When I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, having an encyclopedia in your home was the bee’s knees, to use my grandmother’s phrase. It was a sign of sophistication and learning, of culture and wisdom. And being reasonably well-off, because encyclopedias were not inexpensive. I can still hear Jimminy Cricket singing the song (it’s how I learned to spell encyclopedia).
Many school libraries had them, although usually only one set and not always the most current or the best. You could find more sets in the local public library, including in the bigger library branches the vaunted Encyclopedia Britannica, the nonpareil of encyclopedias. Even as a youngster, I knew it was the top of the pops in encyclopedias.
We turned to encyclopedias when doing our homework. When we needed to know the population of Patagonia, the annual volume of cotton crops worldwide, how Romans built their roads, who invented algebra, the dates of the Reformation, the average daily temperature at the South Pole, and who won the battle of Austerlitz. Everything was contained between their covers. I can’t recall ever not finding something in one.
I remember sitting in a local public library waiting impatiently, fidgeting and fretting until another student finished with the L-M volume so I could look something up in it. I made friends with one student whose parents had a set of their own encyclopedias at home so I could do my homework at his place and have unrestricted access to all that knowledge.
Having a set in my own home was a long-held childhood dream, but like becoming an astronaut or having my own jetpack, it was never realized. We weren’t that well-to-do. We had some volumes of those 99-cent encyclopedias that were sold in corner stores and required a subscription to get all the volumes, like a book-of-the-month club. Mostly we had a lot of the first (99-cent) volumes because collecting all the rest was too expensive. But I was well-educated in aardvarks, apples, and the Adirondacks.
The whole point of an encyclopedia was to encompass all the world’s knowledge between its covers. The sheer audacity of that effort astounded me then, as it does today. Opening any volume was to stand on the shoulders of giants who scaled the impossible heights of intellectual endeavour to share with mere readers their knowledge. What hubris to imagine everything since we learned to walk upright could be captured in a few thousand pages.
Of course, because the world is ever-changing, and knowledge continues to grow, especially in the sciences, companies produced annual volumes with updates, revised maps, and new data. These yearbooks gave us a snaphot of the world’s progress, and a concise window onto the march of science and discovery. They also corrected mistakes from previous volumes, so it was essential to cross-reference them in your reading.
You could learn anything and everything from an encyclopedia. And if your family also had a good dictionary (Oxford preferably), maybe some back issues of Life magazine, and a subscription to National Geographic, why, there was nothing you couldn’t learn about. As a youngster, I wasn’t aware of any political, cultural, or social biases that might have clouded the stuff I read. It was all just knowledge and learning. I remember spending hours poring over decades-old National Geographic issues I rescued from a neighbour’s trash (until, of course, they ended up in our own bins).
Part of the great pleasure of reading an encyclopedia was discovering the topics outside your immediate focus; articles were arranged alphabetically and waiting patiently like neighbours at a fence for your visit. When hunting for facts about the sparse population of Patagonia you might also stop to read about, say, Panama, petroleum refining, Ontario, ocean currents, potatoes, parliamentary democracy, Protestantism… all of them packed into a single volume, and any one of them could lead you deeper into other volumes to pursue more knowledge. You could open any volume at random and learn something right away. Which I did, whenever I had the chance.
This is similar to the joy of browsing in a bookstore rather than just ordering on Amazon: you get to see and explore other authors, other titles, not just those you were searching for. You can browse through other areas of interest, discover new topics, new themes, new genres, new viewpoints just from looking on the shelves. And, if you have an inquiring mind, open to new experiences, you will buy books that weren’t among those you initially intended to get.
Wikipedia tells us about Pliny the Elder who attempted to compile everything known about a vast array of topics in the first century CE. Encyclopedias have been with us for millennia, although until the 18th century they were usually limited to specific subjects like theology or rhetoric rather than being polymath collections. Wikipedia is itself an encyclopedia, with more than 6.5 million articles, although because anyone can post and edit its content, articles are often subject to personal and political biases than a more objective publication like Britannica.
And therein lies the story about the decline and fall of the printed encyclopedia. Not Wikipedia itself, but rather the computer technology that blossomed in the 1980s, followed by the internet. Encyclopedias and dictionaries were digitized early and sold on CD-ROM (I still have my CD of Encarta…), but even that ended when publishers began to move everything online, usually only fully accessible via a subscription or purchase.
At the same time, dozens of free sources arose online, from Wikipedia to Project Gutenberg, and thousands of public domain works were digitized and made available (including the entire text of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, long out of copyright). Of course, not all sites that profess to contain encyclopedic information are credible. Many have particular biases (like the rightwing Conservapedia), many contain fringe material or pseudoscience, and many allow users to post without any moderation or fact-checking (most of the quotation sites, for example, are rubbish; click-bait pages filled with misattributed and fake quotations that get shared easily on social media). But I digress.
For many years, I have been a volunteer, helping the local Optimists Club with their annual Mother Of All Yard Sales (MOAYS) event. My role has been to sort, organize, and arrange the tables of books. I’ve worked in bookstores, worked for book publishers, been a book author, and as an avid book enthusiast and reader, I am well-suited for the job. And over the years one thing I’ve learned is that few people if any want encyclopedias these days. Those that get donated to the sale usually end up in the landfill site. And that happened again, in 2022.*
The era of that printed, comprehensive encyclopedia is over. Those sets arriving for the MOAYS were like the few dinosaurs who managed to survive the asteroid only to await their own inevitable demise as the mammals scampered around them. Each set was a story of a family’s ambitions and dreams, but they sat on the tables, unwanted and unloved. I put them in stacks at the ends of the tables to hold up the other, more popular books, but no one even glanced their way. At the end of the day, they get carted away; not even for recycling but simply for the trash (Dictionaries and thesauruses fare poorly at this event, too, and often share the same fate.)
As a book lover, it breaks my heart to throw any book into the trash. Even trashy books (I’m looking at YOU, 50 Shades of Grey) deserve better. But I’ve watched with a heavy heart as entire sets of outdated Funk & Wagnalls and World Book encyclopedias get tossed into the bin because no one would even take them away for free. Even the Britannica has gone that way, and not like Sydney Carton to a far, far better rest that those volumes have ever known.
I’ve sometimes grabbed a volume from a landfill-bound set to read later about a particular topic; a 1953 edition with an entry about pre-revolution Cuba that I wanted to read. A 1960 edition with a piece on the early space race. That sort of thing: historical perspectives on something of interest to me. But until this year, I’ve never rescued an entire set. Susan has been thankful, of course, since we have no room for a hefty shelf of old encyclopedias. This year, I couldn’t resist, although I am unsure what to do with them now.
I’ll tell you why and what I brought home in part two of this article. And maybe I’ll throw in a little digression on typography and book design, since both played a significant role in my decision. Come back soon (or as they used to end the Beverly Hillbillies show: Y’all come back now, y’hear?)
* Some years, the book tables get picked over as if a swarm of locusts settled on a wheat field: few books are left to dispose of. In other years, particular authors, genres, or subjects get rapidly taken away. It might be cookbooks, or DIY books, romance, detective fiction, children’s books, or YA titles… this year I didn’t see any discernible pattern in what was taken and what was left behind. At the end of the day, we still had a lot of books left, in pretty much every category. Encyclopedias often suffer the ignominy of being relegated to a basement or garage for years, where they get musty; a condition that further discourages buyers.