Throwing out the encyclopaedias or, accessing information today

June 22, 2016

I used to collect reference books, so that I could easily access information, and have it at my fingertips whenever I needed it. Now they gather dust on my shelves and I’m gradually getting rid of them all. Yes, the internet has rendered most of them obsolete, and I found myself thinking about the enormous change that has taken place in the accessing of information in the last twenty years or so.

I grew up needing to use libraries to find things out – the public library, the library at school; they had the reference books, the encyclopaedias, the directories. Gradually, as I could afford them, and became clearer about what would be useful, I began to acquire my own copies of selected works. I’ve worn out a couple of copies of Chambers English Dictionary, one of the Shorter Oxford, and a couple of editions of the Times Atlas… I have reference books on language, literature, Bach, travel and exploration, to name a few. There is something different about using reference books: as well as searching for specific information, one can enjoy browsing, and one can be side-tracked down interesting back alleys whilst searching. The web doesn’t facilitate this.

Pretty nearly every reference book is supplanted by what’s available online, in a much more up-to-date form – apart from a good atlas: Google Earth is no substitute for a good printed map, though it can, of course, do many things that my trusty atlas can’t.

Now, on my desktop, my laptop, my tablet or my phone, I can find out what I’m looking for in seconds, and the information is (usually) current. Wikipedia is a marvel (who uses the Britannica now? how many people have even heard of what used to be the gold standard in print, hawked to unsuspecting parents by doorstep salesmen for years? Twenty-four, and then thirty-two volumes of high quality knowledge, that you can’t give away now. Not only can I go straight to what I want, but the printed information is enhanced by illustrations, diagrams and filmclips. Instead of trawling through pages of information or a huge index to track down a single nugget, if my search terms are carefully-enough worded, it’s there, instantly. And yet, as I noted earlier, it’s not the same as the physical search through a printed book, where we may serendipitously come across something far more interesting.

I would have said that books were probably better for more detailed information, but I think the web now wins here, too: there are some astonishingly detailed articles, some wonderful, lovingly developed and maintained websites (I’m particularly thinking of the superb Bach Cantatas website) that far surpass weighty printed volumes. And then there are the links, which we take for granted, expect to find, that can take us far beyond the scope of that initial website, in an instant. Knowledge isn’t a walled garden any more: it’s no longer only in this book, if you know the book exists and can get your hands on a copy…

I know I’ve expressed reservations about some aspects of electronic media in previous posts; there are things I do feel very wary of. I am beginning to think there are two internets out there, the trashier social media/ entertainment/ shopping one, and the wonderful world of knowledge which far fewer people are interested in, and which never ceases to amaze me. And there are two attitudes to knowledge, too: I come from a generation where we learned and remembered things, squirrelling facts away on our own personal hard drives and able to recall them when we needed to; today’s younger people, it seems to me, are quite happy not so much to know facts as to know where to find out things if and when they need to; that’s quite a change too, and I don’t think we fully understand the implications of that…

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