How the Encyclopedia Used to be my Internet


Long before I could get lost in Wikipedia clicking on endless links or reading article after article on my favorite news sites, there was the encyclopedia. Perhaps it’s my recent post on Barbie that is making me a bit nostalgic for my childhood and the days when we didn’t Google something we didn’t know. Instead we grabbed a volume of the encyclopedia to find what we were looking for. It’s not that I think the Internet is bad. I actually quite enjoy how much information I can uncover with just a few keystrokes; however, regular readers of my blog will know that I have an affinity for paper books instead of eReaders. For this reason, there is something I miss about flipping through pages to find the answers I am looking for.

Online you can click links to uncover more information, open a new tab to Google something in an article that you did not quite understand and pull up an online dictionary to define a word. Back in my encyclopedia days, I would read an entry. Instead of clicking on a word to find out more about something I learned from an entry, I would grab another volume off the shelf. Pretty soon I would find myself surrounded by a pile of encyclopedia volumes with the atlas no doubt mixed in when I needed to locate a particular city on the map. I liked the way encyclopedias made information tangible.

We used to have a set of Funk & Wagnalls when I was a kid. They looked just like the set in the picture at the top of this post. It was part of a promotion at the local grocery store where you could buy one volume per week until you completed the set, which included a two-book dictionary and a color atlas of the world. Before we got that set, encyclopedias were something one found at the library, so it seemed magical to have our very own set in the house. It wasn’t the World Book or Encyclopædia Britannica that I was used to, but it was ours.

There are great advantages to online reference books. It is much easier to get current information and new discoveries. But old encyclopedias can still provide us with a remarkable snapshot of life at the time of publication. It is almost as though they are a history of history.

Encyclopedias also had the advantage of being free of ads. My computer is nearly six years old, so heavy ads on sites tend to slow it down–especially when video automatically starts playing and ads cover the site before I can read the site’s content. In fact, sometimes I give up on a page because all the advertising makes it hard to read. I have never had that problem with books, and I like that a book allows me to unplug from all the noise and distractions that often come with looking at things online. This is what makes me nostalgic for that old set of Funk & Wagnalls. It was always just the books and me.


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