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Compare and contrast, bits vs dead trees
March 19, 2013 6:32 AM   Subscribe

As lexicographers revel in the capabilities of online dictionaries, one person notes the death of print encyclopedias.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (18 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interestingly, the state test that everyone has to take starting in second grade still tests whether the kids know what an atlas, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and a thesaurus are. So we basically teach them the way they'll be finding information in the real world, and also the way they have to find it for this one test. Second graders are fascinated by reference books, so I don't really mind.
posted by Huck500 at 6:40 AM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


* wistful smile *

In third grade, whenever I finished my classwork early, I'd usually wander over to the shelf with the encyclopedias, grab one at random and start...reading it, just grooving on all the shit in there that I'd never heard about before. It became a collective class injoke that if you needed a volume of the encyclopedia, you'd check with me first because I probably had it anyway.

But I didn't care. If I came across something that was especially mind-blowing, I'd make up and write a little story about me encountering the weird whatever-it-was. Just for fun. The encyclopedia made me a writer.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:48 AM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Encyclopedias always were a scam, a status symbol for the aspiring lower middle and upper working classes of their commitment to education and hard work as a way to better their lot, without ever realising that the people with real wealth and power depended a lot more on who they knew than what they knew.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:57 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm enjoying the stark juxtaposition of the last two comments.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:13 AM on March 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


"Neither schools nor libraries wanted them. Second-hand booksellers wouldn’t take them. Small ads were met with silence."

While donating books to Goodwill several days ago, I was advised that they didn't take encyclopedias. Burning books is freakish and dramatic, but at this point it honestly looks like disposal of some sort is the legitimate answer.
posted by Tube at 7:25 AM on March 19, 2013


For dictionary makers, going electronic opens up all kinds of possibilities [...] Martin is enthusiastic about the many possibilities digital dictionaries present

It's refreshing to hear about one pre-internet content industry that is not forced, kicking and screaming (and suing its customers), into the digital age.
posted by elgilito at 7:37 AM on March 19, 2013


Gone forever the childlike thrill of opening a fresh dictionary and seeing if 'fuck' is in it.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:46 AM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have no great sentimental attachment to encyclopedias (well, beyond that of any thoughtful person who came of age in the pre-digital era), but I did have a professor in grad school who praised the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (from 1910/11) so enthusiastically that it's generally one of the first things I look for when I go into an unfamiliar used book store.

Money quote from The Guardian: "...compared to more modern editions, reading the 11th is like reading a Faulkner novel instead of an instruction manual."
posted by ariel_caliban at 7:55 AM on March 19, 2013


My mom bought a World Book Encyclopedia and Dictionary set somewhere, before my brother and I were born (we were born in the late '60s; the US presidents list stopped at LBJ, I remember). I used to think that everything you could know in the world was in those encyclopedias, and I must have read every article as a kid. I used them a lot when I was elementary school, too, to better understand what I was learning, and I remember to this day how my mind was blown when I discovered etymologies in dictionaries. Words come from places!


Maybe for Baggini encyclopedias were among the least-read books in the house, but not in mine. Every time I was curious about something, I went straight to World Book. "Boy, I really like this Alice in Wonderland book! Who's Lewis Carroll, I wonder?" *turns to World Book* "Why does the moon change shapes?" *turns to World Book* "Where does lightning and thunder come from?" *turns to World Book* "When will our apple tree give us apples again?" *turns to World Book* "What do earthworms do down there in the dirt all day?" *turns to World Book* For a curious child, World Book Encyclopedias were a godsend (and probably a relief to my parents).


My mom later bought another set of World Books, long after I'd moved out of the house and against my advice. I tried to explain to her that her money would be better put towards a computer, but I think she was still caught up in the old marketing of encyclopedias as status symbols. After she died and we were cleaning out her house, I found that no one wanted them--who would, in this age of Wikipedia?--so they wound up in a dumpster.


