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Old Encyclopedias

Their time had passed long ago. But the set of blue and white covered books held on in several garages through decades of hard winters and hot summers.

Some of the volumes got the worst of a leaky garage roof with the water cementing dozens of pages together.

There may be nothing on Earth more obsolete than a set of encyclopedia from 40 years ago.

About the time that the 1969 edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia arrived at my house, I remember that our family had inherited an obsolete 1930s set of some of encyclopedia. It too wound up in the garage where I would marvel at the non judgmental references to a still living Adolf Hitler and a world that was between world wars as I sat out a rain shower or put off summer yard work as long as possible.

This month the time came for the once new Compton’s to go. They have held on a bit longer because Goodwill doesn’t even take sets of encyclopedia anymore.

It seems odd to be sentimental about something so cut and dry. But I can still remember the day they arrived while I was at school. The whole week I had been waiting for them to come and asking every day as soon as I hit the doorstep home from school.

In true Cold War style, I wanted a set of my very own because I had a friend with a set of World Books that came on a metal roll around cart. He could take them anywhere in his house he wanted. But they stayed mainly in his room where he had a working model of a steam engine and a cardboard box over his television set with a space for the screen cut out.

The box formed a border around the screen that had bicycle reflectors doubling for controls of rocket thrusters and other carefully arranged homemade mission control knobs and adjustors.

We didn’t talk about science a lot or even as much as he probably wanted to. But we did once talk about the end of the world. He assured me it would be like reading a book and turning the last page of text to find the next page is blank. That kind of certainty, I believed, could only come from having a set of encyclopedia and I wanted that kind of certainty.

Finally my set had arrived and I was ecstatic, telling everyone at school about my new set of encyclopedias. Yes, you would be right in assuming that not every sixth grader was as excited as this particular one was about new encyclopedias.

To some it was about as exciting as a new phone book arriving. But not to me. I was immune to considering whether such declarations were cool or in vogue. There would be plenty of time for such considerations in the not too distant future as voices changed, clothes became too small, banana seats on bicycles were no longer a must have, hair got longer and girls were able to command not just more attention but all attention at times.

For now though, the books weren’t World Book or Brittanica but they had maps and charts and big color pictures and verified information to consider in evaluating the world.

There could be found the definitive answer on the origins of linoleum just in time for the dawn of the 1970s. A detailed photo of a “modern Linotype” machine shows the different working parts on which an operator can set about 10,000 characters an hour.

He could also smoke in the workplace while he did it. But that wasn’t in the entry.

Looking back at them 40 years later, the books seem just as quaint as the old set from the 1930s did at around 1969. And they are revealing as well.

There is no entry for Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert Kennedy, who had each been killed the year before.

It is as if the trauma was too recent. But probably it was a matter of deadlines for publishing a multi volume set.

There is an entry for the new President, Richard Nixon, free of Watergate and Vietnam and enemies lists.

Amelia Earhart’s entry is just as intriguing today as it was then. However much time passes, someone traveling around the world who vanishes trying to find a flyspeck of an island in a vast ocean is always going to be a source of fascination. You can describe her disappearance in the most objective and clinical terms and it is still fascinating. But keep in mind, I’m the kid who was running home from school to see if the new set of encyclopedia had arrived.

The entry on the moon declares it “one of the goals of space travelers.” Later that year, two Americans would land on the surface.

Every year after for several years, a yearbook from the Compton’s company came to keep the set up to date.

And that’s when the set began to catch up to the tenor and turmoil of the times. Or maybe that’s when the line between events and emotions blurred for me.

The yearbooks captured the moon landing and filled in Nixon’s record. They chronicled the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and the reaction on college campuses across the country including Kent State University where four students were killed when National Guardsmen opened fire on them.

Forty years later, the indelible image of a college student’s lifeless body face down in rivers of his own blood seems to defy explanation as much as Amelia Earhart’s disappearance did back in the 1930s.

The first Earth Day was included along with the rise of the women’s movement and the violent decline of the Black Panthers.

By then my search for the objective had become a quest for the empirical. By that standard some of the events got lost in the shuffle of growing up. Other events had greater meaning and a personal connection.

A bit from both sides of the line can be found in today’s encyclopedias which no longer come in the form of a couple of dozen books capable of filling a book shelf. Today, the outdated is quickly replaced in on line versions with the next part of the story.

It doesn’t replace the uncertainty, the hopes and doubts that we all feel as time continues to move us forward – closing some chapters and opening others.

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  1. [...] have gone the way of the Dodovia NowsourcingThis morning, my rss reader was graced by this awesome, post by Bill Dries about old encyclopedias. It brought forward a nostalgia for a world when information flowed less [...]

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