The Google of Yesterday

I am curious.  I was as a child and I still am.  I wonder about things.  And if I wonder about something long enough, I try to find answers. One of the most impactful inventions of my life has to be Google and the internet.  I am still blown away by the fact that whatever question I have, I can Google it and get answers.  That is a modern day miracle! Whenever we are together as a family if one of us asks a question that we don't know the answer to or if there is something we are "just wondering" about; my response is always the same, "We don't have to wonder anymore, let's look it up!"

It hasn't always been that easy. Growing up in the pre-internet days (some of you are old enough to remember), looking up answers was more difficult. If you had a question, you had to remember it long enough to go to the library and check out a book. Of course, that was assuming that your local or school library had a book on that topic.  This was good, but not easy.  The local library was not walking distance and the school library came with restrictions (only 2 books at a time, can only keep them for a week, only go on Thursdays, etc...). Sometime in the late 70's, my parents made a decision that may have changed my life. They purchased a set of World Book Encyclopedias! This was an extravagant purchase for them and I know it involved some personal sacrifice, but they listened to the sales pitch and decided that this would be a good investment in the education of their children.  I can't speak for my siblings, but it was definitely true for me!

I was hooked from the beginning.  The fancy leather-bound books with the gold edged pages sat on a shelf in the closet at the end of the hall.  Flipping through the pages felt exotic.  These pages were different- thinner and silkier than a normal book.  They felt important.  If there was anything that I was curious about, I could walk to the end of the hall and pull out the appropriate volume and read.  There were entries on everything I could think of and more that I had not even imagined.  There were pictures, maps, and diagrams.  There were drawings of the human body with plastic overlays of the different systems- skeletal, muscular, nervous. I could learn about countries from the other side of the world, various types of rocks, and unusual weather phenomenon.  I could pull out the M encyclopedia and just start reading about whatever started with M! This was my very geeky idea of fun :-).

The set of encyclopedias also came with an extensive two-volume dictionary.  Two big thick volumes of A-K and L-Z. Can you imagine all of those wonderful words in one place?  I was in heaven! I would look up a word and then just start reading all the words that came before and after it.  How could you not? So many words to learn! I thought this was fairly normal behavior until I got to college.  My friends would laugh at me when I got out my (much smaller) dictionary to look up a word because they knew I would be "lost" for awhile.  It isn't as easy to do that on the internet now, but give me a hardback dictionary and expect to lose me for at least 20 minutes.  For some reason, not everyone is as interested as I am in hearing all of the unusual words that follow the word esoteric :-).

As I got older, I got busier with life and school.  Homework required more resources. The encyclopedia was a good starting place, but it could not be the only reference that we used. Our home encyclopedias did not get the work out that they once did.  I started to see the limitations.  Even with the addition of the yearly updates via the World Book Year Book, the encyclopedia could not keep up with the most current changes to subjects.  I didn't love them any less, but they did become less used.

At some point, the encyclopedias disappeared. I can't tell you exactly what happened to my treasured set of books.  I am guessing they didn't make the cut when my parents moved away from my hometown when I was in college.  It saddens me to think that they were cast aside.  When I see this picture of them, I have a sense memory.  I can feel the textured leather cover and the gentle hand of the pages. I can smell that precise book smell that was new at the time. I can sense the weight in my hand as I carried one or two off to my room.  I can remember the excitement of knowing that all of that new information was just waiting for me to discover it!

 Some things have not changed. I still like information and I still get excited about learning new things. I like facts, data, details, descriptions, definitions, and explanations. For me, understanding the details of the world helps to bring more order to it. Interestingly, this does not make my world more black and white with certainty, but grayer.  Information may be knowable, but what to do with it is way more nuanced.  The more I learn, the more I realize how much there is still left to learn and how much of it will remain unknowable. 

While encyclopedias provided a concrete set of facts that seemed masterable; the internet offers a never-ending, always changing set of information that one could never even get to the bottom of.  Does having all of that information available make us smarter? Do we do good things with it? Does it make the world better? I don't know the answer to those questions.  It has always been about not just what we know, but what we do with what we know.  I do know that it is essential to continue to be curious and full of wonder at any age.  The world continues to spin, new discoveries are made every day, and technology continues to change faster than we can keep up with.  We have to keep asking questions and seeking answers. And whether the answers come from ancient books or from the information we find on our phones, we have to keep seeking. 

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