Google before Google: An ode to the encyclopedia

When I was a kid, my parents purchased a set of encyclopedias. I don’t know if they purchased them from a door-to-door salesman, mail order or some other way. My memory is a bit foggy. All I know is that a large chunk of the alphabet showed up one day. I think a few of the books/letters came later, but I was so young that I could have easily missed their arrival.

I’m sure that I sound ancient to many people reading this, but growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, we didn’t have the Internet or Google. We didn’t have Alexa or Siri or Google Assistant. We didn’t have conversational artificial intelligence bots. You couldn’t just ask Alexa out-of-the-blue to get you an answer. We didn’t have the world at our smartphone fingertips. Heck, we didn’t even have cell phones. 

The power of knowledge

This was still the days of the Dewey Decibel System in the library. If you were really desperate, you could call the telephone company to get the time of the day or the weather or the operator to get someone’s telephone number, but that was about as sophisticated as it got.

Oh, how things have changed. My wife and I will be watching television now and we’ll be chatting about a movie we just watched, and I’ll flip on my smartphone or tablet or laptop and check out Google for the name of the director or lead actor or actress. I’ll have entire cast’s life story in front of me in seconds. 

Having an encyclopedia in our house didn’t work quite the same way, but it wasn’t far off. The encyclopedias sat high in a place of honor, in a closet in my brothers’ and my bedroom. I’d have to stand up on a chair to reach them. I’d pull one down to research, let’s say, the history of the United Kingdom. I’d start down one rabbit hole and forty minutes later I’d have learned everything from the United Kingdom to a Universal Joint in a car.

You’d get another book and keep reading. You could fill a lot of down time that way, until it stopped raining and got nice enough to go back outside to play.

Where shall we go today?

You were guaranteed to go on an adventure. I never got tired of learning something new. I have no idea what my parents paid for the set. I suspect it was a king’s ransom for them back in the day. I suspect it was a sacrifice that made them think twice. I remember feeling lucky that we had the encyclopedias, many of my friends weren’t as lucky. I especially liked having the encyclopedias when it came time to write a report or present in class. In the end though, I guess that’s what my mom and dad wanted for my brothers and me: to develop a love of learning and a deep curiosity. 

So, yes, I love the instantaneous nature of Google or other search engines for that matter. They have tremendous power and influence behind them. You can look up things that took days to find yesteryear. There’s no denying their power. 

But a small part of me still misses leafing through the encyclopedia and letting my imagination take me away on a journey. There’s nothing else like it. 

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