I love encyclopedias. Always have. Looking back, it seems pretty much inevitable that I grew up to become a librarian. I mean, who loves encyclopedias, right?
Actually lots of people. There’s a lot to love.
For me it comes down to two things — the encyclopedia as a thing and what the encyclopedia represents.
As an object, encyclopedias are usually meticulously published. They are usually beautiful books with heavy covers, well-sewn seams and gilded pages. My parents bought the Funk & Wagnall’s set when I was a kid. My younger brother and I got lots of laughs out of the title, first of all. I mean, Funk & Wagnall. Who would make up something like that? But the book itself was beautiful. The pages had gold edges. Was it real gold or some imitation knock-off? Who knows? Who cares? It was gold, and the only other book in the house with gold pages was the family Bible. So, I got the idea that the encyclopedia was the kind of book that God might write if He wanted us to actually really understand everything about everything. He wouldn’t call his book Funk & Wagnall’s, of course, but I digress.
So I developed this early idea of the encyclopedia as the prototypical book. The essence of what a book should be. My daily experiences with encyclopedias do not disappoint. As objects, I pretty much have two favorites – Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book. The Britannica is great because it is pretends to be a complete listing of everything important known to man. It isn’t, of course, but it does a good job pretending, with its Micropedia, Macropedia and index. It offers lots and lots of lists, cross-references and italicized words. The Britannica is beautiful because of its heft. Very few pictures. Just lots and lots and lots of words.
The World Book is beautiful just because it is beautiful. The pages explode with color photographs, charts and other pretty things. Not so many words here. They like to keep things simple. They don’t want the words to get in the way of all the pretty pictures. Best of all, the outside cover. Take all 22 volumes lined up in order and the entire set makes a picture on your shelf. It is a terrific thing to see. No other book set in the library aspires to anything as audacious as shelf art. And, for us librarians, it gets better because the shelf art aspect makes it easy to keep the books in order. You can ignore the volume numbers on the side and still get them in the right place. These books practically shelve themselves. Love it, love it, love it.
Even more than encyclopedias as objects, I love encyclopedias for what they represent. Encyclopedias are like libraries. Encyclopedias are ambitious in their grasp. Encyclopedias collect knowledge. They try not to judge or offer too much opinion. They just want to provide the known facts. Lots and lots of facts. Encyclopedias are one of the best places to go for a quick understanding of a topic or a general orientation to a research issue.
Even better, encyclopedias, like libraries, pretend to be highly organized. With their alphabetically arranged articles, they make us feel like all human knowledge can be easily accumulated, compiled and arranged in easy, logical order for efficient, effective use. This clean organizational scheme is an illusion, of course. Much like the idea of a well-ordered library is an illusion. Alphabetical arrangement, though comforting, is an arbitrary system at best, obscuring the fact that everything is related, or relatable, to everything else. And so here, at last, is my true favorite thing about encyclopedias – the brilliant, maddening randomness, the ad hoc juxtaposition of thoughts and ideas, all tumbled together, pressed between pages, just waiting for someone to put seemingly unrelated concepts together, to have some new insight that leads to some new idea which someone is going to need to write down and put into an encyclopedia some day.
Do you love encyclopedias, too? Let us know. Post to the blog. Don’t be shy. You are in good company.