Forget Google. How About an Encyclopedia?

“Mom, what do women Inuits do?” Sophie had started to think about her first big social studies project of the year. The other morning, she and I began to consult websites and bookmarked a few pages that, at quick glance, seemed to offer at least a modicum of useful facts. Not dissertation-worthy, mind you, but sufficient for a 5th grader’s one-page paper. When we finished, it was almost time for her to catch the bus to school.

“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed as she was preparing her backpack to leave. Sophie looked at me like I had lost my marbles. “I think I know where you can find more information.” I scanned the bookshelves in our living room. Not there. I paused for a couple of seconds, perplexed. “Where are they?” I wondered out loud.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Sophie asked, intrigued by my sudden burst of energy. Mind you, what I was looking for wasn’t a small object. There was no way it could get lost in our house.

“I know where it is,” I said out loud as I entered the TV room. I found my quarry and got down on my knees, as if in prayer. I asked Sophie to join me.

“This is the World Book Encyclopedia,” I announced with a mixture of glee and solemnity, flashing back more than 30 years to a vision of my pre-teen self turning the pages to find an entry on the Vesuvius-destroyed town of Herculaneum for a middle school project.

The 22 tomes sitting in front of Sophie and me were not the same tomes of my youth. My cousin, who used to work for a huge public library, gave us the amazing gift of a complete set a few years ago after her branch received a newer edition. It was pristine, having barely been touched in the Age of Google.

Although Chloe and I have used it a few times, Sophie hadn’t been aware of its existence until the other morning. I quickly explained how to find the entry about the Inuits and she set to work, first locating the correct volume and then finding the page.

And what Sophie found was a treasure trove. Ten pages of Inuit photos, graphics and facts. “How do they remember to put all that stuff in there?” she marveled as she flipped through the volume containing all manner of places, people and things devoted to the letter “I.”


After Sophie left for school, I had an unsettling epiphany. In the couple of years since Sophie has had projects requiring research, I had never once, until the other day, suggested she consult our encyclopedia.  A 3D model of the solar system, a poster about Asian elephants, a brochure about the state of North Carolina, a report on the climate of Sweden…each and every time, the volumes sat on the shelf, unused and unloved, like Don Freeman’s Corduroy, while we Googled and Googled some more.

What had I been thinking? Rather, what had I become? I say that with humor, but also with nostalgia and a tinge of sadness. I feel guilty for inadvertently abandoning the encyclopedia in favor of the Internet. The latter has made all of our lives so much easier. Anything we need or desire is at our fingertips. But…

During the summer of 2014, my family took a vacation to the Grand Canyon and Utah national parks. For the length of our road trip, an AAA map was glued to my hand. There’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing thousands of miles laid out on your lap and tracing great distances with your fingers. As convenient as GPS is, it’s not magical in the same way. Using it feels lazy.

Sophie’s Inuit Family

I reflected on the similarities between map-reading and encyclopedia-consulting as I thumbed through the World Book again this morning, randomly flipping to impala, Indiana (did you know the Raggedy Ann doll was created in Indianapolis?), Indochina, inis (the Irish word for island), Inverness, and isthmus. I was mesmerized by the all the words and pictures and knowledge squeezed between the covers, and I couldn’t believe that in all these years, with such a great resource right on our shelves, I hadn’t sent Chloe and Sophie to the World Book volumes first, as a matter of course.

We’re at an inflection point when it comes to books. I was heartened to read recently that sales of e-books have started to decline, while print has shown more resilience than many experts thought possible only a couple of short years ago. I am glad for that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having to toil a little bit before finding what we’re looking for. It makes reaching our destinations so much more exciting, don’t you think?


Do you have a set of encyclopedias in your home? And have you inadvertently neglected them, too?


16 thoughts on “Forget Google. How About an Encyclopedia?”

  1. Shame on you PMN Mom, you being a writer and all! 😉

    Seriously though, I think we all do it! We’ve gotten lazy thanks to the Web. Thanks for the reminder! Will take my daughter to the library next time she has a tricky project! (I don’t even have an encyclopedia anymore!!)

    Nice post!

    A good day to ya!

    Hedgey xx

  2. But you did. You did get the books out. That’s all that matters. Also, you wrote this post. All good. 🙂 You’re right. I’ll grab my phone to look something up (just today “What is tannin? How does it turn leaves brown if it’s not a pigment?”) so I feel your pain.

  3. I’ll never forget the wonder I felt the first time I cracked open our Collier’s Encyclopedia back in the 80s. There is something special about the physical discovery and exploration of information, I recall reading straight through at points just as you described! Thanks for this reminder, though my daughter isn’t yet 2 I’m constantly thinking ahead about how to handle raising her in such a digital age!

  4. Love it. I used to spend ages poring over encyclopaedias, etc, to complete the Mail on Sunday general knowledge crossword (I think the prize was £1000!). Now that everyone can look up everything on the internet in just a moment, no-one needs books or general knowledge. Shame.

    (ps, I don’t believe that ebook sales are in decline; more and more people are getting iPads/iPhones every day. I think it’s propaganda put out by those for whom the return to paper would be a good thing – if you tell people something is so, they make it happen. But that’s another subject!)

    1. “No one needs books or general knowledge” – that’s so true, Terry. Interesting perspective on ebook sales – perhaps you are right. I do think there’s room for both to peacefully co-exist. I recently downloaded a couple of books to my Kindle that I can’t wait to read, but boy, how I love me the printed page!

  5. We had a set growing up too, Jennifer, and had them open and sprawled on the table pretty much every night. The kitchen table still becomes a study hall shared with young nieces and nephews sometimes when we all go home, like for Christmas. Amazing how “fast” you can find answers in one of these compared to online sometimes! :O)

    1. So true, Colleen. It’s so easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of online research. My 10yo, who started to really focus on the Inuit World Book entry last night, is amazed at how much great information it contains. She’s thrilled and so am I!

  6. We had a similar situation at home a few weeks ago when our internet went out during a storm and my son had a paper to write on plants. I went upstairs and brought down the encyclopedia volume he needed, despite his protests. He actually enjoyed it and I found him exploring more information than what he needed.

  7. I loved the set of encyclopedias I had as a kid. I used to read them cover to cover, not just for school research, but just because I was curious. And now I miss them. As an adult who spends the vast majority of her day in front of a screen, if I don’t also have to read a book on a screen or do research on a screen, well, that’d be nice. 🙂

    1. I know exactly how you feel, Heather. I think part of the reason I don’t use my Kindle as much as I used to is because I already spend too much time in front of the screen – and turning physical pages is something I started to greatly miss.

  8. Loved my set as a child. I was devastated when my mother gave them away a few years ago. She still has my atlas from the 70s, though. My daughter inherited her great-grandmother’s set of Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedia earlier this year and she loves poring over them.

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