Hefting a case heavy with brown books stuffed with information, the salesman approached my parents for a conversation. He left with an order and returned later with the set of encyclopedias my parents had purchased. My sisters, brothers and I may have worn hand-me-down clothes, we may have had to share beds and eat simple meals at home, but we had our own set of encyclopedias. We opened the thick books reverently, breathing in their rich odor of a new book filled with information.
We depended on the encyclopedia for history, for exploring other countries, reading, biographies and science research. Living far out in the country, away from the hole-in-the wall libraries in nearby villages, the encyclopedia ensured we finished our homework. To keep us up-to-date, my mom bought the yearbooks with the new entries and an overview of the year’s news. The glossy pictures piqued our interest to read just one more entry whenever we pulled out a volume for research. I returned time and again to the acetate overlays of the human anatomy, fascinated with the colorful drawings of the body’s muscles, blood flow, nerves, internal organs and bones.
Moving from one side of the country to the other, we shed toys, clothes and household furnishings, but not the encyclopedia. Only after my youngest brother left did my mom pass the set along to my oldest brother for his children to use. After they left for college and marriage, the books moved to the attic.
Shortly after I married, we bought a set that a school had exchanged for a new set. Our youngest son, Nate, remembers the variations of each letter shown at the beginning of each book, flipping through the books, looking at the pictures and “one of my least favorite sayings growing up was why don’t you look it up.” And sometimes, my husband stacked several books to serve as a craft press.
When one of our children did not use capital letters – and nothing said or done phased him to change – I pulled out the volume on writing and mandated said child would copy a few paragraphs and capitalize the first letter of every single word in those paragraphs. After a couple weeks of writing, the problem resolved itself.
But mostly, I watched my children repeat a scene I knew well: Open encyclopedias spread around them as they wrote a paper for school … with breaks to read adjacent entries on other topics.
Before we moved to the South, my husband pulled out the A encyclopedia to read about the state. He still smiles when he relates that it said that people in Arkansas ate opossums.
A few years after we settled in El Dorado, a charming encyclopedia saleswoman came to our door. Her charm – and our son’s observation of the outdated entries in our ancient volumes – spurred us to buy a new set.
After our children married and moved away, visiting grandchildren kept the encyclopedias open. When we pulled out our sample set of rocks, the oldest grandson grabbed R for rocks. When my husband talked about taking the granddaughters to New Orleans, they pulled out the L and N volumes.
In the spring, new plants and other findings in nature meant reaching for the appropriate volume in the encyclopedia.
But the times are changing.
While my husband still reaches first for the encyclopedia and then goes to research on the computer, our oldest grandson, according to his father, “will spend time with his Nook looking at different Wikipedia articles for hours. Encyclopedias encourage this sort of free-form exploration and, with the introduction of hyperlinks, it becomes much more natural.”
And therein lies the rub for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Demand has waned for their $1,250 sets; the publishers recently announced that once the existing copies are sold, the 244-year-old institution will only exist in cyberspace. The company will offer information via the Internet and their DVD Britannica.
“I suppose Internet research is good and if you have a destination you can trust for the research, that is OK,” my son, Nate, wrote. He points out another advantage of an electronic encyclopedia: “At least fewer trees die for the sake of learning now: The couple ounces of coal for learning mostly come from trees that were already dead a long time ago.”
Then he adds, “but sometimes it sure is nice to get away from the LCD glow with a stack of nicely bound paper … when you don’t want to have to go sit at the computer, or you don’t have ready access to the full Internet,” he concluded.
He has a point. So for now, if the lights go out, we can pull out our encyclopedia, light a candle and see what it says folks in Arkansas eat when the lights go out.
(Joan Hershberger is a staff writer at the News-Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org)