I would never buy a hard-bound set of encyclopeidas now, but for a kid growing up poor, having that World Book set was a miracle. It stimulated my curiosity and my love of reading like nothing else could have. I love the Internet, but I'm so grateful that my mom bought that set of World Books.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:09 AM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Gone forever the childlike thrill of opening a fresh dictionary and seeing if 'fuck' is in it.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 10:46 AM on March 19


I still have a copy of Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson (former director of Penguin USA’s reference books operation). The spine is cracked right at the entry of 'fuck', because over the years so many people have picked up that book and immediately looked for that word. The 'fuck' entry is four pages long, and rather fascinating.

I recommend the book. It's well-researched, and the histories behind some of the insults is pretty amazing.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:18 AM on March 19, 2013


> Encyclopedias always were a scam, a status symbol for the aspiring lower middle and upper working classes of their commitment to education and hard work as a way to better their lot, without ever realising that the people with real wealth and power depended a lot more on who they knew than what they knew.

Is this a parody of the kind of leftism Lenin called "an infantile disorder"? Because otherwise, I just don't know what to say. You sound like you're saying the powerless should just stay ignorant and not even bother, because they're fucked no matter what.
posted by languagehat at 8:48 AM on March 19, 2013


I loved my encyclopedias as a kid -- my parents got me a cheap used set every few years. I used the hell out of them. Scam? Maybe. Easiest possible way to satisfy my curiosity about almost anything and stimulate more of the same? Definitely.

For those of you looking to dispose of your old ones, check to see if your area recycles books. Better to have them pulped for reuse somewhere than landfilled.
posted by asperity at 10:28 AM on March 19, 2013


I think it fairer to say that _selling_ encyclopedias was a scam. The actual product is fine but they were sold on fear and prayers, not reality.

The set I loved was pretty old even when I was a kid in the 70s. Americana, maybe. I like to think Wikipedia would be awesome to a kid like I was, but I really suspect that reading time would be replaced with videogame time.
posted by jclarkin at 12:03 PM on March 19, 2013


From article:

The sad truth is that most families who stretched their finances to the limit for the sake of a set of encyclopædias would have been better off spending half that money or less on books with beginnings, middles and ends that children might actually read.

I actually won a set of Britannica in my schooldays, but my reasoning was somewhat similar. i.e. If you sold them, with the money you'd get you could buy an incredible number of books that were actually a lot more useful to have instead.

It wasn't without regret that I sold them though. The idea of having all that knowledge on tap was seductive, but the reality was I'd probably never have ever looked at 95% of the content, and the other 5% was better served by getting specialist books than reading encyclopedia articles.
posted by philipy at 1:41 PM on March 19, 2013


I don't want to make any statements about sales tactics or the politics of class, because to be frank, I don't know anything about how encyclopedias fit in there. What I do know is that we had an old World Book set (1962, I think, I was born in 1973), and I read it cover to cover when I was about eight or nine. It was a huge influence in my curiosity about the world and provided me with a broad base of factual knowledge.

I'm very glad we had them.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:11 PM on March 19, 2013


I had at least a half-dozen encyclopedia volumes in my bed at any given time during most of my childhood. I still remember the weird-shaped bruises I'd get from falling asleep on the corners.

I don't get nearly the same joy from wiki-walking. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 8:21 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love the internet with its access to immediate information at whatever depth needed.

But there was something about the feel and smell of the paper that's missing....
posted by BlueHorse at 9:15 PM on March 19, 2013


I loved encyclopedias growing up. One of my oldest memories was of my parents reading to me from our little set of Golden Book Encyclopedias at bedtime. I particularly liked the article on volcanoes, which still fascinate me to this day (and my mother says my parents pretty much had it memorized by the time I learned to read myself). Later on we had a set of World Books that were our go-to source for school reports, as well as an older set of Britannicas that were out of date even at the time they were given to us by a family friend. They look impressive, though, and my mother still has them. If there is an article or picture that she or one of her grand kids can find useful for some sort of project, she just cuts it out and uses it. That makes me cringe but is probably the best use possible for them at this point. I was never bored if there was an encyclopedia around (see also Time-Life books, which my grandparents had several sets of). I am sad to see them go, but agree that the internet gives you much more (and sometimes better) information.
posted by TedW at 10:17 AM on March 20, 2013


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