honed by years of being forced to devote that considerable time and energy to finding out more about things that I wanted to know.

That no longer happens. Anyone who wants to know anything about anything can find it on the Internet in less than 10 seconds. Trouble is, more often than not, what they find will be incorrect, incomplete, or misleading, or even all of those at the same time.

Which is why I miss the fact that encyclopedias are no longer our go-to source for reliable information. As out of date as they could be, at least they were exhaustively researched, fact-checked, and vetted until they were as accurate a source of information as they could possibly be. And they were one of any number of things that inspired me to a level of intellectual curiosity that I personally believe has made me, if not a better person, at least a smarter one, or, at the very least, one who wants to be smarter.

I challenge you to give me a better reason to miss them. No, seriously. You are welcome to come up with a better reason, and post same in the comments. I'm sure you will.

No comments: